Twenty-five years ago, on November 4, 1990, a courageous priest risked his life to hold a mass in a cemetery in Albania. In 1967, his president, Enver Hoxha, had declared Christian faith abolished and proclaimed that his country was henceforth the world’s first atheist state. On November 4, 2015, Albania’s current president hosted an official palace reception for 145 global church leaders—from the Vatican to Venezuela— who had spent the previous three days attending meetings in the aptly named Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral.
Their conference tackled some of the most pressing issues facing the global church—the discrimination, persecution and martyrdom faced by millions of believers living in countries such as Iraq, Syria, India, Pakistan, Cuba, Myanmar, Sudan, Iran, Algeria, Kenya and Nigeria.
The moment was historic in more than its choice of location and timing. For the first time in the modern history of Christianity, high-level leaders and representatives from the various church traditions—Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal—gathered together for a common purpose. In another twist, they stayed at a hotel built on the land where the former Orthodox Cathedral stood until its 1967 demolition. On the opposite corner of the capital’s central Skanderbeg Square is the National Museum that holds a display of moving images from Albania’s communist era—photo after photo of priests killed by their own government.
Since that desolate era, the Orthodox Cathedral has been rebuilt within a few blocks of its original location. Remembering its own resurrection, the Albanian Church, wanted to express solidarity with fellow believers suffering in places such as Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, reminding them that even when Christianity is officially declared dead, it’s not the end of the story, much as in the life of Jesus.
“We have come together because discrimination, persecution and martyrdom among Christians and people of other faiths in the contemporary world are growing due to a complex variety of factors.” The 21st century, they said, is filled with moving stories of faithful people who have paid for their dedication to Christ through suffering, torture and execution.
One objective of the meeting was, “to listen to, learn from and stand with discriminated and persecuted churches and Christians in the world today.” The gathered leaders and heard testimonies from individuals such as the former Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Basilios Georges Casmoussa, now based in Lebanon.
About the destruction wrought by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, it was said, “Is this not socio-cultural genocide for the Christians of Iraq? the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation. More is more than the physical massacre of a people; it’s also the systematic massacre of its social bonds, of its culture, of its historic and collective memory, of its future, of its active presence in the land of its ancestors. The Christians in the Nineveh plain experience daily deprivation. If the Nineveh plain empties of Christians, all of Christianity in Iraq is threatened with extinction.”
Dr. Andrea Riccardi, Professor of Contemporary History at Rome University, said that “The West has had little awareness of the martyrdom of Christians. Western culture has nurtured a sense of guilt over the responsibility of Christians and the violence perpetrated by them in their history.” He declares that this consciousness has concealed the important twentieth century reality of the persecution of Christians. “Christian communities… do not hear the question and the cry that comes from a world of men and women of faith, humiliated and persecuted. They do not feel the searing memory of the history of the twentieth century. This insensitivity and ignorance of the past intertwine.”
“In recent years,” Riccardi continued, “especially after 9/11, we discussed the persecution of Christians as the result of the clash between Islam and the West… The suffering of Christians is not the result of a clash of civilizations and religions, but something deeper, certainly mixed with history. There is something deeper to understand with regard to their history, to be welcomed with veneration, as that of the first witnesses of the Word of God.” Therefore, “persecution must be studied carefully; every story is different.”
In the concluding moments of the conference, participants called for solidarity among Christian churches in the face of discrimination, persecution and martyrdom. “We need to urgently strengthen the solidarity of all Christians, following up on what has been accomplished with insight and discernment from this consultation.”
The meeting produced several calls to action, including the following:
· “All churches to engage more in dialogue and co-operation with other faith communities, and be ‘as wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16) by remaining vigilant, watchful and fearless in the face of discrimination and persecution.
· “All governments to respect and protect the freedom of religion or belief of all people as a fundamental human right. We also appeal to governments and international organizations to respect and protect Christians and all other people of goodwill from threats and violence committed in the name of religion. In addition, we ask them to work for peace and reconciliation, to seek the settlement of ongoing conflicts and to stop the flow of arms, especially to violators of human rights.
· “All media to report in an appropriate and unbiased way on violations of religious freedom, including the discrimination and persecution of Christians as well as of other faith communities.”
Source: World Watch Monitor
Thank You, Father, for the changes You have wrought in Albania. We praise You that while the government sought to eradicate Your church, it remains strong and seeks to be an agent of change in those regions where persecution remains. Challenge us as well to stand in solidarity with our fellow Christians who are suffering for their faith in Christ. Strengthen us to pray faithfully for them and to support them in ways You provide. With these fellow Christians, we pray for churches to join in unity with other faith communities; that together we might strengthen each other to remain vigilant and watchful. We pray for the world’s governments to respect and protect the freedom of religion and belief of all people. And, we pray that the media will report in integrity, without bias, on violations of religious freedom. Father God, there is no power in heaven or on earth that can accomplish all these requests except You, the one true and living God. It is to You we pray in the Name of Jesus, our Deliverer and our Hope, Amen.