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Persecuted Christians need greater solidarity, TEC convention urges

Posted on: July 7, 2015 1:08 PM
Remembering the victims of the suicide bombings at All Saints Church, Peshawar, on 22 September 2013.
Photo Credit: Diocese of Peshawar

By Matthew Davies for Episcopal News Service – Salt Lake City 

Advocacy for Christians facing persecution and living in the context of civil war are the subject of several resolutions that were passed by The Episcopal Church’s 78th General Convention, which met here June 25-July 3.

Convention agrees that Christians in Pakistan, Syria, Liberia, South Sudan and Sudan are among those for whom the church needs to step up its support and solidarity as many of them live in fear of death, starvation, and displacement in their war-ravaged or extremist-influenced countries.

Recognizing the trauma and stress caused by terrorism, the violence of warfare, and displacement, Resolution A047 calls for a triennium (2016-2018) of pastoral care and Christian formation that is focused upon those whose lives “have been directly and indirectly impacted by exposure to traumatic events …”

Pakistan’s persecuted Christians

Bishop Samuel Azariah, moderator of the Church of Pakistan, addressed General Convention’s Legislative Committee on World Mission June 26 about the persecuted Christian population in Pakistan, one of the world’s epicenters for terrorism. Religious extremists target minorities in Pakistan for having different beliefs or affiliations.

He also spoke about the draconian Pakistani blasphemy law that can impose a life imprisonment sentence for defiling the Holy Quran, while offenses against the Prophet Muhammad may be punishable by death.

Yet the Pakistani Christian community – 1.5 percent of 180 million people – remains steadfast in its faith despite the daily persecution it faces, said Azariah, bishop of the Diocese of Raiwind.

He commended Resolution D035 urging continued solidarity with the Christian community in Pakistan and calling on the government of Pakistan to ensure adequate protections for all religious minorities, “specifically with respect to the prevention of the abduction, forced conversion to Islam and forced marriage of young women from minority religious communities.”

Azariah told the world mission committee that prayer and advocacy are important, but he said that the partnerships with The Episcopal Church are “very loose and not well organized.” He called on Episcopalians to arrange mission trips and visit the Church of Pakistan. That sort of action, he said, is the kind of solidarity Pakistani Christians need during this difficult time.

The Rev. Melissa McCarthy, a deputy from the Diocese of Los Angeles and proposer of Resolution D035, recalled reading an October 2001 story in the New York Times about the brutal murder of 16 Pakistani men and children. “These people were Christians, shot at the end of their worship when they prayed. This was my first awareness of the anti-Christian violence in Pakistan, and the misuse of the blasphemy law. … All it takes for the triumph of evil is for a few good men and women to do nothing. This resolution gives us all an opportunity to do something.”

The Rev. Titus Presler served for three years in Pakistan as principal of Edwardes College, an institution of the Diocese of Peshawar that serves 2,000 students (about 1,800 Muslims and 200 Christians) enrolled in programs in sciences, humanities, business and computer studies.

Addressing the world mission committee, Presler gave thanks for Azariah’s leadership during this difficult time and said the bishop’s call for delegations and mission visits is “very apt. During my three years in Peshawar, I received one visitation from The Episcopal Church and … that solidarity meant so much to the Diocese of Peshawar and to Christians in Pakistan.”

Presler also spoke about the resilience of the Christian community in Pakistan despite the ongoing persecution they face.

In September 2013, two suicide bombers targeted All Saints Anglican Church in Peshawar at the end of a Sunday worship service, killing 127 people and injuring 170. Many of the victims were women and children.

On Easter Day 2013, Presler participated in the morning procession from All Saints Church, moving through the city streets in darkness “proclaiming the gospel of the risen Christ among us,” he told the world mission committee.

Naeem Nazir, who had served as choir leader and music director at All Saints for 30 years, led the procession. “At the first station, he got up on the back of a pick-up truck and read the Easter morning Gospel from Matthew 28 in Pashto,” the local language, Presler recalled. “He said, ‘This is our evangelism.’”

When suicide bombers entered All Saints later that year, Nazir lost his life as he attempted to tackle one of the terrorists.

