That Christian communities, especially those persecuted, feel close to Christ and that their human rights are respected.
We sometimes think of persecution as something that happened in the early Church. In our time, though, millions of people are also persecuted for their religion. Christians are prominent among them, but so are Muslims of different allegiances and Buddhists. Much of the persecution takes place in the Middle East, China and Africa. It takes many forms.
Some Christians are beaten and killed by vigilante groups, driven from their homes and seeing their churches set on fire. They may also be forbidden to meet as communities for worship and prayer, have their churches confiscated and their religious texts banned. They are commonly second class citizens: they cannot have their children educated or find government employment. Others are excluded from education and government employment.
Christian groups, including Catholics, are sometimes persecuted directly because of their church allegiance, as, for example, in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, India, Egypt, Pakistan and North Korea. Most Christians have fled from Iraq and Syria and from other nations in fear for their lives because of their religion. In other nations, like China and North Korea persecution has more to do with the demand of national Governments to control all aspects of life. Catholics are particularly vulnerable because of the universal character of their Church and their allegiance to the Pope.
In asking us to pray for persecuted Christian groups, Pope Francis reminds us that they are our brothers and sisters whose pain we ought feel especially strongly and at whose persecution we would naturally feel particularly outraged. They are family.
Pope Francis also invites us to enter the lives of persecuted Christians from within, and to imagine what it is like to be denied basic human rights, to have to pray in secret, to be unable to take our children to school, to be mocked and discriminated against for our faith, and to be treated not as citizens but as parasites. In our prayers we are invited to stay with them as persons with faces and not simply to see them in bulk from outside.
Pope Francis also invites us to enter the challenging mystery of following Jesus when we pray that persecuted Christians feel the love of Christ in their suffering. We naturally imagine that they may feel distant from God, but we pray that they may find consolation. They uncomfortably remind us of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels that we should regard people who are persecuted as happy and blessed and not as cursed. This is Jesus’ way and in it lies joy in the midst of pain and abandonment.
Praying for people who are persecuted takes us into the heart of Christian faith: into the compassion that God has for us and which we are invited to show others. It also calls us to recognise that their way is the privileged way of following Jesus. They are at the centre of the Church, not at its edge.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.