Report on Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s midday Ash Wednesday Mass on Feb. 18 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. That was the assignment given me, and one that I was looking forward to writing about.
I have covered the archbishop of Washington’s Ash Wednesday Mass at the cathedral many, many times in my 30 years here at the Catholic Standard. The solemnity of the liturgy, the beauty of the music, and the majesty of the church itself all combine to make an inspiring start to a holy Lent for me.
This year’s Mass was different. After the cardinal celebrated the liturgy in which he reminded us of the seriousness with which we must observe this penitential season, he challenged us to remember, pray for and speak out on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world.
“People are being slaughtered simply because they believe in Jesus Christ,” Cardinal Wuerl said at the end of the Mass. “We should not have to die, we should not have to pay this extraordinary price no one else has to pay because we are followers of Jesus.”
The cardinal made his impassioned plea just days after a horrified world learned (and saw on Internet-posted videos) that 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya by Islamic State terrorists. Those Christians – 20 were Egyptian and one was from another part of Africa – were killed, simply because they professed Jesus as Lord and God.
“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard,” Pope Francis said after their deaths. “Their blood confesses Christ.”
The Coptic Church, an Orthodox Church with about 16 million members, is headquartered in Cairo. Led by Coptic Pope Tawadros (Theodore) II, the church is the largest Christian denomination in Egypt and the Middle East. These martyrs are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Cardinal Wuerl pointed out that persecution against Christians takes many forms: “People have their homes destroyed, their churches burned, they face forced conversion and their children are sold into slavery simply for being a Christian.”
He made special note of the suffering, torture and persecution of Christians in Africa, especially in Nigeria; in the Middle East; in Iraq and Syria; and in India.
Noting that we in the cathedral would leave the building with ashes on our foreheads – a sign and symbol of our Christianity – Cardinal Wuerl said we in this country are free to “manifest ourselves as practicing Christians,” but that there are “parts of the world where this will be a death sentence.”
Our cardinal does not speak in hyperbole. Consider the following:
• In Nigeria, the jihadist group Boko Haram last year kidnapped 276 girls, the majority of them Christian, from a school. The group has claimed responsibility for the deaths of more than 1,600 Nigerian Christians and the forced evacuation of an addition 650,000 Christians in that country.
• In Iraq, Christians have been declared an enemy of the Islamic State. In Kirkuk, Mosul and other areas of Mesopotamia, Christians are given a choice of one of three options: forced conversion to Islam, pay a jizya tax (a fine levied on non-Muslims living under Muslim rule) or be put to death.
• Archbishop Yousif Mirkis the leader of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Kirkuk, Iraq, said in a recent interview that Christians in Iraq “are in the process of disappearing, just as the Christians in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and North Africa have disappeared.”
• In Syria, Christians are being abducted, tortured and killed. Many are being forced to flee their Christian villages out of fear of persecution.
• In India, in the just the past two months, Roman Catholics have been targeted for particular persecution. Press reports indicate that at least five Catholic churches in Delhi have been attacked by arson, burglary, stone-throwing and other acts of vandalism, including desecration of sacred vessels.
• Open Doors, an international ecumenical group supporting persecuted Christians worldwide, reported that last year 4,344 Christians were killed for their faith, more than double the 2,123 victims in 2013. The group reports that each month around the world 322 Christians are killed because of their faith; 214 Christian churches and other properties are destroyed; and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians just because they are Christian. The violence includes beatings, torture, confinement, isolation, rape, punishment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment, and death.
• The Pew Research Center has reported that more than 75 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions; and the U.S Department of State, reports that Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors because of their belief in Jesus Christ.
“Pray for those who are suffering and offer your voice,” Cardinal Wuerl told us. “Say, ‘This is wrong. There is no political, social, cultural or religious reason for this.’”
Our cardinal raised his voice in opposition to this persecution and challenged us to do the same. “We owe [persecuted Christians] a sense of solidarity and our prayerful support and our voice,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “We have to say what is so obvious – ‘This is wrong. This must be rejected. This cannot be a one-day story.’ ”
He has asked us to join him and fight what he called “the silence of the world community at this extraordinary violence against the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Cardinal Wuerl urged us to join in “prayerful solidarity” with persecuted Christians. He reminded us that “we change the world by changing hearts, beginning with our own.” He asked that we pray for those who “risk death simply because they believe in Jesus Christ. We cannot forget them.”
The cardinal is correct in expecting this of us. It is the obligation of every one of us to stand up against this religious persecution. Martin Luther King once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Our brothers and sisters – our fellow Christians, our fellow human beings – are suffering, and we cannot remain silent.