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Since my previous post about China, this came in from John Allen about the ‘war on religion’ that is underway in many countries. HIs first two examples are Chinese:

  • Fr. Joseph Zhao Hongchun, apostolic administrator of the Chinese diocese of Harbin, was taken into police custody July 4 to prevent him from galvanizing opposition to the illicit ordination of a new Harbin bishop orchestrated by the government. He was detained for three days and released only after the ordination took place.
  • New auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai was placed under house arrest in a seminary after he publicly resigned from the government-controlled “Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics” during his ordination Mass on July 7, which took place with the pope’s blessing.
  • Rev. Kantharaj Hanumanthappa, a Pentecostal pastor in the Indian state of Karnataka, was leading a prayer service July 4 when 20 radical Hindus stormed in to accuse the Christians of proselytizing, threatening them if they didn’t leave. A police complaint was filed, but no action has been taken.
  • The private home of Pastor Ramgopal, a Pentecostal minister in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was raided by police allied with the Hindu radicals. The pastor was reportedly told, “Either you go away and never come back or we’ll arrest you.” He was released only after signing a statement promising not to lead any more prayer services in the area.
  • A Catholic priest in Vietnam, Fr. J.B. Nguyen Dinh Thuc, was attacked by plainclothes police and thugs reportedly paid $25 a head to raid a missionary chapel in a rural area July 1. Their aim was to prevent the celebration of a Mass, part of what local Catholics describe as a policy of “religious cleansing” imposed by Hanoi. When the priest tried to make his way through the mob, he was beaten up, along with several laity who came to his rescue. Maria Thi Than Ngho, one of those laity, suffered a fractured skull in the melee. As of this writing, she remains in critical condition.
  • Abdubannob Ahmedov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Uzbekistan, saw his four-year prison term for “illegal religious activities” extended for another 30 months for alleged violations of prison rules.
  • Yelena Kim, a Baptist in Uzbekistan arrested in late June for “illegally teaching religion,” is now looking at three years behind bars after police raided her home and confiscated Bibles, hymn books and other religious materials.
  • Ghulam Abbas, a mentally disabled man in a region of Punjab under Pakistani control, was thrown into jail July 3 after rumors spread that he had burned some pages from a Quran. Before any investigation or trial could take place, a Muslim extremist mob stormed the jail, dragged Abbas from his cell and burned him alive. According to local observers, it’s at least the 35th extra-judicial murder to take place following an arrest under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws since 1986.

Deep thanks go to the Asia News service for bringing us these stories, which otherwise would be almost totally overlooked.

See the Asia News site here.

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Jonathan Watts has been reporting from China for the Guardian for nearly a decade. He has been there officially to report on the environment and development issues, but his journalism has ended up touching on most aspects of Chinese life over these last few years. He gives a summary of his experiences here, which ends up being a reflection on how China has changed over the period, and where it is going.

There are lots of positives; lots of unknowns; and one of the continuing negatives is the lack of freedom for journalists like himself, the authoritarianism, and the inability of the Chinese government to take criticism – both internal and external.

Criticism has rarely been appreciated. All too often, there have been flare-ups of anti-foreign media hostility. Some of my colleagues in other media organisations have received death threats. I never expected China to be an easy place to work as a journalist. For political and cultural reasons, there is a huge difference in expectations of the media. For historical and geo-strategic reasons, there is a lingering distrust of foreign reporters.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Yes, there is often negative coverage and yes, many of the positive developments in China are underemphasised. But I don’t think it does the country’s international image any favours to clumsily choke access to what is happening on the ground.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

Foreign ministry officials often tell me China is becoming more open and, indeed, there have been steps in that direction. But restrictions create fertile ground for rumour-mongering. One of the biggest changes in this period has been the spread of ideas through mobile phones and social networks. The 513 million netizens in China (up from 68 million in 2003) have incomparably greater access to information than any previous generation and huge numbers now speak out in ways that might have got them threatened or detained in 2003. Microblogs are perhaps nowhere more influential than in China because there is so little trust of the communist-controlled official media.

