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US Catholics Now as Concerned About Persecution as Climate Change or Refugees

But more than a third incorrectly believe Christians suffer less than half of world’s religious freedom violations.
US Catholics Now as Concerned About Persecution as Climate Change or Refugees
Image: Chris McGrath / Getty Images
The roof of a destroyed church in Qaraqosh, Iraq.

American Catholics are growing more concerned about the fate of the world—and with it, Christian persecution.

More than 9 in 10 now identify persecution as either “very” or “somewhat” severe. This is roughly the same percentage as an identical poll last year, both sponsored by the US branch of Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). But over the last 12 months, the share choosing the “very severe” category rose from 40 percent to 46 percent.

And their level of concern went with it, rising 9 percentage points. Last year, 49 percent of Catholics described themselves as “very concerned.” This year, 58 percent.

The poll surveys 1,000 American Catholics across the spectrums of age, politics, and piety, conducted by McLaughlin & Associates.

It showed that intense Catholic concern is growing on several global issues. Those “very concerned” about human trafficking rose from 72 percent to 82 percent. Poverty climbed from 68 percent to 74 percent. The refugee issue jumped from 50 percent to 60 percent. And climate change nudged forward from 55 percent to 57 percent.

So while those unconcerned about Christian persecution fell by half (from 18% to 9%), overall the “church in need” only ranked No. 4 among the list of issues.

But last year, it was No. 5.

Following the 2018 poll, George Marlin, chair of ACN-USA, said it “reveals quite clearly” the need for more emphasis.

It seems to have worked.

“It is heartening to see that US Catholics have a growing awareness of and concern about the persecution of Christians,” he said following the 2019 survey.

“[But] it is telling that [these other issues] get more attention.”

Without belittling their importance, the other issues receive ample coverage in the news, Marlin said. But Christian persecution “mostly fails to make headlines in the mainstream media.”

And the result is 38 percent of Catholics believing that Christians suffer less than half of persecution worldwide.

They are incorrect: Researchers with Under Caesar’s Sword, a $1 million study funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, found that Christians experience between 60 percent to 80 percent of the world’s religious discrimination. (More of it is experienced by evangelicals/Pentecostals than by Catholics.)

And the surveyed Catholics are more wrong than before. Last year’s poll found only 43 percent of Catholics believing that Christians are more persecuted. This year their number went down to 39 percent.

“It suggests a disconnect—a lack of full awareness of how pervasive and extreme the persecution of Christians is around the world,” said Joop Koopman, ACN-USA communications director.

“The church has a job to do, along with mainstream media, to pay more attention to persecution of Christians.”

Pope Francis is a champion, the poll suggests. It found that 51 percent of Catholics believe he is “very concerned” about the issue, up from 49 percent last year. And coincidentally, the release of the survey corresponds to the pope’s selected prayer intention for the month of March: new Christian martyrs.

“It might be hard for us to believe, but there are more martyrs today than in the first centuries,” Francis said. “They speak the truth and proclaim Jesus Christ … in countries where, in theory and on paper, they protect freedom and human rights.”

According to the pope’s statement, 40 Catholic missionaries were murdered in 2018; 35 of whom were priests. ACN counts 38 countries where religious freedom is gravely threatened. The papal agency supports suffering Christians in 140 nations worldwide.

And according to a 2018 report by Open Doors USA, there are more than 215 million Christians persecuted worldwide, with 1 in 12 living in countries where Christianity is “illegal, forbidden, or punished.”

Iran was identified in the poll as the nation where persecution is the “most severe.” It is followed by Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, and India.

What should be done about it?

Diplomatic pressure is said to be “very important” by 61 percent. Economic sanctions register at 56 percent, with emergency asylum at 53 percent.Less than half favor military solutions, with 42 percent saying direct intervention is a “very important” action, and 41 percent favoring the arming of Christian communities. Each of the above is 1-3 percentage points higher than last year.

Forty-eight percent believe financial aid is “very important.” ACN has followed up its awareness efforts with a $1.3 million aid package for Christians in the Middle East. Disbursed over the first two months of 2019, two-thirds went to Syria and the rest to Iraq, for emergency services and the rebuilding of homes and churches.

In the village of Bashiqa in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, 50 percent of displaced Christians have now returned home.

Yet despite Pope Francis’ high-level engagement and the delivery of massive aid, Catholics perceive the level of concern shown by their bishops and parish priests to be declining—the latter from 24 percent to 19 percent.

Only 19 percent are recognized as being “very concerned” about the persecuted church, while perception of bishops fell from 27 percent to 24 percent, the survey found. Respondents said 14 percent of bishops and 19 percent of priests register no concern at all.

However, the personal response of the faithful is increasing anyway. Today, 68 percent are praying for the persecuted, up from 64 percent; 62 percent wish to raise awareness in their local church, up from 56 percent; and 55 percent believe donating money is helpful, up slightly from 53 percent. About 1 in 2 (52%) actually did donate, with giving positively correlated to those who regularly attend Mass.

“Their awareness and concern have increased, which arguably has made them more sensitive to the fact that they don’t hear enough about the issue from their parish priest and local bishop,” said Koopman.

“The survey measures their perception of the engagement of the institutional church, in which the pope stands out.”

So while ACN is encouraged, the agency finds much work still to be done.

“This poll is a definite plus—a sign of greater awareness at the grassroots level,” said Koopman. “But US Catholics are still not as aware of the extent and severity of the persecution of Christians as they could be.”

“Even after eight years of a brutal war and terror in the region, US Catholics are still not fully aware of the magnitude of the suffering of Christians targeted with brutal repression and even genocide,” stated Marlin.

“There is an obligation to keep the spotlight on the seriousness and pervasiveness of Christian communities being persecuted around the world.”

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