The National Catholic Review
Catholics on the front lines of religious freedom advocacy

Sister Maria Hanna, prioress of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq, had a decision to make. The Islamic State’s killing campaign across the Nineveh Plain threatened the primarily Christian community of Qaraqosh outside of Mosul, Iraq, on Aug. 7, 2014. The peshmerga, security forces from the neighboring Kurdish region of Iraq, had been defending the area but were returning to Erbil. The roads were filled with Christian and Muslim families fleeing the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

In theory, “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This is international law, protected in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In practice, religious persecution is on the rise.

How are Catholic groups protecting and advancing international religious liberty in response to this growing threat? Religious actors bring three “I’s” to the public sphere: institutions, ideas and imagination. Catholic actors working across national borders bring a deep bench of institutions, rich ideas and religious imagination to international religious freedom issues. But the far-flung breadth and depth of institutions carry costs as well, particularly in translation, communication and coordination. Consider what followed for the Dominican sisters in Iraq.

A Reluctant Exodus

The phones rang nonstop with impassioned pleas, imploring the sisters to leave, warning it was not safe for them to remain. But the sisters wanted to stay. While all around them people fled, the sisters gathered for an hour to pray just before midnight. After receiving Communion, they discerned that they must join the exodus, accompany the people of Qaraqosh and flee ISIS.

The sisters crammed tightly into cars with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A journey that would usually take one hour instead took 18 hours. The road surged with refugees on foot and in every conceivable conveyance. Within a day of arrival in the Kurdish Iraqi city of Erbil, the sisters—refugees in their own country—set up a health clinic in a tent to minister to the displaced peoples fleeing ISIS. Within two weeks they expanded the clinic to two temporary buildings. Today they serve thousands in the Mart-Shmouni Medical Health Center for displaced persons, run the Annunciation (Al-Bishara) school and post updates by email and social media to their Dominican family and supporters. Ten Dominican sisters, however, weakened by the ordeal, died.

People caught in war zones rarely have the time and opportunity to address international audiences, but one of the sisters, Diana Momeka, O.P., did just that. She traveled to Washington, D.C., and on May 13, 2015, testified before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and members of Congress regarding the plight of Christians and minorities in Iraq and Syria—then promptly returned to the refugee camps to continue her work with the sisters’ new nongovernmental organization, the Humanitarian Nineveh Relief Organization. The war still rages, and people cannot return home; ISIS has destroyed their homes and churches. Internally displaced persons, often called I.D.P.’s, still need sustainable housing, education, health care, transportation and jobs.

‘First Generation’ Advocacy

Unfortunately, struggles like those facing the Dominican sisters are on the rise, requiring redoubled advocacy. A collaborative international research project called Under Caesar’s Sword documents Christian responses to violations of international religious freedom (often referred to as I.R.F.). Led by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame, and the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, the project recently convened international scholars and practitioners to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom”.

Catholics may seem unlikely advocates of religious liberty. For centuries, Catholics persecuted non-Catholics. “Error” had no rights. The horrors of the Holocaust and Second World War, the end of colonialism and the expansion of the church in developing countries led to a new Catholic position on church-state relations, culminating in the council’s affirmation of religious freedom as the foundational human and civil rights.

Today myriad church institutions combine humanitarian assistance with advocacy for the protection of persecuted people. Catholic Relief Services, the Caritas network and Jesuit Refugee Service provide sustainable housing and humanitarian assistance to refugees and I.D.P.’s in Iraq and Syria, as well as for those who leave, while also advocating internationally for greater aid and diplomacy to end the wars. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus help to rebuild churches, schools and health clinics for the I.D.P.’s and refugees. The Knights of Malta provide assistance to refugees in perilous journeys to Europe. Women’s religious congregations and Catholic bishops’ conferences work on the front lines of conflict and also press governments and international organizations to protect persecuted people and religious freedom. Peace and advocacy groups from Sant’Egidio to Pax Christi work to end the wars that force out Christian communities. Some focus primarily on I.R.F. advocacy, like Dr. Paul Bhatti, advisor to the prime minister of Pakistan for minority affairs, who took that dangerous job after his brother Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated by the Taliban while serving in the same position.

The “first generation” of I.R.F. advocacy in the United States led to the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and the creation of the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom at the State Department, as well as the nonpartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which aims to better integrate I.R.F. into foreign policy. Catholics serve on the commission, and these first-generation efforts have survived congressional threats to defund them.

Catholics have also helped to develop new I.R.F. advocacy models abroad. Ambassador Andrew Bennett is Canada’s first ambassador for religious freedom (and a Catholic). The International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, an informal network of parliamentarians and legislators from 50 countries, who advance I.R.F., began in 2014 and met in tandem with Pope Francis’ visit to the United Nations in September 2015.

Interconnected Action

These examples show Catholic networks using all three “I’s” to advance religious freedom and aid persecuted people. In politics, we call these groups that work for common values across borders transnational advocacy networks. In the church we use the terms body of Christ and communion of saints. We are all connected, as Jesus showed us, and as Pope Francis reminds us in this Year of Mercy. Jesus himself was a Middle Eastern refugee from the Roman district of Greater Syria persecuted for his minority religious views.