It has been fun watching netizens create an ingenious new language to evade restrictions. In this anti-authoritarian world, the heroes are the “grass mud horses” (which, in Chinese, sounds the same as a core banned phrase: “Fuck your mother!”) while the villains are the river crabs (which is pronounced like “harmony” – the favourite excuse of the authorities when they crack down on dissent). But ultimately, a journalist wants to see things for him or herself. I will never forget the epic road trips – across the Tibetan plateau, along the silk road, through the Three Gorges and most memorably from Shangri-la to Xanadu. Along the way, I met remarkable people with extraordinary stories. True to the oft-heard criticism of the foreign media, many were from the “dark side”: a young man in Shaoguan who confessed – as the shadows lengthened on the building site where we had our interview – to killing Uighur co-workers at his toy factory because of a rumour they had raped Han women; a gynaecologist in Yunnan who argued with great conviction that it had once been necessary to tie pregnant women up to carry out abortions; the young boy who found the body of his dead grandmother who killed herself a year after his father – an illegal migrant – phoned her to say he was about to drown in what became known as the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Another thing that struck me in Watts’s report is the total lack of references to religion – absolutely nothing about religion, faith, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc (I did the word-search on the article). I know he is focussing on the environment, but he writes about many other aspects of Chinese life that catch his interest or come to find him as a journalist. Is this a Guardian blind-spot? Maybe I’m being unfair, and he was briefed not to write about religion because someone else in the office is on the case. It’s just striking that someone gives their impressions of a decade of change in China, and the growth in interest in religion isn’t mentioned.

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You expect an organisation like Aid to the Church in Need to document the persecution of Christians in the Middle East – which it does assiduously. See their News Section for various updates, e.g. the ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Syrian city of Homs, which has created a forced exodus of over 50,000 people to the surrounding towns and villages; e.g. fears voiced by ACN-UK Director Neville Kyrke-Smith that ‘the Arab Spring is threatening to turn into a disaster for Christians in the Middle East – and Western indifference is making the problem worse’.

So it is reassuring, at least a tiny bit, that there seems to have been a gradual increase in reporting on this tragedy and its implications in the mainstream media.

I cut out an article from January’s Prospect, by Rachel Aspden, writing about post-revolutionary Egypt.

For the last three decades the Copts have had a stable, if not cordial, accommodation with the Mubarak regime. In late January [last year], Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic church, appealed to anti-Mubarak protesters to return home—before quickly expressing his support for the revolution two weeks later, after the president had departed. “We suffered discrimination under Mubarak, but at least we knew he would protect us and the rest of the country from Islamic fundamentalists,” says Samia [a 70 year old Egyptian Coptic Christian]. Now the old certainties have been shattered.

Since the military council, known as Scaf, took power in February, the Copts’ situation has worsened. Attacks on churches and congregations in Cairo and Upper Egypt were followed by the killing of 27 protesters, mostly Christian, by security forces at Maspero, Cairo in October. Like many Copts, Samia now believes the army has a clandestine power-sharing deal with the Muslim Brotherhood—and is willing to sacrifice the rights of minorities to secure it.

In the small flat where she lives alone, Samia worries about the future. On her bedside table, silver-framed photos of her daughter Nisreen sit next to a picture of the pope and an icon of the Virgin Mary. After Samia’s husband died 15 years ago, Nisreen emigrated to the United States. Samia joined her for eight years. “But the homesickness became too much and I had to return,” she says. “Many of my Christian friends here are securing foreign passports now. I have a green card, but I’ve decided I will live and die here.” Although many lack the will or means to emigrate, the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights estimates that 93,000 Copts have left Egypt since March [last year].

And last week there was a long article by Douglas Davis in the Spectator about how more generally Arab Christians are being driven out of their homelands. He gives some of the shocking statistics.

[Look at] the dwindling Arab Christian minorities in the region who believed their arabness would trump their Christianity — the Copts and Chaldeans, the Maronites and Melkites, the Latin Rite Catholics and Protestants, the Armenians, Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East and others. They have paid a high price for hanging on. Christian Arabs constituted 20 per cent of the region’s population a century ago; today, they represent about 5 per cent, and falling.The remnant of the 2,000-year-old Christian population is being decanted from the Arab world.

Take Iraq, whose liberty was won at the cost of thousands of soldiers from the Christian West. When the Americans invaded in 2003, about 1.4 million Christian Arabs called Iraq their home. Since then, some 70 churches have been burned and about 1,000 Christians killed in Baghdad alone. Three quarters of the community have fled, leading the Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, the Revd Jean Benjamin Sleiman, to lament ‘the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East’.

Across the border, a war-within-a-war is raging in Syria. While Homs has been besieged by the army of Bashar al-Assad over the past two months, Islamist fanatics from the ranks of the rebels found time to root out the city’s 50,000 Christians and force them to flee. The Christians of Homs, having abandoned their homes and their belongings, are now sheltering in mountain villages about 30 miles from the city. They are unlikely to return.

The Catholic News Agency reports that Syria’s Christian community has suffered terrorist attacks in other cities, too. Last month, a car bomb exploded in the Christian quarter of Aleppo, close to the Franciscan-run Church of St Bonaventure. ‘The people we are helping are very afraid,’ said Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, who is overseeing a Catholic aid programme. ‘The Christians don’t know what their future will hold.’

