PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — Christianity may be thriving around the world, but it is under severe attack and threatened with extinction in the Middle East, the region of its birth.
This was a major theme at the 133rd Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in Philadelphia Aug. 4-6.
It was stressed at an Aug. 4 news conference with Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and two Catholic archbishops of Eastern Catholic Churches with direct experience of the situation, Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, and Chaldean Archbishop Bashir Matti Warda of Erbil, Iraq.
Anderson quoted figures that said 80 percent of the religious persecution in the world is directed at Christians and a terrible microcosm of this is the persecutions in Syria and Iraq.
“In Iraq, an estimated 125,000 Christians have been driven from Mosul and its surrounding area,” he said. “In Syria, an estimated 700,000 Christians have been displaced.”
“Today we are compelled to speak up for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East,” Anderson said. “Pope Francis has called the conditions under which Christian refugees live there intolerable. He has said the situation calls for our prayers and concrete actions to help.”
Approximately 2,000 members of the Knights of Columbus from around the country and abroad gathered Aug. 4 at the convention center for what was the fraternal organization’s 133rd Supreme Convention.
The theme for the three-day convention was “Endowed by Their Creator with Life and Liberty,” paraphrasing the famous words penned by Thomas Jefferson in the same city 239 years ago.
In a message to Supreme Knight Carl Anderson as the convention opened, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, sent good wishes, prayers and thanks on behalf of Pope Francis.
“His Holiness is profoundly grateful for the efforts of the Knights to raise public attention to this grave humanitarian tragedy,” the message said. “He is likewise grateful for the practical solidarity shown to suffering individuals and families through the Christian Refugee Relief Fund.
He also drew on the convention theme, saying Pope Francis hoped it would call attention “to the duty of American Catholics, precisely as responsible citizens, to contribute to the reasoned defense of those freedoms on which their nation was founded.”
“The cornerstone of these is religious freedom, understood not simply as the liberty to worship as one chooses, but also, for individuals and institutions, to speak and act in accordance with the dictates of their conscience,” said Cardinal Parolin’s message.
When that right “is menaced, whether by invasive public policies, or by the growing influence of a culture which sets alleged personal rights above the common good,” the message continued, all citizens who are concerned “for the overall welfare of society” must mobilize to protect that right.
It also noted that Pope Francis is preparing for his visit to Philadelphia Sept. 26-27 and participation in the World Meeting of Families.
The pope, it said, “expresses deep appreciation for the (Knights’) steadfast public witness … (of) our Christian understanding of marriage and the family.”
The sacrament of marriage “is, in the Creator’s plan, a natural institution, a life-long covenant of love and fidelity between a man and a woman, directed to their perfection and sanctification, and to the future of our human family,” the cardinal’s message said.
Today, the institution of marriage “is under attack from powerful cultural forces,” it added, “(and) the faithful are called to bear witness to this basic truth of biblical faith and natural law, which is essential to the wise and just ordering of society.”
To date, Anderson said, the Knights have given $3 million toward humanitarian assistance for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and invites individual Knights and others to support the relief fund the pope cited.
The fraternal organization pledged an initial $1 million to the fund. All costs for its operation will be covered by the Knights of Columbus with 100 percent of donations applied to relief. To assist those who wish to donate, the website www.christiansatrisk.com has been developed.
The Knights also planned to launch a national TV campaign, with ads airing the weekend of Aug. 8-9 to raise more awareness of the plight of Christians and other minority religious groups in the Middle East.
— By Lou Baldwin, correspondent for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.