The Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is holding its annual international Red Week campaign to draw attention to religious freedom and persecuted Christians across the world.
The campaign is traditionally held in November with buildings and landmarks in several different countries lit up in red, and a series of special initiatives, prayer actions and testimonies.
Red Wednesday on November 23
Although the events are spread hroughout the month, many of the prayer nights and testimonies around the world will be held on 23 November, #RedWednesday.
The “Persecuted and Forgotten?” Report
The annual campaign was launched on November 16 with the official release in London of the “Persecuted and Forgotten?” Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith in 2020–22. The study supplements the annual Religious Freedom Report of the international charity and is prepared by ACN national office in the UK.
One of its key findings shows that, in 75 percent of the 24 countries surveyed the persecution of Christians has further increased in the past two years.
The exodus of Christians from the Middle East
Of particular concern is the plight of Christians in the Middle East where, in several countries, once flourishing communities risk disappearing as a result of mass migration due to various reasons, ranging from Islamic fundamentalism to discrimination, wars and economic woes.
According to the report, since the foundation of the State of Israel, in 1948, the number of Christians in the Palestinian territories has plummeted from 18 per cent to under 1 per cent of the population, due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian tensions and economic difficulties. In the past two years over 5,000 Christians have left the territories, including Jerusalem, adding to the tens of thousands who have already left, mostly for Europe, the United States, and Canada.
The Christian exodus from Syria and Iraq has been even more dramatic, especially during the Islamic State's (Daesh) insurgency in 2014-2017.
In Iraq the exodus started after the US-led military intervention in 2003 toppling Saddam Hussein, due to insecurity and violence, and intensified dramatically during the Daesh occupation of the Nineveh Plain, the cradle of Mesopotamian Christianity, when more than 100,000 were forced to flee their homes seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan or neighbouring countries, or leaving the region forever for North America , Australia, or Europe.
The emigration of Iraqi Christians continues still today, despite the military defeat of Daesh, due to the economic crisis, discriminations and ongoing political instability and insecurity. According to the primate of the Chaldean Church, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, this exodus is unprecedented.
On the eve of the second Gulf War, Christians in Iraq were estimated between 1 and 1.4 million. Since then, their numbers have plunged by at least three quarters.
Similarly in Syria, the ongoing civil war between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and insurgents and the threat of a full-scale resurgence of Daes, as well as a dramatic economic crisis are still forcing Christians to leave the country and are discouraging many of them from returning to their homes.
The result is that the size of the Christian community has dropped from 10 per cent before 2011 to less than 2 per cent, and now its very existence is in danger, according to the ACN report.
As the crippling economic crisis grinds on in Lebanon, amid political and institutional instability, many Christians continue to leave this country too. Over the past 30 months, the Canadian embassy in Beirut received over 10,000 immigration applications from young people and families.
According to the report many Christians are also leaving Jordan, despite its relative political stability and better security.
Regarding countries in other parts of the world, the study further calls attention to the sharp rise in terrorist violence from non-state militants, and in particular in Nigeria where the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram continues to sow terror and more than 7,600 Nigerian Christians were reportedly murdered between January 2021 and June 2022.
In Asia, persecution recorded its peak in North Korea, where religious belief and practice has been systematically repressed by the Kim regime for decades.
Also religious nationalism is still causing increasing violence against Christians in other Asian nations like India and Sri Lanka.
India saw 710 incidents of anti-Christian violence between January 2021 and the start of June 2022, often driven by Hindu nationalists.
The "Persecuted and Forgotten?" report further found that in countries as diverse as Egypt and Pakistan, Christian girls are routinely subject to systematic kidnapping and rape for the purpose of forced conversion to Islam and forced marriage.
In light of this dramatic situation the Pontifical Foundation is urging the faithful to join in prayer on Wednesday this week and asking parishes to illuminate their churches in a silent protest against the scourge of persecution.
The Red Wednesday initiatives
Several countries across the world are participating. Ten cathedrals will be illuminated in Australia, and the Cathedral in Canberra will hold a Night of Witness prayer event. The United Kingdom has prepared a wide variety of events both in England and in Scotland, including the “Taste of Home” initiative, asking people to gather with friends and families and share a traditional meal from countries where Christians are persecuted, during which they can exchange stories about the suffering church, pray and raise money to support refugees.
In France, bells will ring out from 100 churches all over the country and a round-table discussion will take place in Les Bernardins, Paris, followed by an evening prayer vigil at Montmartre on 23 November, featuring a testimony by Archbishop Matthew Man-oso Ndagoso of Kaduna, Nigeria.
ACN Germany has invited guests from Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan to give witnesses in the Cathedrals of Regensburg, Mainz and Augsburg, among others.
Red Week traces its roots to Brazil in 2015, when the local ACN office had the Christ the Redeemer monument lit in red to mark the persecution of Christians in Iraq. In April 2016, inspired by the same idea, ACN Italy illuminated the Fontana di Trevi.
ACN UK took the idea further and created #RedWednesday to commemorate all persecuted Christians on a specific Wednesday in November, and this was later expanded to a whole week in many countries. In the UK, in particular, the initiative has been embraced not only by different Christian confessions, but also by other religions, in a show of solidarity.