If the Christians of Iraq and Syria are being ‘persuaded’ to leave by Islamic extremists who bomb their churches and murder their priests, so, too, are the Copts, who have lived in Egypt since the days of the pharaohs, well before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Last year, some 200,000 Coptic Christians — such Christians once made up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population — fled their homes after being subjected to killing, beatings and church-burnings in Alexandria, Luxor and Cairo. On New Year’s Day last year, 21 Copts were slaughtered in their church in Alexandria; a further 27 died in clashes with police in Cairo.

This week, the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that it was withdrawing from talks on a new Egyptian constitution because Islamist domination of the process has made its participation ‘pointless’. The haemorrhage continues. There are no such problems in the Gulf, of course, where Christians, virtually all ‘guest workers’, have no chance of becoming citizens. The Saudis have gone one step further to preserve their ethnic purity: churches and Christian worship, in line with the opinion of Sheikh Abdullah, have been outlawed (the small, isolated community of Syriacs are forced to live as ‘catacomb Christians’ and worship in secret).

Earlier this year, the Saudis demonstrated once again they mean business when they deported 35 Ethiopian Christians, mostly women, for ‘illicit mingling’. Their crime was to attend a prayer service at a private home in Jeddah. Before being deported, Human Rights Watch reported, the women were strip-searched by religious police and the men beaten up to chants of ‘unbeliever’.

When I visited the then-mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, about 30 years ago, he happily boasted that about three quarters of the population of his town, the birthplace of Christianity, was Christian. Today, after a reign of terror which included land theft, intimidation and beatings by recently arrived Islamic extremists, the figure is estimated to be down to 10 per cent. The Christians of Bethlehem, under pressure from the new Muslim majority, are quietly finding new homes wherever émigrés are permitted safer havens.

Bethlehem is a microcosm of a phenomenon that is evident throughout the Palestinian territories. Against a drumbeat of harassment, which has included calls by Muslim extremists to slaughter their Christian neighbours, half of the Palestinian Christians of Gaza have fled their homes since the Hamas putsch in 2007. In the West Bank, Christians, who once accounted for 15 per cent of the population, are now down to less than 2 per cent.

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After posting about the horrific attack on Christian worshippers in Egypt, I was deeply moved to read this account by Yasmine El-Rashidi of thousands of Muslims coming in solidarity to the Coptic churches on Christmas night to offer their bodies as human ‘shields’ to protect the Christian communities.

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular Muslim televangelist and preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

In the days following the brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead on New Year’s eve, solidarity between Muslims and Copts has seen an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one.

The attack has rocked a nation that is no stranger to acts of terror, against all of Muslims, Copts and Jews. In January of last year, on the eve of Coptic Christmas, a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Nag Hammadi killed eight Copts as they were leaving Church following mass. In 2004 and 2005, bombings in the Red Sea resorts of Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh claimed over 100 lives, and in the late 90’s, Islamic militants executed a series of bombings and massacres that left dozens dead.

[Thanks to Catherine for the link.]

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Another horrific terrorist attack on Christian worshippers yesterday morning, this time in Egypt [report from David Batty]:

At least 21 people have been killed and more than 70 injured in Egypt in a suspected suicide bombing outside a church in Alexandria as worshippers left a new year service.

It was initially thought a car bomb had caused the explosion just after midnight at the Coptic orthodox al-Qidiseen church. But the interior ministry suggested a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible.

Christians make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 79 million.

Security around churches has been stepped up in recent months with the authorities banning cars from parking directly outside them, after an al-Qaida-linked group in Iraq threatened the Egyptian church in November.

I happened to read a piece by John Allen yesterday about the true extent of persecution of Christians around the world, as documented by Aid to the Church in Need.

Aid to the Church in Need, a German-based Catholic aid agency, produces a widely trusted annual report on global threats to religious freedom. It estimates that somewhere between 75 percent and 85 percent of all acts of religious persecution are directed against Christians. In a report to the European Parliament last month, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said that while Muslims and Jews face significant persecution, “Christians faced some sort of harassment in two-thirds of all countries,” or 133 states. [My italics]

Those statistics are fleshed out by headlines almost every day.

This Christmas season alone, scores of Catholic Masses were cancelled in Iraq due to threats from extremist groups. Since the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq has lost two-thirds of what was once among the largest Christian populations in the Middle East. In China, a new crackdown on the church is in full swing, as the government has orchestrated elections for a rump bishops’ conference and an assembly of Catholics calculated to preserve state control. Some clergy were herded into those elections virtually at gunpoint.

In Vietnam, a Catholic bishop was banned from celebrating Christmas Mass in the country’s mountain region, reportedly because of his success in converting the Montagnards, a cluster of ethnic groups often stigmatized and seen as potential threats by other Vietnamese. In the Philippines, Muslim extremists attacked a Catholic chapel on the island of Jolo on Christmas Day. It was merely the latest assault on Jolo, where a bomb exploded inside the local cathedral in July 2009, killing six and wounding forty. In Nigeria, fighting between Christians and Muslims in the northern city of Jos over the Christmas period has reportedly left at least 80 people dead.

