CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO -- In a city that has become synonymous with violence and despair during a four-year drug war that has claimed more than 12,000 residents, parishioners at a small church are trying to change the image of Ciudad Juárez -- one person at a time.
CAIRO -- From her home, Samia Ramsis holds a key chain bearing the face of the Virgin Mary as visitors outside come to look upon the spot where Egypt's Coptic Christians believe Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus found refuge after fleeing Bethlehem.
Once crowded with Christians, Cairo's Coptic quarter where she lives with her husband, Mounir, and two children is now home to fewer than 50 Christian families.
"We know many Christians have left," said Mounir Ramsis, speaking not only about this quarter but about all of Egypt. "But we love this country and will stay until death."
The Arab Spring uprisings that toppled secular dictatorships have unleashed long-suppressed freedoms that have allowed Islamic parties to gain a share of political power they have been denied for decades. Their rise is creating near-panic among ancient Christian communities that dot the Muslim world and predate Islam by centuries.
MANCHESTER, England -- British bishops plan to use the 2012 London Olympic Games to renew interest in the Catholic faith, with initiatives ranging from fighting human trafficking and homelessness to promoting youth ministry and ecumenical dialogue.
The Syrian pro-democracy struggle has been both an enormous tragedy and a powerful inspiration. Indeed, as someone who has studied mass nonviolent civil insurrections in dozens of countries in recent decades, I know of no people who have demonstrated such courage and tenacity in the face of such savage repression as have the people of Syria these past 10 months.
The resulting decline in the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad’s government gives hope that the opposition will eventually win. The question is how many more lives will be lost until then.
While the repressive nature of regime has never been in question, many observers believed it would be smarter and more nuanced in its reaction when the protests of the Arab Spring first came to Syria in March. Indeed, had the government responded to the initial demonstrations like those of Morocco and neighboring Jordan with genuine (if relatively minor) reforms and more subtle means of crowd control, the pro-democracy struggle would have probably faded rather quickly.
MANILA, PHILIPPINES -- As 90 members of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) gather this week ahead of the semiannual plenary assembly Jan. 28-30, they are trying to stay clear of the impeachment trial of Philippines Chief Justice Renato Corona, which has captured the attention of the nation.
In Nigeria, the militant Islamic Boko Haram movement has launched a religious cleansing campaign against Christians in the country’s north (see Page 14). It would be somewhat comforting to regard the atrocities there, which include machete-wielding fanatics attacking pregnant Christian women and young girls, as an isolated case.
Alas, that option is not available to anyone whose eyes are open. Today, Christians are by far the most persecuted religious group on the planet. As a result, defense of persecuted Christians is destined to be the defining religious freedom struggle -- indeed, a defining human rights struggle -- of the early 21st century.
As counterintuitive as it may seem for Westerners long accustomed to thinking of Christians as oppressors, not the oppressed, empirical confirmation of the point is depressingly easy to find.
- The Pew Forum estimates that Christians face persecution in a staggering total of 133 countries, representing two-thirds of all nations on earth.
As Christians in Nigeria face new threats from the militant Islamic Boko Haram movement, following Christmas Day church bombings with a death toll that the country’s Catholic bishops say now stands at 200, two new reports suggest the Nigerian drama is part of a global pattern of anti-Christian violence.
Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news agency, released on Dec. 31 its annual list of Catholic pastoral workers killed during the past year. The report found that 26 priests, religious and laity lost their lives in 2011, in locales stretching from South Sudan and the Philippines to Colombia and India.
NEAR MACHAKOS, KENYA -- At first glance, farmer William Ndolo’s small acreage doesn’t look like much. It doesn’t seem that different from the surrounding dry, desiccated land in this rural pocket southeast of the capital of Nairobi.
The topsoil is parched and dry, for example, and there is a spartan, denudated quality to Ndolo’s farm that, as old-timers will tell you, contrasts with the more variegated and robust land of this region’s past, when you could spot animals (like wild monkeys) roaming the fields.
But if you look more carefully, you will see telling differences between Ndolo’s farm and its surroundings -- differences that are allowing Ndolo and his family to lead, amid a drought, a reasonably sustainable life.
Digging under the topsoil you see that it is actually healthier than it first appears -- richer and darker than the parched top. Then you notice that Ndolo’s fields are terraced, the folds of land shaping downward, allowing rain runoff to serve as irrigation for the crops.
When it comes to development work, organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Church World Service are widely seen as having a better record and certainly more credibility among residents in areas like Machakos, Kenya, than have East African governments. But that, some say, puts too much pressure on nongovernmental agencies.
MEXICO CITY -- Mexican human rights groups and the migration ministry of the Mexican bishops' conference have expressed outrage at the attorney general's office for pursuing anonymous criminal complaints against a priest who provided material and spiritual support to a group of displaced Guatemalans.
The groups also took issue with Mexican immigration officials forcibly removing some of the Guatemalans, who had been residing in a camp they established in Tabasco state near the Mexico-Guatemala border since August after fleeing a violent displacement in their country.
Franciscan Fr. Tomas Gonzalez Castillo is accused of human trafficking for doing what his supporters say was nothing more than providing food and shelter to the displaced Guatemalans.
Gonzalez was in Mexico City Jan. 12 to meet with judicial officials. He told reporters his migrant shelter in the border town of Tenosique and a parish human rights center were the only organizations that offered support to the Guatemalans who "arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs."