SASKATOON — An evening of information and reflection about the persecution of Christians around the world and how to foster peace in the face of that persecution was held Nov. 12 at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon.
The evening seminar was held to raise awareness and to enter into solidarity with those who are suffering because of religious persecution and violence, said Myron Rogal, co-ordinator of the diocesan Justice and Peace Office, who organized the event.
“Another reason we come together tonight is to ask the justice questions,” Rogal said. “What is it regarding our collective systems, our systems of politics, economics and governance that permits so many people across the world to be diminished, losing their very basic right to practice their faith and worship their God as they see fit?”
Rogal stressed that Christians share their hope in the Risen Lord, and are called by Christ to be builders of peace. “The object is to pull away from the culture of division, the culture of fear that we can so easily be trapped in, because as a community — as a secular community, a Christian community and a global community — we really need to unify and to look for the voices of those who are marginalized and suffering, without causing further division in our midst.”
The seminar began with reports about persecution of Christians in two areas of the world: Pakistan and Iraq.
Speaker Nadeem Imtiaz Bhatti described the situation facing Christians in Pakistan, where the blasphemy laws restrict religious freedom and are used to justify violence and persecution of individuals and Christian communities. He shared video news reports about the recent murder of a young married couple by a mob after they were accused of defiling a copy of the Quran, and news that a death sentence facing a Christian mother, Asia Bibi, was recently upheld.
“These laws are misused as an excuse to kill Christians,” said Imtiaz Bhatti, describing horrific attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan, including the destruction of a Christian village, the vandalizing of Christian churches and schools, theft of property, imprisonment, torture and murder.
Politicians are reluctant to take action or bring perpetrators to justice, for fear of retaliation, he said, pointing to the assassinations of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and of Imtiaz Bhatti’s own close relative, federal minister Shabaz Bhatti, after they spoke out against blasphemy laws.
“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are a violation of fundamental human rights, which in practice promote religious hatred and violence,” said Imtiaz Bhatti.
A local group called Friends of Pakistan has been created to encourage governments to stand up for human rights and to extend assistance to the victims of religious persecution in Pakistan, he said.
Maggie Aziz of Sacred Heart Chaldean Catholic Church in Saskatoon spoke on Christian witness and martyrdom in Iraq, home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
She described the history of Christianity in the region, and presented statistics about the decline of the Christian population. According to United Nations estimates, some 2.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since 2007, with the vast majority of these being Christians and other religious minorities, she said.
“The estimated number of Christians remaining has dropped to less than 450,000 as of 2013.” That number has declined even further in recent months, with the escalation of religious persecution and violence led by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).
Christians in the area face an ultimatum: either convert to Islam or pay a tax (and be subject to other restrictive laws and persecution), and risk being “killed by the sword,” Aziz said.
“Time after time, our churches have been sacked, holy places of worship and statues have been desecrated, churches have been bombed, churches converted to mosques by force, our priests and clergy have been kidnapped, held ransom or killed,” she said. Some of those who fled are dying of hunger and thirst in the mountains, she added.
Dr. Chris Hrynkow, who teaches in the department of religion and culture at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, led the second part of the evening, focusing on how to foster cultures of peace, even in the context of religious persecution.Hrynkow began by describing the concept of positive peace as more than simply the absence of war. Positive peace also eliminates the structural violence of unequal or oppressive applications of power and the distribution of resources. “It holds that without social justice and the reform of existing oppressive structures, there can be no sustainable or authentic peace,” he said.
He then introduced the concept of “cultures of peace,” which has been explored by a number of thinkers, recognizing the importance of ordinary people finding a way to co-operate on a daily basis and live together in a peaceful manner. Fostering cultures of peace is a way to creatively deal with difference and conflict, grounded in relationships, recognizing that this will appear in different forms around the world, he said.
“The presence of religious persecution can act like the canary in a coal mine, alerting us to barriers that prevent the flourishing of cultures of peace,” he said, before suggesting a number of practices that can help foster conditions under which cultures of peace can flourish.
He admitted that while any one of these practices would likely not be enough to change the situation when religious persecution is active, “seeing several of them incarnated will represent forms of violence intervention and prevention.”
Citing a number of principles to build cultures of peace, Hrynkow said, “You can think of them as little streams of practice and orientation, but if they come together, they can feed a much-needed river in a dry land.”
He began by citing several theological principles, recognizing that each of the world’s religious traditions has sources and examples to draw upon in terms of building a culture of peace. “It is important to have advocates for cultures of peace with strong grounding in their own faith tradition speaking to their co-religionists about creative ways to deal with conflict and diversity.”
Practices that would promote cultures of peace include: comparing and contrasting “like with like” as a starting point, avoiding the path of being too quick to condemn others; and holding to the basic principle of humbleness, which holds that full truth will only be revealed at the end of time. “Until then, there might be value in holding back on the proposition that we have fully complete knowledge of the divine,” said Hrynkow.
Working on common projects can be a crucial way to prevent conflict and bring about healing and reconciliation after conflict, he said. It is important to place a high value on dialogue and shared identities, he added. “Consider the testimony and example of how every day, people with different religious identities find ways to live together and co-operate.”
Finding a way of policing that protects basic rights and promotes tolerance is important, he added, citing the United Nations Police motto: “Sustainable peace through justice and security.”
The UN General Assembly’s 1999 Declaration and program of Action on Culture and Peace names eight areas that can contribute to cultures of peace, said Hrynkow. Promotion of human rights, peace education, sustainable human development for all, participatory governance, gender equity, multi-faceted freedom of expression, disarmament, and tolerance, empathy and solidarity are “key forms of leaven that will grow a culture of peace,” he listed.
“Incarnating cultures of peace is a major challenge that can be understood as rooted and grounded in love,” he concluded. “Such love spills across the categories, strategies and orientations that I’ve mapped.”
In Christian terms, it involves loving as God loves. “Fostering cultures of peace becomes a moral imperative for Christians,” Hrynkow said. “That such fostering also holds out the tangible promise of healing religious persecution is yet another reason to pursue it with vigour at this moment in history.”
A holy hour to pray for persecuted Christians was also held in Saskatoon Nov. 13 at St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon, organized by the Emmanuel community.