Faith, persecution and Christmas

Published 11:42 pm Friday, December 25, 2015

ROME — Are you a turtle or a chameleon? That’s the question that came to my mind as Hugh Hewitt declared during the recent Republican debate that families and friends might be sitting around on Christmas day still talking about it.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the prospect brought to mind what we might be failing to talk about at tables around the country — who might not be in our prayers. That includes Jesus Christ, “the reason for the season” as many a button and bumper sticker put it, and those who today are persecuted and dying because they follow his example.

For a few days, I’ve been at a religious gathering up the Janiculum Hill from St. Peter’s Basilica here, called “Under Caesar’s Sword: An International Conference on Christian Response to Persecution.”

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One of the many standouts of the event is the powerful, melodious and courageous voice of Helen Berhane. She’s a gospel singer from Eritrea who spent 32 months in a metal shipping container, imprisoned for daring to sing about her faith. That she would be confined under cruel and inhumane conditions — including a mentally ill woman biting and pulling at her hair — is unconscionable. But Berhane radiates joy, because even in the darkest hours, she knew the presence of God. And she testifies that there are worse things than imprisonment.

The conference was filled with brave souls who refuse to deny their Christian faith, even in the most hostile of circumstances. Pascal Warda from Iraq, Tehmina Arora from India and Sister Joanna Salib, a Coptic Christian from Egypt, all testified about serving and giving courage to those who, in their poverty and desperation, feel besieged and without choices, whatever their faith.

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 particularly shaken by how abandoned by the West, and by the United States in particular, the Christians who are being targeted by ISIS’ modern-day genocide feel.

As Glendon put it to 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 do in response to persecution. Glendon, in particular, sees a need for new tactics.

“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,” Glendon says.

She continues: “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.”

This is the first Christmas in many years where one of the most famous American churches, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, will celebrate midnight Mass without construction 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 of who they were and what they were most grateful for: their God, their hope.

Helen Berhane and other modern Christians faced with the choice to recant or remain strong remind us that gratitude for the eternal should be what we focus on this Christmas.

True love. That’s the thing that will change the world. That’s the Christmas story.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.