Rome — Are you a turtle or a chameleon? On Christmas Day, or on any day of the year? That’s the question that came to mind as Hugh Hewitt announced during Tuesday night’s Republican debate that families and friends might be sitting around on Christmas Day talking about that gathering of the GOP candidates for president. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it might even be useful in terms of political analysis and civic engagement — if it weren’t cause for indigestion. But the prospect brought to mind what we might not be talking about at tables around the country — whom we might not have in our prayers. That includes “the reason for the season” — as many a button and bumper sticker puts it — and those who today die in His name, simply because they believe in Him and know nothing more valuable than living for Him and following His lead.
For the past several days, I’ve been at an international religious gathering up the Janiculum Hill from St. Peter’s Basilica. “Under Caesar’s Sword: An International Conference on Christian Response to Persecution” is sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University and the Center for Civil & Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame. It would be impossible for anyone who heard the powerful, melodious, courageous voice of Helen Berhane to forget it. She’s a Gospel singer from Eritrea who spent 32 months in a metal shipping container for daring to sing that “the cure for the world is the Gospel.” You can agree or disagree with her about that assertion. But that she would be confined in cruel and inhumane conditions — including being locked up with a mentally ill woman who bit her and pulled at her hair (and that’s far from the worst of it) — is unconscionable. (So is looking away.) But it is rare to see a woman more beaming with joy. Because even in the darkest hours, she knew the presence of God. She had hope. And she testifies that there are things worse than religious persecution: being without the God to Whom she owes everything she is and has and wants to be.
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The conference was filled with witnesses to hope, people who have refused to deny their Christian faith, even in the most hostile of circumstances. Paschal Warda from Iraq, Tehmina Arora from India, and Sister Joanna Salib, a Coptic Christian from Egypt, all testified about working to bring light to public policy and law, and serving and giving courage to those who in their poverty and desperation feel besieged and without choices, whatever their faith. Sister Joanna works primarily with Muslim families, helping them see love, not by proselytizing but by loving them and giving them the courage through her witness to stand up to brutality, including genital mutilation of their daughters.
#share#The challenges to religious freedom around the world are not breaking news to Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard law professor, former U.S ambassador to the Holy See, and member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. But she was shaken by just how abandoned by the West, and by the United States in a particular way, so many who suffer religious persecution feel — especially the Christians who are currently being targeted by ISIS in what is a modern-day genocide.
Even though a poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus found that 55 percent of Americans believe that genocide is being perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East, this story is still treated by our media outlets as secondary to whatever it is Donald Trump may have said on any given day. So, too, have long been the lawsuits involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, various religious colleges and universities, and a host of nonprofits and businesses run by people who focus on God every day of the week, not merely for an hour on Sunday. Too many Americans don’t quite see what a fragile treasure religious freedom is. They appear somewhat indifferent or complacent. True, our situation is not anywhere near the persecution half a world away. But in our inattention to wrongs committed at home, our indifference to our neighbors seems to grow.
As Glendon told me: “What struck me the most — and what was most painful to hear — were the expressions of disappointment over the relative silence on the part of those in Western democracies who are in a position to do so much more to help. As one speaker put it, the silence is so deafening as to amount to complicity.”
The conference focused on coping strategies — what Christians can do in response to persecution. And perhaps most important for American reflection, as one of the most important holy days on the calendar approaches, is that, as Glendon puts it, “Coping strategies can backfire.”
#related#She explains: “The strategies developed by our Catholic immigrant ancestors in the U.S. are now actually obstacles to a robust defense of religious freedom at home and are probably contributing to our silence about persecution abroad. I call these strategies the turtle and chameleon strategies. The turtles kept their faith inside their shells; the chameleons adapted to fit into the new environment. In material terms, that worked pretty well for our parents and grandparents as they tried to make their way in the new world. But for many, what began as a coping strategy became a way of life — and not the way of life to which we are called as Christians. What happened to salt, light, and leaven?”
This is the first Christmas in years when one of the most famous churches in America, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, will celebrate Midnight Mass without scaffolding. St. Patrick’s stands as a testimony to what was important to early Catholic immigrants to New York: to have a place to pray, to have a place, period. St. Patrick’s stands as a reminder for Catholics of who they are and what their ancestors were most grateful for: their God, their hope. Helen Berhane and other Christians faced with the choice of whether or not to recant remind us that gratitude for the eternal may just be what we should be focused on this Christmas. It might just work toward making the rest make sense, and making us be better.
True love. That’s the witness that will change the world. That’s the Christmas story.