Christianophobia is on the rise for a whole cocktail of reasons. Part of it is simple math: There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world, the largest following of any religion, so in terms of raw numbers there are simply more Christians to oppress. That’s especially true as Christianity’s center of gravity shifts to the developing world, where democracy and the rule of law are sometimes conspicuous by their absence.

Because of the historical association between Christianity and the West, Christians are often convenient targets for individuals and groups expressing anti-Western rage. In some cases, too, the logic is exquisitely local. In India, a disproportionate share of Christian converts come from the “untouchable” Dalit community, so it’s often difficult to disentangle specifically Christian persecution from older caste prejudice. (A similar point could be made about the Montagnards in Vietnam).

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The seminary community went on a visit recently to the Carmelite sisters in Ware. We had some extra time this year and used it to drive up the A10 to St Edmund’s College. This was the site of the seminary before we moved to central London in 1975.

Learning about the history of the college reminded me that some of the most significant projects of renewal within the Church have taken place in times of difficulty, and that they have sprung up precisely in response to these difficulties.

The arms of Cardinal William Allen (1532-94), who was an alumnus of Oriel College Oxford, in the Hall of that college, and drawn by Sir Ninian Comper. His arms feature three rabbits or conies.

When Catholics were being persecuted in the 1560s in England, William Allen decided that rather than putting his head in the sand and just hoping that things would improve, it was time to do something creative to preserve and build up the life of the Church. His dream was to have a centre of learning that would nourish the religious and intellectual life of Catholic laity and future priests.

Instead of complaining that this wouldn’t be possible on English soil, he used some lateral thinking and founded a college in a place where it would be possible: Douai, in northern France.

It’s remarkable to see the Douai Diaries on display in the museum at St Edmund’s. You can read Allen’s own handwritten accounts of those first years at the College. Volume One was open at the first page, with the year 1568 inscribed in the margin. Who could have known, at that early stage, that it would prove to be such a source of renewal for the Church – the education of the laity, and the building up of the priesthood for mission at home. And that five hundred years later two seminaries (Ushaw outside Durham, and Allen Hall in London) would still be continuing the tradition it started.

All of this because the Church refused to be disheartened by the difficulties it faced, and decided to do something bold and creative.

What kind of boldness and creativity do we need today?

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I’ve just finished John Guy’s book A Daughter’s Love, about Thomas More and his daughter Margaret.

It’s much more than the story of their relationship — fascinating though that is. It acts as a double biography of two remarkable people, and sheds new light on Thomas More’s personality and sanctity. I would highly recommend it simply as a way into the life of Thomas More if you have never read anything about him before.

This is what John Guy writes in an appendix about how he came to write the book:

My research in the archives had shown me that the Mores weren’t the cosy, happy extended family that has come down to us in history, grouped around the fireside toasting muffins as if in a Victorian painting.

In reality, they were often divided by money and religion, just like most other Tudor families. Thomas More’s early life, not least his sojourn in the Charterhouse in his early 20s, and his Utopia show us what values he held, but despite his asceticism and iron will he found confinement in the Tower very difficult to handle. For all his outward assurance and murderous wit, he was prone to fears and doubts. ‘I am,’ he candidly confessed to Margaret, ‘of a nature so shrinking from pain.’

Margaret always knew that her father’s most endearing characteristic was his gregariousness and love of his children. He was himself among the first to admit that he was too emotionally dependent on them to face Henry’s wrath alone. After his quarrel with the King came out into the open, Margaret became his principal human contact. She was his rock, his anchor, his true comfort in tribulation, and without her help he didn’t know if he would manage to hold out with dignity, or at all…

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, adapted in 1966 as a feature film directed by Fred Zinnemann and winning six Academy Awards, Thomas More is supremely confident about the stand he makes against Henry’s tyranny. Bolt blots out even the tiniest allusion to More’s fears and doubts, and Margaret is airbrushed out of the story. She, however, fully understood what it was that her father went through, and why.

The poignancy, the tragic irony of her story is that, as a teenager, she had yearned for her father, who was constantly absent on Henry’s business, to return home. She wanted to see him every day and was eager for him to tell her all that he did in the exciting, alluring world of the Royal Court. He, for his part, told his family as little as possible to spare than risk, since politics under Henry could be deadly.

Then, after he collided with the King, he yielded and shared his innermost thoughts with Margaret. ‘You alone,’ he told her, ‘have long known the secrets of my heart.’ And she, for her part and despite her anguish, knew that she must now steel herself to give him over to a higher cause.

Their final embrace on Tower Wharf, a few days before his execution, is one of the most moving encounters in British history.

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