After communism, authoritarian and radical Islamic countries see Christian persecution

5 mins read
Regina Lynch
New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and Regina Lynch, the new executive president of Aid to the Church in Need, look on as Major Archbishop Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the worldwide Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, displays a traditional Ukrainian Easter egg during a Mass of thanksgiving for Aid to the Church in Need at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City March 10, 2024. (OSV News photo/Gina Christian)

(OSV News) — With an estimated one in seven Christians worldwide facing persecution, OSV News recently sat down with Regina Lynch, who in June 2023 was appointed the executive president of Aid to the Church in Need, an international pontifical foundation that supports the Church where it is poorest and most persecuted.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OSV News: How did you come to work for Aid to the Church in Need?

Lynch: I came to join Aid to the Church in Need (at its) international headquarters in Germany for one year to improve my German, (which) I’d studied at university in Northern Ireland. And I really thought, “I’m not going to stay here too long.”

That was in September 1980. It was the beginning of the end of communism in Eastern Europe, and it was a real discovery for me. I was 23 years old, a good Catholic girl, but I didn’t know too much about my faith. And I wasn’t aware that the Church had been persecuted (under communism) … until the first witnesses started arriving (in Western Europe) — the bishops, the priests who’d been in the gulags, in solitary confinement.

I suppose it was a journey of faith for me then through meeting these people and always being confronted with the question for myself, “Well, what would I do if I were in this situation?”

And that’s happened to me so many times over the years that I’ve met people where I really think, “I hope and pray I would have the strength to resist the way they have done.”

OSV News: How has Christian persecution shifted since the fall of communism?

Lynch: Communism collapsed, but the work is never done. Today, it’s the countries where Christians are a minority and where they suffer persecution and discrimination … under nationalistic and authoritarian governments. More and more we’re seeing a radical form of Islam (underlying persecution). We’re looking at Pakistan, the Middle East and … the Sahel zone of West Africa, starting with Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso.

In Latin America, we have countries like Nicaragua, where bishops, priests, Mother Teresa’s sisters (Missionaries of Charity) have all been expelled.

So maybe the persecutors have changed, but in the end, now in this century, we still have persecution.

OSV News: Studies show democracy has been in a two-decade regression throughout the world. Do you see a correlation between that regression and persecution?

Lynch: I think so. And I think it’s because obviously the Church stands for Gospel values, for respect for each other, Gospel teachings. That can be really a thorn in the side for governments that are not democratic. They see the Church — even if the Church doesn’t criticize — just by its very action, by its example, by what we as Christians do, as a threat to many of these authoritarian dictatorial governments.

OSV News: Christian and other faith communities have been persecuted by Russian forces in occupied areas of Ukraine. Is ACN doing anything specifically to assist those Christians?

Lynch: We have a big program in Ukraine, and a very strong connection with (both) the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church there. Even before the collapse of communism, we were helping the underground church (which had been suppressed by Soviet authorities).

For the last 25 to 30 years, we have been really doing a lot. (The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) has 700-800 seminarians, and a lot of our help has been for (them) and for the sisters who do wonderful work, as well as for Mass stipends for the priests.

(After Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022), we were initially helping the priests and the sisters just to survive, and (aiding) some IDP (internally displaced persons) programs, because people were being displaced and there was no longer the help coming from the parishes.

Major Archbishop (Sviatoslav) Shevchuk (head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) has been speaking to us about trauma healing, because something like 80% of the population is suffering from trauma, even the people that are maybe not near the front. Everybody has a member of the family who’s in the war. (Everyone) has lost family members, even children who have died. For (other) children, it’s become part of the daily routine now to go to the bunkers under the ground (during Russian drone and missile attacks).

OSV News: How is ACN helping in North Korea and China?

Lynch: We don’t have any projects in North Korea, mainly because the bishops of South Korea see that really as their task … out of solidarity.

It’s becoming more difficult for us to support projects in China because of increased (government) controls (over religious activity). Anybody under the age of 18 is not supposed to be having religious instruction in any faith. There are cameras checking to see actually who’s going into the church.

I don’t think it’s to drive out faith, but they want the faith to be Chinese faith. They don’t want influence from outside; they talk about “sinicization” (political and cultural assimilation). They want any faiths that there are in China today to be really Chinese style, with no interference from outside.

But the Catholic Church is universal. So that just makes it very difficult sometimes for our project partners to get projects out to us and for us to send our support to China.

(Yet) there’s a lot of Christianity in China. People are looking for something (beyond) their own traditional Confucianism and then consumerism. I think there is — in the Chinese people — that strong desire for something spiritual, for faith, for beliefs. But it’s a difficult (nation) to help.

OSV News: What do you hear from people who have been persecuted for their faith?

Lynch: The experience of one person I met in Pakistan a number of years ago has never left me. I was there with a colleague, and we arrived in the Archdiocese of Lahore. While we were at the pastoral center, a local man, Yusuf, came in together with a priest from the bishops’ conference and through an interpreter he told us his story.

He earned a dollar a day as a laborer; he couldn’t read or write, and he worked on the land. While playing a game of cards with his Muslim neighbors, a fight broke out (and) … they falsely accused him of burning pages of the Quran. The anti-blasphemy law (in Pakistan, which forbids any desecration of the Islamic faith) can be punishable by death, and it’s misused by many people. Christians are particularly targeted.

Yusuf first ran away because he knew what this meant, but he had a family and children, so he gave himself up to the police. When we met him, he had been in prison and had been tortured by the police for three months. He had been told, “If you convert, then we’ll let you go.” And he didn’t give in.

The Catholic bishop’s conference of Pakistan had managed to get him released. My colleague and I asked him, “Why didn’t you give in? It would have been so much easier.”

There was a crucifix on the wall behind us, above our heads, and he looked up at the crucifix and said to us, “But he (Jesus) suffered so much more than I did.”

I would hope and pray that I would have the strength to resist in the same way as Yusuf did. And his cross wasn’t finished because, although he was free, he and his family had to leave their village. (The persecution) didn’t stop there.

I’ve met people very often like that, and I do believe God gives us the grace to resist and to remain faithful. … As people of faith, we have to believe that God will not abandon us and that we have to really entrust ourselves to him completely — to abandon ourselves to God.

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.