The visit of Pope Francis to Egypt last week (April 28-29) was an act of personal courage, one that testified powerfully to the pope’s desire for religious tolerance. It reminds us of two things. The first—the need for mutual respect among people of varying beliefs who seek God—is obvious. The second, though less obvious, is no less important.
First, the first thing. In meetings with both Muslim and Christian audiences, the Holy Father spoke eloquently against religious fanaticism. At the local level, Egypt’s Muslims and Christians often live in peace. But the nation’s ongoing political turbulence has a painful streak of religious hatred. This year, Francis’s urgent words came just weeks after a wave of bloody violence against the nation’s Christian minority.
The bombings of Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday were uniquely vile because of the sacredness of the season. But they weren’t isolated incidents. Harsh treatment of Christian minorities has scarred the Middle East for a very long time. But it is often downplayed or overlooked, because of Western corporate and foreign policy interests.
Saudi Arabia bans Christianity completely. In Iraq, much of the ancient Christian community has fled due to Muslim extremist attacks. And Turkey, a NATO ally, still denies one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century: the deliberate killing by Turkish authorities of between one million and 1.5 million Armenian Christians in an ethnic and religious cleansing campaign from 1915 to 1922. (Unlike many other world leaders, and to his great credit, Pope Francis has named this genocide in his past public comments.)
Regarding Egypt, a quick news search shows a thread of anti-Christian violence going back many decades. Recent history includes attacks on churches, the murder of priests and laymen, the abduction, rape and forced conversion of Christian women, inadequate police protection, and chronic harassment. While most Egyptians are Muslim, as much as 10 percent of the population remains Christian, fourteen centuries after the Islamic conquest. Most Egyptian Christians belong to the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church, founded, according to tradition, by the Apostle Mark. A small minority are Coptic-rite Catholics.
Of course, violence against Christians in the Middle East does not license prejudice (or worse) against Muslims and other minorities in our own country. If we press for religious tolerance abroad, we need to show it ourselves here.
But the scope of anti-Christian violence does demand a much louder voice from American Christians in defense of persecuted Christians overseas. It’s good that so many of our citizens today speak out so forcefully against anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. But it’s troubling when many of those same citizens, along with many in the news media, seem indifferent to the scale of bitter anti-Christian discrimination in other nations, many of them Muslim-dominated.
This unhappy fact is what makes efforts like “Under Caesar’s Sword” so vital. “Under Caesar’s Sword” is a joint global research project by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, the Washington, D.C.–based Religious Freedom Institute, and Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Research Project. Christians are now the most widely persecuted religious community in the world, and “Under Caesar’s Sword” exists to chronicle the scope of that persecution and the Christian response to it. It’s an effort I strongly endorse, and I encourage Christians of every tradition, and other persons of good will, to visit the project website and share its information with their families, friends, and church communities.
Now for the second thing. Whether history judges the record of Christian discipleship in our own country a success or a failure finally depends on us—clergy, religious, and laypeople—and how zealously we live our faith; how deeply we believe; and how much apostolic courage we show to an unbelieving world that urgently needs Jesus Christ. We American Christians have far more freedom to live and preach our faith than do Christians in nearly any other nation. And God will hold us accountable for how we use it.
We live in a confused time, with deep anxieties even within the Church. But we’ve been here before. The Nicene Creed emerged largely from one of the most hotly contested gatherings in the life of the Church: the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. It was a meeting marked by fierce conflict between leaders of orthodox Christian belief and leaders of the Arian heresy—a heresy that appealed to many of the learned, comfortable, and powerful.
The Council of Nicaea could have failed. It, and all the long history that followed it, could have turned out very differently. It didn’t, because of one man—a young deacon and scholar (and later bishop) named Athanasius. Earlier this week, on May 2, Western Christians celebrated the feast of this man, whom we now remember as one of the greatest bishop-saints in history. His episcopal see was the city of Alexandria in modern Egypt. And his life is a lesson for all of us in the years ahead.
Athanasius fought for the true Christian faith at Nicaea and throughout his career. Arian bishops excommunicated him. Emperors resented him. His enemies falsely accused him of cruelty, sorcery, and even murder. He was exiled five times, for a total of seventeen years, and survived multiple assassination attempts. And in the face of it all, he became the single most articulate voice defending the orthodox Christian faith, which is why even today we remember him as Athanasius contra mundum: “Athanasius against the world.”
He had courage. He had the truth. He fought hard for it. He never gave up. And in the end, the truth won. The faith we take for granted today, we largely owe to him.
That’s my idea of a Christian believer fully alive in Jesus Christ. And if ministers, priests, bishops, and their people choose to live that same apostolic courage once again—beginning here, now, today—then a new dawn for Christian life really will break in the Church, which is a light to the nations.
Charles J. Chaput is the archbishop of Philadelphia and the author most recently of Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World. He served as a Commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2003-06.