‘Willing to die for the name of Jesus,’ persecuted Christians say

5 mins read
persecuted Christians
People gather at a church building vandalized by protesters in Jaranwala, Pakistan, Aug. 16, 2023. A Muslim crowd vandalized churches and torched homes after two Christians were accused of blasphemy. (OSV News photo/Fayyaz Hussain, Reuters)

(OSV News) — On the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief, observed on the United Nations’ calendar Aug. 22, Pakistan and India are among places of particular concern for Christian rights advocates.

“Freedom of religion and belief is an inalienable human right. Yet across the world, people and communities, particularly minorities, face bigotry, discrimination and threats — to their places of worship, their livelihoods and even their lives,” Maria Lozano, press director of the Catholic pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need, told OSV News.

“Religion should never be invoked as a justification for targeting persons belonging to minorities,” the European Council said in an Aug. 21 statement.

“All around the world individuals at risk should be protected, and the perpetrators of acts of violence must be brought to justice,” the European Union body said.

Homes and churches burned

That is not the case, however, in Pakistan and dozens of other countries. According to Aid to the Church in Need, “There were tears of sadness and fear in Pakistan” Aug. 20 as a crowd of 700 attended Mass outside their burned-out church in Jaranwala, in the Faisalabad district, about 330 kilometers (205 miles) south of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, following one of the country’s worst outbreaks of persecution in a generation.

Amid tight security, Bishop Joseph Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad presided at the Mass held in the streets of Jaranwala, where Aug. 16 thousands of people narrowly fled a mob of thousands who went on the rampage.

According to UCA News, over 80 Christian homes and 19 churches in Jaranwala were reportedly vandalized by Muslim mobs. ACN estimates that up to 24 churches, hundreds of Christian homes and a Christian cemetery were targeted.

The Christian area came under attack after two Christians, Raja Umar and Rocky Masih, were accused of committing blasphemy by defaming the Quran.

After the Aug. 20 service outside St. Paul’s Catholic Church, a Christian community leader in Jaranwala, who is not being named for security reasons, told ACN: “Most of the people were crying in the Mass.”

“It was a very painful time but a chance to share with one another their sense of loss and sadness,” the person said.

Fear of attending Christian services

Although more than 30 police — including elite forces — were in attendance, there was fear among the service’s attendees.

“When we went in, local Muslims stopped and stared wide-eyed,” the ACN contact said. “They had very angry faces and began cursing us and using abusive language.”

“Jesus died for us and we are willing to die for the name of Jesus,” a Pakistani Christian named Sunil told ACN.

Police reportedly did not react on time to a mob destroying Christian property on Aug. 16.

Christian leaders, however, also reported widespread concern among many Muslims who they said were “ashamed” about what had happened and wanted to help in any way they could, ACN reported.

The ACN contact added that many of the Christians returning to Jaranwala were horrified by the extent of the damage done to their homes, and were sleeping on the floor without electric light and unable to cook food.

The church, meanwhile, provided food packages, soap and other health care items, cups, plates and other basic household essentials Aug. 21.

“Many families are missing meals, they don’t have stoves so they can’t even make tea. They are feeling very emotional and afraid,” the ACN contact said.

Appeal to the United Nations

A Catholic bishops’ body has appealed to the U.N. to intervene and stop the targeted attacks against Christians in India and neighboring Pakistan, UCA News reported.

“Christians are increasingly becoming the target of riots and mob attacks in India and Pakistan,” said an Aug. 19 statement from the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, based in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

The call for U.N. intervention comes as Manipur state in northeast India has been gripped by sectarian violence since May 3.

In Manipur, violence has reportedly claimed close to 200 lives and displaced over 50,000 people, many of them now staying in relief camps and jungles. Two Christian women were paraded naked and one was gang raped.

Over a dozen cases of atrocities against women have been registered during the violence, but the number of such cases could be higher, as victims may not be able to register complaints fearing retaliation, Church leaders said.

The violence also led to the torching of hundreds of churches and other Christian institutions, including schools.

The bishops’ body has appealed to the U.N. to take decisive actions to protect Christians in South Asian nations from similar ethnic attacks.

“It is regrettable that the majority population (Muslims) in Pakistan is attacking the minority Christian community on the basis of unfounded accusations,” said Father Jacob G. Palakkappilly, KCBC spokesperson.

“Through their hateful campaigns, they sow riots that force millions of people to flee because they feel unsafe,” the priest told UCA News.

Father Palakkappilly further pointed out that a majority of people experience attacks and persecution solely because they identify as Christians, who are a minority in many countries.

Incidents in India

According to a recent report from New Delhi-based United Christian Forum, an ecumenical body that records persecution against Christians, India recorded 400 incidents of targeted attacks against Christians in the first half of this year. In 2022, 274 were recorded during the same period.

“Daily, we receive news of persecution,” Lozano told OSV News. Pakistan and Manipur are recently in the headlines, but she stressed that the situation is also grim in Burkina Faso, from where ACN receives “terrible and heroic testimonies how Christians are suffering incredible persecution.”

A country that recently suffered two coups d’état is a place where “Christians we accompany do not know if they will survive beyond 24 hours,” Father Pierre Rouamba, prior-general of the Missionary Brothers of the Countryside, told ACN.

Every two years, the ACN Foundation publishes the Religious Freedom in the World Report, which analyzes all countries and religions.

“According to the last one, published in 2023, the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is violated in about a third of the world’s countries,” Lozano said, “that is, in 61 of the 196 nations.”

“But the report points to another data (point) that is also brutal and disturbing: Almost 4.9 billion people, that is, 62% of the world’s population, live in countries where religious freedom is severely restricted,” Lozano underlined.

Christians have faced persecution in 23 among 28 provinces in India, according to the United Christian Forum report, released in July. Most of them were targeted under false allegations of religious conversion, which have been criminalized in 11 provinces by passing special laws.

The anti-conversion laws, Church leaders said, have become “a tool for pro-Hindu groups to target Christians.”

Christians make up to 2.3% of the 1.4 billion people in India, most of them Hindus.

In Pakistan, Christians make up only about 1.5% of the Islamic country’s 230 million people.

Call to prayer

Lozano said that what the world can do for the persecuted brothers and sisters is pray, share information and speak up for their rights. She also encouraged people to engage with local politicians and ask “your (national) political representatives … to defend the rights of those who suffer discrimination and persecution for their faith.”

“The ACN Religious Freedom in the World Report seeks only to collate information and provide analysis about the abuse of this fundamental human right worldwide. It is a tool,” she said. “The tool is only as good as those who take it up, share it with others, and work to effect change.”

UCA News contributed to this report.

OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.