By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Violence against Christians worldwide, in hotspots ranging from Iraq to India, has emerged as a key concern during the Synod of Bishops on the Bible meeting Oct. 5-26 in the Vatican.
This morning, Pope Benedict XVI canonized four new saints, including the first-ever saint from India: St. Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception (1910-1946), a Poor Clare sister whose given name was Anna Muttahupadathu. The canonization threw a spotlight on the current drama in India, concentrated especially in the eastern state of Orissa, where dozens of Christians have been killed and tens of thousands driven from their homes in violence fomented by Hindu radicals.
Earlier this week, Indian police arrested a suspect in the alleged gang rape of a Catholic nun last month, one part of the sectarian violence that has engulfed Orissa after the assassination of a local Hindu radical leader in August.
During his Angelus remarks this morning following the canonization Mass, Benedict XVI issued an appeal for calm.
“As the Christian faithful of India give thanks to God for their first native daughter to be presented for public veneration,” the pope said, “I wish to assure them of my prayers during this difficult time. Commending to the providential care of almighty God those who strive for peace and reconciliation, I urge the perpetrators of violence to renounce these acts and to join with their brothers and sisters to work together in building a civilization of love.”
The broader theme of persecution, and of the Bible as a source of hope during anti-Christian outbreaks, has surfaced repeatedly in the synod.
Archbishop Ramzi Garmoul of Tehran, in Iran, said on Friday afternoon that “the entire Bible, from the Book of the Genesis to Revelation, clearly explains” that persecution is often a fact of life. Cardinal Miroslav Vlk of Prague, who was forced to work as a window-washer in the then-Czechoslovakia during the communist era, said that reading the Bible in the company of young people sustained him during waves of anti-religious persecution.
In an interview with L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Archbishop Louis Sako of the Chaldean rite in Kirkurk, Iraq, complained of an “unacceptable silence” at the global level regarding the persecution faced by Christians in Iraq today. In Mosul, Sako said, many Christians no longer go to work or to school for fear of harassment by Islamic radicals; in some cases, he said, employers have told Christians to stay home because they cannot guarantee their safety.
“At the end of the day, these assassins are damaging the image of Islam,” Sako said, saying that Iraqi imams “have a duty to condemn what’s happening in Mosul.” At the same time, Sako said, “we Christians pastors have also missed the mark,” citing the lack of a “clear and unified ecclesiastical discourse.”
With regard to India, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, released an interview on Saturday suggesting the canonization of the first Indian saint represents “an excellent occasion for the universal church to be united in prayer and spiritual solidarity in this difficult period for Christians in India.”
While Lombardi noted that the problem of religious fundamentalism is hardly concentrated in India, Archbishop Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints, did not mince words about the dark side of India’s legendary climate of religious tolerance.
“We’re talking about a kind of ‘tolerance of intolerance,’” Amato said in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper. “In other words, anybody who doesn’t agree with them [the radicals] is marginalized.”
The current persecutions were unleashed, Amato asserted, “because the profile of Christianity in India is rising.”
Catholicism in India during the 20th century grew from less than two million faithful to 18 million today, a rate ahead of overall population growth, and by 2050 there could be almost 30 million Catholics in India .That’s more Catholics, to provide a frame of reference, than England, Australia, Ireland, and Canada combined. Some 60 to 75 percent of Indian Catholics are drawn either from rural tribes or from the Dalits, meaning members of the “untouchable” caste.
Given that anti-Christian violence has become a key focus both in and around the Synod of Bishops, it’s increasingly likely that the synod may include some reflection on the Bible as a source of consolation in times of persecution either in its final message or in the propositions it submits to Benedict XVI.