Religious demographics leave Catholic institutions well positioned to advocate for I.R.F. Demographically, Buddhism and Hinduism never left the cradle of their birth. According to Pew research data, 99 percent of Buddhists and Hindus live in Asia. Almost all Jews live in only two countries: the United States and Israel. Nearly two-thirds of Muslims live in Asia. Christianity, with Catholics as its largest group, is the most evenly distributed religion geographically, with believers all around the globe. Thus when persecution happens in Nigeria, Pakistan or Iraq, it is not happening to “others;” it is happening to “us,” to people with whom we are in relation through our common faith networks of sisters, parishes, bishops, schools, universities, hospitals and aid and advocacy organizations. Our linked networks help move us beyond the “globalization of indifference” that Pope Francis talks about so eloquently.

Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis, for example, have served in the Middle East for many decades, long before the current attacks by ISIS. C.R.S., Caritas and Jesuit Refugee Service serve all vulnerable people, based on need, not creed. These organizations serve persecuted peoples wherever they are. They bring humanitarian assistance to conflict-stricken areas so people in can stay in their home countries wherever possible, directly countering ISIS’s genocidal efforts. When people choose to flee, C.R.S., Caritas and J.R.S. serve them all along their flight path and in the neighboring host countries (Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey for Syrian and Iraqi refugees).

Solidarity, subsidiarity and integral human dignity are the groups’ operating procedures. They hire local refugees and I.D.P.’s to provide jobs and dignity and to address local needs. For the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Jesuit Refugee Service has launched a campaign called Mercy in Motion, which works to improve the education of refugees. Young people fleeing war and persecution lose not only their homes but their schooling, making them vulnerable to a lifetime of poverty and unemployment. For Pope Francis, this is not only a humanitarian imperative but a religious-freedom strategy, as education can help refugees “grow in self-confidence, to realize their highest inherent potential and to be able to defend their rights as individuals and communities.” The Mercy in Motion campaign aims to create more Sister Dianas and Dr. Bhattis—people who can fight for the rights of their persecuted communities.

Peace or Apocalypse?

Catholic groups also take a holistic approach, advocating for an end to the root causes of persecution, to end the wars and repression that cause people to flee for their lives. They believe that peace is possible, peace is practical and peace is our calling.

This differs from some I.R.F. religious advocacy groups, who believe that current conflicts in the Middle East signal apocalyptic end times, that peace between Christians and Muslims is not possible or advisable, that “error has no rights” and that Christians should not work for peace, as this would interfere with God’s will for a coming battle between good and evil, Christians and Muslims. Some Christian I.R.F. advocacy groups focus on smuggling Bibles into communist and other dictatorial countries. Their advocacy and aid is directed only or primarily to Christians. Apocalyptic visions divide peace from justice; they trim religious freedom to merely a defense of Christians, not a defense of all, and do not tie this work to a larger effort for peace.

The Catholic Church is committed to working with other faiths for peace and justice and has a deep bench of institutions sharing common ideas. Catholic Relief Services receives money from the Islamic Relief organization and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But these extensive networks are also a challenge. Translation costs alone make international meetings expensive. Groups are not always on the same page and may disagree on tactics. For example, local Christians often want sustainable economic investments to be able to stay in persecuted countries, while some in the diaspora community favor assistance to help more Christians escape and resettle in third countries as refugees.

Related to this, many Catholics in the Middle East and North Africa do not explicitly refer to the persecution of Christians; they do not want to single themselves out for special treatment while so many Muslims are suffering. They understand that their safety and their ability to remain in or ever return to their homes depends entirely on rebuilding strong and resilient ties with their Muslim neighbors. Thus when nationalist parties oppose the building of mosques in Italy, or when Catholics support political candidates and policies that seek to ban Muslims from the United States, this hurts persecuted Christians and plays into the narrative of violent groups like ISIS. It is necessary to model I.R.F. at home if it is to be respected abroad.

Put ‘Mercy in Motion’

When I travel to visit Sister Diana later this year at the invitation of the local church, I will travel with architecture professors from the Catholic University of America, who will create architectural plans for sustainable refugee housing for Iraqis; with C..U.A. law professors who work on the genocide resolutions making their way through legislatures; with C.U.A. language professors working to save the Aramaic language; and with doctors and medical students from Georgetown University’s Global Surgical and Medical Support Group, who will assist in Sister Diana’s clinic.

I also will take along drawings and cards from my daughter’s first Communion class to Sister Diana’s first Communion class, in a simple gesture of solidarity among 7-year-olds. When I return, I will report to government officials and I.R.F advocacy groups, and our Under Caesar’s Sword book will document the stories of persecuted peoples. Our efforts will not change the calculus of ISIS forces, but they may help bolster the persecuted. Pope Francis urges us to act in solidarity with the vulnerable, to put mercy in motion, so that those who have lost their homes will not also lose their hope. I.R.F. advocacy is a long game, not generally rewarded by quick victories.

But there is much we can do to support the persecuted today, while pressing for sustainable peace and I.R.F. in the longer term. When Sister Diana testified to U.S. policymakers, she said that for the first time in 1,600 years, the church bells were silent on the Nineveh Plain. When the State Department published its latest report on international religious freedom, Ambassador David Saperstein paraphrased Sister Diana in the lead for the report. When a Jewish rabbi and U.S. ambassador quotes an Iraqi Catholic nun, we know our transnational advocacy networks on international religious freedom are working.

Maryann Cusimano Love is a professor of international relations at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to Under Caesar’s Sword, a three-year collaborative global research project that investigates how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is severely violated. Funding for the issue in which this article appeared was provided by a grant from the Catholic Communication Campaign. The opinion of the author is her own and does not reflect the opinion of the CCC.

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