Already when Elena – a young woman from China who chose her name after seeking asylum in the Czech Republic – enrolled in middle school, she was the target of everyone’s finger-pointing. Apparently, she was strange, different the other. She was born into a Christian family in the Chinese countryside.
Coming home from class one day she did not find her mother at home. The Chinese Communist regime had imprisoned her and soon after they put her father behind bars as well. As a warning. Neither one of them was willing to break and even after being released they sought to join the Christian community again. For Elena’s mother this meant to be rearrested. Her parents didn’t want this kind of future for her, so they did everything in their power to send her abroad. It has been years since Elena has heard anything from her parents. All she knows is that they remain in hiding.
Coronavirus as an opportunity
Millions of stories similar to this one unfold on a daily basis. According to recent news from a non-profit organisation called Open Doors, last year, the number of Christians who were subject to pressure and violence due to their beliefs was 260 million. Ramiel Bet Tamraz, an Iranian Christian, was recently sentenced to four months in prison only because he had organised a religious service. His father, a Christian pastor, was arrested for practicing religion in his home and, after years in custody, was sentenced to ten years in prison for “acting against national security”. Or take the case of the rise in anti-Semitism in both Europe and America, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, from the French city of Toulouse in 2012 to Pittsburgh in 2018 and Halle Germany last October. An estimated 3,000 abducted Yazidi women and children are still missing and for those who fled many cannot return to their homelands as security risks are too high. China is facing the most severe crackdown on religious freedom since the Cultural Revolution, as a new report by CSW titled Repressed, Removed, Re-educated: The stranglehold on religious life in China, released last month, shows.
At this moment, we are sharing a fraction of the lives of the persecuted – but really only a small fraction. Now, since the pandemic has forced closure of our churches and cathedrals and robbed us of our strength and encouragement, which millions of Christians can only afford to indulge in under the threat of imprisonment, if at all. However, isn’t it also a gift to understand what many endure every day throughout their entire lives? Could this be our Lord’s way of giving people an opportunity to be a real Christian and not just people who attend church?
While contemplating the miracle of Easter- amid the suffering of those persecuted and the starving of this world- we are invited once again to become Simon of Cyrene or Saint Veronica offering her veil. If we haven’t understood or had time for this in the rush of our ordinary daily life, the present time reminds us that every one of the seven billion people in the world must participate and sacrifice a part of their comfort, their everyday path and day-to-day activities. A show of gratitude goes to those who put themselves in harm’s way in order to help others and overcome this challenge. “We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other.” as described by Holy Father Pope Francis.
Prayer on a global scale
This year the date of Easter fell on the same day as Passover. As with Passover, the Easter holiday also shows that suffering has its purpose. Today’s world has somehow forced us to be ashamed of suffering. It was once often and wrongly considered as God’s punishment for our sins. Today we often hide it because it ruins the image of a perfect life. Everybody on social media wants to look successful and happy. As if only a smiling and successful person had real value. Here, the current pandemics also gave us a lesson, when elderly doctors, nurses and medical staff returned to job from their pension to help the sick and needy. How often we expelled them from our life, for our comfort. And they still have so much to offer. In these days we commemorate 100 years since the birth of Saint Joh Paul II. Towards the end of his papacy when he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, many people were criticising him that he did not left the St Peter’s Chair despite his health condition. Certainly, it would be much easier for him to resign, but maybe he decided to remain in order to help us to embrace in our lives those who are sick, elderly or weak. Maybe he wanted to show us, that pain is a part of life, and a necessary one. Our pain makes us stronger and the pain of others encourages us to be more humane. These days, the whole world is experiencing a common suffering.
It’s strange to witness, how in a world that has never been more global and connected, paradoxically the closing of borders and shutting down of travel have somehow accomplished this globalisation as it unified the humanity in one desire, one prayer and one endeavour to overcome the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Can this united effort come to an end after we overcome one virus, even when we know that millions of people are dying due to malaria, HIV, Ebola and other illnesses exacerbated by violence, hunger, war and persecution? Now that we are realising more than ever before that we are all in the same boat?
Every two minutes a child dies of malaria and around 200 million people become infected annually. From the year 2000 on, we’ve been able to reduce this number, however, lately the numbers have dangerously increased. Shouldn’t we make a larger effort to increase the availability of medicine for malaria right after we successfully win the battle with COVID-19? Now that we are realising more than ever before that we are all in the same boat?
The world is at risk of widespread famines “of biblical proportions” caused by the coronavirus pandemic, David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme (WFP), has warned. An UN report estimates that the number suffering from hunger could go from 135 million to more than 250 million. Can the rich countries help to at least cut down the scale of the looming catastrophe? Now that we are realising more than ever before that we are all in the same boat?
Since the coronavirus has been dominating in Western foreign news, information about a locust infestation causing the suffering of the millions in poverty-stricken Africa has not even come up on our radar screens. Locusts as big as the palm of a human hand have covered everything that can be consumed. The battle with this violent insect is multiplying the spread of coronavirus. The fate of millions of people is coming into question. The Pharaoh knew that another blow to Egypt could be avoided if he released the chosen nation to God. But his heart was tough. We also have the opportunity to release nations loved by God. Let our hearts be gentler than that of the Pharaoh. Because as the Jewish people were chosen by God, so is chosen and loved every person.
Epochal challenge for solidarity
“The European Union is presently facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the whole world. Let us not lose the opportunity to give further proof of solidarity, also by turning to innovative solutions. The only alternative is the selfishness of particular interests and the temptation of a return to the past, at the risk of severely damaging the peaceful coexistence and development of future generations.” said Pope Francis about the EU during his speech on Easter Sunday. As the great John Paul II used to encourage us to remain faithful to the Christian roots of Europe, Pope Francis seems to emphasize solidarity as one of the key features of Christianity. As a member of the Committee of the Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament I consider this to be a personal invite. However, this invitation also belongs to all of us, Christians living in the wealthier countries.
I think it is time to renew our efforts to find political solutions, which will address our rightful ambitions of freedom, peace and fairness in the world. It is time to request that our diplomats and political representatives devote significant time and energy to these questions. It is time to fight for a values-based and balanced foreign trade system. One that will, along with our economic interests, coincide with our agenda to support freedom and human dignity; not one that will provide help to regimes which only step on these same values. In the end, these last weeks have shown that such trade relations will ultimately turn against us. This has been illustrated by our dependence on China’s manufacturing of essential medical materials. We have to ensure, that a human rights clause is a part of a trade deal with China and any country we open our markets to. And the clause should be central to it and taken seriously. At the same time, we cannot allow that our companies help foreign oligarchs to launder their dirty money. As that makes us complicit of an evil, which deprives people from their dignity and often even from the right to live.
It is time to choose
The current coronavirus pandemic has proved that nothing is ever too far away to impact us. The fasting period before this year’s Easter holiday has brought an unexpected halt to the world. In this unprecedented period of silence we have heard what had been drowned out by a noise of everyday’s life: an invitation for change offered to us by the Holy Father. “You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
This invitation is ever more pressing by the day as we witnessed thousands of others accepting it: doctors, nurses, grocery store workers and employees of medical supply factories, technical personnel, janitorial staff, caregivers, soldiers, volunteers, pastors, sisters and brothers of the monasteries, employees of telecommunications companies and innumerable others. Even though we are all worried about our own future, we are all invited to be on the frontline of a battle for human lives and human dignity in the world. All of us right where we are, every day. All of us, any way we know how and however we can. Because our world after the coronavirus is going to be different, but it’s up to us alone to make it better.
Photo – depositphotos.com/osmar01