On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate, the international charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) highlights the Holy Father’s closeness to Christians who suffer persecution around the world, as well as his special interest in interreligious dialogue and defence of Religious Freedom.
“The Holy Father’s presence has been close and marked by important details. He has also shown himself to be extremely interested in our work at ACN. We fondly and gratefully recall the occasion in February 2018 when he received a delegation from the foundation that travelled to Rome with Rebeca, a Nigerian Christian who was persecuted by Boko Haram, to hear her terrible story of rape and suffering”, says Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN International. “Just recently, on March 8, after his Wednesday general audience, he greeted two young women who also suffered greatly from Islamic terrorism in northern Nigeria”.
“And how can we forget his words to the family of Asia Bibi, whom he asked to extend his care and support to the Pakistani woman who was imprisoned for 10 years under false charges of blasphemy?”, asks Heine-Geldern.
A concrete example of Francis’ concern for those persecuted by their faith is the Holy Father’s series of monthly videos, in which he conveys his prayer intentions. In 2017 and 2019 he asked that persecuted Christians be supported with the prayers and material help of the whole Church, and in January 2022 he labelled religious persecution “unacceptable and inhumane”, as well as “madness”.
His visits to countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Kazakhstan and Iraq, bear witness to the legacy of a Pope who listens and is close to the suffering church, the forgotten and those who hunger for peace and justice. In Iraq, Francis visited churches that were destroyed by the Islamic State and paid a visit to Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, in a gesture that was described by some as a “landmark on the road of interreligious dialogue”.
The successor of Peter has also given many indications of his interest in ACN and its work. In 2017 he invited the faithful to perform works of mercy with the Pontifical Foundation through the campaign “Be God’s Mercy”, and on several occasions he has spoken about ACN’s “One Million Children Praying the Rosary” campaign, to pray for peace in the world.
“I have personally witnessed those occasions where Pope Francis showed great care and concern for our suffering brothers and sisters, such as when he blessed a candle, or the Icon of Our Lady of the Sorrows of Syria, to pray for peace in Syria”. On that occasion, standing at the balcony of St. Peter’s, the Pope blessed 6,000 rosaries which ACN then sent to Syrian families that had lost loved ones to war, violence and terror.
The foundation also gratefully recalls the Pope’s written and spoken statements about the importance of religious freedom. The most recent was in February 2023, when he spoke to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See about the defence of religious freedom as key to real peace in the world.
“We are particularly grateful to the Holy Father for his wise analysis of the times we are living at the moment, where in many countries we are seeing a polite and hidden persecution of Christians, no longer marked by terror and terrorist violence, but by lack of regard for conscience and by pressure to live in ways that are opposed to moral values and to the sacred”, Heine-Geldern concludes.
The Holy Father has made multiple references to the right to religious freedom. One such occasion was in 2014, during the Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s, when he said that the sacrifice of modern day “martyrs”, persecuted for their Christian faith, only strengthens the commitment to religious freedom all over the world, and more recently, during his visit to Kazakhstan, where he took part in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, where he stated that everybody has the right to bear public witness of their faith, and to propose it without imposition.
- By Josué Villalón & María Lozano
Featured Image: Pope Francis' visit to South Sudan 2023. Credit: Archdiocese of Juba.