Last year, in a homily reflecting on the martyrdom of St Stephen – the Church’s very first martyr – Pope Francis said that ‘the age of martyrs is not yet over.’ As sad as it is to say, ‘the Church has more martyrs now than during the first centuries.’ This is proven with every passing year. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has released their 2021 Report on global religious persecution and the findings are not heartening.

Based on an analysis of 192 countries, they determined that 62 of them (31.6%) suffer from violations of religious freedom. That is one in every three countries. In 36 of those countries (18.6%), certain religious beliefs suffer discrimination, and in the other 26 (13%) religious minorities suffer active persecution from the part of governments. The ACN website has a helpful interactive map where you can click on various countries to read a status report. Many of them classify as the colour red, which means active persecution takes place. Many others classify as the colour orange, which means religious minorities there face discrimination.

Please take the time to peruse the website yourself. It is fascinating and easily navigable. It is also a source of prayerful reflection, because, as St Paul says, ‘if one part [of the body] is hurt, all parts are hurt with it’ (1 Cor. 12:26). The bonds of communion between Christians around the world are real and unbreakable, rooted as they are in our common baptism and life in the Holy Spirit.

Here are just a couple of interesting highlights from the ACN 2021report.

Ethno-religious nationalism

The three top perpetrators of religious persecutions are authoritarian governments (particularly communist states), Islamic extremists, and ethno-religious nationalists. According to the 2021 ACN report, there is an ‘accelerated trend’ in ethno-religious nationalism, led in large part by Hindu nationalist governments across Asia. In many countries – India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia to name just a few – religious minorities face active persecution by these populist religious governments and the citizens themselves. In fact, in much of South Asia, exclusivist majoritarian identities are ‘joining forces’ with authoritarian states in order to cement religious minorities as second-class citizens and, in some places, wipe them out completely.

Although we have a sanitised view of Buddhism in the West, Myanmar in particular is experiencing the effects of extreme Buddhist nationalism. According to ACN, these kinds of movements thrive in a ‘spiritually empty global consumerist culture’ where people ‘are thirsty for richer and deeper forms of identity and community.’ What ethno-religious nationalism provides, in theory, is ‘robust forms belonging in a world of enormous flux,’ where people’s individual identities can find elevation in the national identity, which is understood as an interconnection of religion, race, language and territory.

COVID-19 and religious liberty

One of the key discussions in their report is the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on religious persecution worldwide. Whatever fragilities and tensions already existed in countries worsened in the midst of national responses to the virus.

Several African governments, while distracted with trying to support the health system, found themselves facing greater threats from Islamic extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, who used the distraction to their advantage, increasing violent attacks and claiming more land for themselves. In some countries – such as China, Niger, Turkey and Egypt – the pandemic was actively blamed on Christians, and in others, it was attributed to Muslims or Jews. In Pakistan, some charities refused food and emergency supplies to Christians. Online jihadist publications provided a forum for propaganda and hate and the scapegoating of religious minorities.

One of the biggest questions raised throughout the pandemic has been to do with freedom of worship and assembly. Everywhere, the locking down of whole economies and restrictions on religious worship raised serious questions about the extent of religious liberties violated. When countries were giving greater movement and freedom to supermarkets, retail and liquor stores, religious services were deemed “non-essential”. This imbalance is something that Pope Francis recently addressed, explaining that religious freedom is ‘the primary and fundamental human right.’

Even as we seek ways to protect human life from the spread of the virus, we cannot view the spiritual and the moral dimension of the human person as less important than physical health.’

The ACN report rightly notes that while the pandemic brought to the surface important questions about legislative overreach, it also raised the question of ‘whether, in some cases, aggressively secular governments are adequately able to discern the importance of these [religious] rights.’

Polite persecution

In most developed countries, the sorts of persecution on display comes in the form of what Pope Francis has called ‘polite persecution’. No one forces you to renounce your faith, and no one is threatening your life for being a Christian. However, under the guise of “progress” Christians are in positions where they have to violate their religious conscience or face heavy fines or unemployment. This is certainly the case when it comes to assisting in the practice of voluntary assisted suicide or providing legal referrals for abortions. There are few meaningful protections for religious consciences in that regard. What ACN also points to is the expanding definition of what “hate crimes” constitute, to the extent that the public profession of one’s religious teachings are a “risk” or “harmful” to others. Archbishop of Tasmania Julian Porteous experienced this firsthand when, in 2015, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights summoned him for circulating a pamphlet detailing the Catholic Church’s position on same-sex marriage.

What can be done?

Red Wednesday is a global initiative of Aid to the Church in Need to draw attention to the plight of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs. Around Australia, cathedrals, churches and other public buildings will light up in red on Wednesday 24 November 2021 as a sign of solidarity for suffering Christians everywhere.

There are a number of things you can do to get involved, raise awareness, and offer help. In Melbourne, a special prayer vigil will be hosted on Wednesday evening at St Patrick's Cathedral from 7.30pm. It will also be livestreamed on the Archdiocesan YouTube Channel.

Every year ACN responds to around 5000 requests for help (and they receive many more), so donating goes a long way towards helping what they can accomplish.

Another thing you can do is wear something red, perhaps a ribbon, to raise awareness and initiate conversations. ACN is also launching a new initiative this year: "#gotomass for someone who can’t." If you are able, go to Mass and offer it on behalf of someone who can’t because of religious persecution.