“This is their evangelism,” said Presler. “My question to you is: What is our evangelism in The Episcopal Church in solidarity of the pressured Christians in Pakistan?”

War-ravaged South Sudan and Sudan

Resolution B018 commends The Episcopal Church in South Sudan and Sudan for its efforts in peacemaking and reconciliation work, and calls on dioceses and parishes in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church “to consider prayer partnerships and joint work with bishops, dioceses, and church organizations” in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan “to support them to reduce and resolve the current conflicts, help refugees, hold war criminals accountable, and improve people’s living conditions.”

South Sudan became the world’s newest nation in July 2011, when it seceded from the north following almost half a century of civil war.

But a separate conflict erupted in December 2013 after South Sudan President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of plotting a coup.

While the conflict began from a political dispute within the ruling party, it quickly morphed into tribal warfare between the Dinka, allied primarily with Kiir, and the Nuer, with Machar now a rebel leader.

Despite several attempts at brokering peace between the two leaders, fighting has continued, and more than 1.5 million people remain internally displaced and in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

The U.S.-based Episcopal Church has long-standing partnerships with the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, through companion diocese relationships, Episcopal Relief & Development programs, the advocacy work of the Office of Government Relations, the support and solidarity of the Office of Global Partnerships, and through various networks such as the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and Hope With South Sudan.

Through Resolution B018, General Convention calls for several weeks in 2016 to be set aside for prayer for peace in South Sudan and Sudan and directs “the offices and agencies of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society to utilize all measures at their disposal to advocate for the protection of refugees, conflict resolution and sustainable development in South Sudan and Sudan with appropriate governmental and international agencies and offices.”

Syrian civil war

The slaughter and displacement of Syrians in a war that has been raging for more than three years is denounced by General Convention in Resolution D041, which asks the Office of Government Relations to provide specific advocacy actions for members of The Episcopal Church.

The resolution encourages faith communities “to develop both corporate and personal opportunities to pray for peace in the Middle East, for an end to the humanitarian and refugee crisis in Syria, and for the continued witness and presence of Christian communities there.”

The Rev. Thomas Brown, a deputy from the Diocese of Massachusetts who proposed the resolution, said, “The thing our church needs help with is the advocacy part, so that’s why the resolution calls on the Office of Government Relations for organizing on behalf of the whole church to urge our government to address the atrocity of the refugee crisis in Syria. We’re leaving Salt Lake with a strong call to engage God’s mission, and as we talk about and work for things like racial reconciliation and reconciliation with our LGBT brothers and sisters here at home, we also need to be working on reconciliation for people in the world.”

Humanitarian relief in Liberia

Expressing “its deepest love and concern for the people of Liberia,” Resolution A176acknowledges “the crisis being experienced by our brothers and sisters in Christ” as they continue to struggle with rebuilding their country in the aftermath of the Ebola crisis, military conflicts and economic disaster.

The Episcopal Church of Liberia is a covenant partner of The Episcopal Church. Through the resolution, convention encourages and challenges Episcopal Church dioceses “to create diocesan partnerships with the church of Liberia and other initiatives that working together will address the humanitarian and economic development that will bring about the financial sustainability of our brothers and sisters in the Church of Liberia.”

Solidarity with Holy Land Christians

Resolution C018 expresses solidarity with and support for Christians in Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories; affirms the work of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem in healing, education, and pastoral care; and affirms the work of Christians engaged in relationship building, interfaith dialogue, nonviolence training, and advocacy for the rights of Palestinians. The resolution also urges Episcopalians to demonstrate their solidarity by making pilgrimage to Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories and learning from fellow Christians in the region.

Churchwide day of prayer

In other action, Resolution C055 calls for a churchwide day of prayer in 2016 in remembrance of “contemporary martyrs and in solidarity with persecuted Christians in our own day” and The Episcopal Church “condemns the heinous acts of violence and persecution directed toward our brothers and sisters in Christ and all others throughout the world persecuted for their faith.”

Tracy Sukraw contributed to this article.

Walk with us, says Pakistani Primate

In an interview at The Episcopal Church's 78th General Convention, the Most Revd Samuel Robert Azariah talks with The Living Church about the Church of Pakistan (United) and how Anglicans can support churches living in a context of persecution.