Expressing gratitude for the support that allows the Pontifical Foundation to continue to fulfill its mission drawing attention to victims of religious persecution and provide economic and humanitarian assistance, the Executive President of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) said Pope Francis' visit to Iraq in March "gave solace and hope" to local Christians and drew attention to the plight of so many Christians in the Middle East.
"Although the Christians are a constituent part of their native countries, far too often they are treated as second-class citizens. In Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, they are also suffering from the after-effects of the war and desperate economic situations. The exodus of the Christians continues unchecked," he said.
Thomas Heine-Geldern also pointed to this month's consecration of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, whose construction was sponsored by ACN. He described it as "a ray of hope for the coexistence of Christians and Muslims in the Arab world."
Anti-Christian violence rising in India, Nigeria, Sahel, Mozambique
Unfortunately, Heine-Geldern said, violence against Christians is on the rise as demonstrated by weekly reports of violence. "Priests, religious and laypeople are being killed, kidnapped or abused as they carry out their service. In particular, the current situation in India and Nigeria fills us with deep concern and we are standing by should our assistance be needed."
He also raised the alarm for Christians in "the African Sahel region and in Mozambique where terrorism is spreading," not only killing and kidnapping people but also preventing the Church from carrying out its pastoral and social work.
"Polite persecution" in the Western world
Heine-Geldern noted an increase in the number of subtle acts of violence against religious organisations in the West, a phenomenon that is leading to the gradual eradication of religious beliefs from public life under the cloak of supposed "tolerance".
He recalled that Pope Francis has described it as "polite persecution", which involves legislation that purports to implement political correctness by recommending the use of language which avoids Christian terminology and symbols.
Response to 2021 Religious Freedom Report
ACN's head expressed satisfaction "for an overwhelming response" to the foundation's Religious Freedom in the World Report 2021, released in collaboration with international journalists and experts.
"The report not only covers religious persecution in many countries of the world, but is also a sign and proof that all of us -- Churches and religious communities, NGOs, politicians and public figures -- have to stand up together for the human right to religious freedom, which is deeply rooted in human dignity. The freedom of religious denomination is a gauge of our humanity," he said.
The ACN executive also mentioned the foundation's initiative November Red Wednesday/Red Week that, he said, has become a worldwide symbol for the plight of Christians, with tens of thousands of people participating with initiatives to raise awareness and to pray for "our beleaguered brothers and sisters."
Heine-Geldern concluded by commemorating the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, whom he said, include many religious sisters, bishops, priests and catechists who have died from the disease while carrying out their service.
"They sacrificed their lives to be close to the people who had been entrusted to their care, in spite of the dangers to their own health," he said. "A remarkable witness of their devotion."