Easter this year was a time of mixed emotions for the Christians who live under pressure for their faith. While political and religious leaders called for peace, reconciliation and brotherhood, Christians in countries like Syria and the Philippines continued to face violence and its consequences.
Below, World Watch Monitor gives a snapshot of what Easter 2018 looked like in some of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
In war-torn Syria, the Catholic community in the city of Aleppo celebrated Holy Week with a mixture of hope and scepticism, Bishop Georges Abou Khazen told AsiaNews. The Apostolic Vicar of the Catholic Church said: “We have experienced death and destruction but at the same time we have lived great testimonies of love and solidarity. The war continues and new victims die every day, an exaggerated number of deaths. People continue to flee from the country. Faced with all this suffering we cannot remain deaf and impassive; even after eight years we cannot resign ourselves to the logic of violence and war.”
In the Philippines, 7,000 of Marawi’s 400,000 displaced citizens were able to visit their homes on Easter Sunday for the first time since the Philippine army liberated the city, which is on the southern island of Mindanao, from Islamist militants in October.
It followed a day of protests on Good Friday when, according to Catholic news site UCAN, thousands gathered to demand the opportunity to visit and pray in their devastated city. The protestors also claimed displaced residents had been mistreated by the government.
People in Indonesia defied fears of growing Islamist extremism when Muslims joined Christians in celebrating Holy Week. Following dance performances by dozens of young Muslims during a procession on Good Friday in Ambon, capital of the south-eastern Maluku Province, Bishop Canisius Mandagi told the UCAN: “This is an example of where religion becomes a unifying tool and this religious celebration becomes a bridge to strengthening relations”.
Meanwhile Jakarta’s Catholic Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo told Christians they “should go out and mingle with people from different backgrounds. This is a very important thing to do right now”. In his Easter message he also challenged the “money, power and prestige” that, he said, have become “serious challenges to national unity in Indonesia”, as “money is spent to gain power through bribery and corruption”.
For Catholics in the mountainous north-western part of Vietnam, Holy Week was marked by the first ever visit by a bishop since Catholic communities were established in the area over a century ago, reported UCAN. Bishop John Mary Vu Tat of Hung Hoa, in Hanoi, travelled 160km north-west to Yen Bai Province, where he visited nine parishes, sub-parishes and mission stations.
He baptised and administered Confirmation to members of the ethnic minority Hmong people group during an Easter Mass at Vinh Quang Church, which was attended by 2,000 people. A Paris-based Vietnamese human rights group recently expressed concern about an increase of attacks against religious minorities, like the Hmong Christians, in the Southeast Asian country.
In Israel, 13 church leaders in Jerusalem issued a joint Easter message on Good Friday as violence erupted between Palestinians and Israeli security forces along the Israeli-Gaza border. “We pray to almighty God that people who are walking in the way of the cross may find it the way of hope, peace, and life,” they said.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity’s holiest site, was visited by hundreds of pilgrims on Easter Sunday. This following its closure in February when churches protested against the municipality’s plan to end the tax-exempt status with regards to commercial properties the churches hold.
A number of incidents were reported in India over the Easter weekend. On Easter Saturday, a pastor was attacked outside his church in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Sundar Singh was leading a prayer service at his church in the city of Dharmapuri when a group of men and women started to vandalise motorbikes outside the church. When Singh went out to investigate, they threw stones at him. He was injured and had to be admitted to hospital. The attackers later filed a complaint against him, accusing him of “misbehaviour” towards the women.
Then on Easter Sunday, also in Tamil Nadu, another attack on a church took place in the village of Maradur, 170km south of Dharmapuri. India-based Persecution Relief reported that a mob of over 40 people entered the church while a service was going on and started to attack people, including the pastor. When police arrived, they allegedly did nothing to stop the attack.
Meanwhile, Paul Tamizharasan, a close friend of Sultan Masih, the pastor who was shot dead in northwestern India in July last year, posted Easter greetings with members from his church in Ludhiana – the largest city in India’s Punjab state.
Persecuted Christians ‘not forgotten’
In his Easter message, Pope Francis remembered the people in Syria and other conflict zones in his annual Urbi et Orbi (‘To the City and the World’). He called for reconciliation in the Middle East and other regions, and told tens of thousands gathered in Rome’s St Peter’s Square that the resurrection of Christ “bears fruit even today in the furrows of our history, marked by so many injustices and violence”.
‘Brotherhood’ was one of “the most precious fruits of Christ’s resurrection”, the Pope told pilgrims on Easter Monday. “Jesus tore down the wall of division among men and restored peace, beginning to weave the web of a new [sense of] brotherhood. It is so important in our time to rediscover brotherhood, just as it was experienced in the early Christian communities. There can be a no true communion nor commitment to the common good and social justice without brotherhood and sharing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Prince Charles focused his Good Friday message on the plight of those persecuted for their faith, telling them in a video message that they were “not forgotten and that they are in our prayers”. The prince recently met with Church leaders from the Middle East, including the Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, whose diocese has been taking care of thousands of families who fled Islamic State in 2014.