Church leaders urge solidarity with those suffering religious persecution

by Marty Sabota

North Texas Catholic

November 21, 2017

We must not resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians.” — Pope Francis, 21 November 2013

People carry a coffin March 28, 2016 after the previous day's suicide bomb attack at a park in Lahore, Pakistan. Observers say the terrorist attack that killed more than 70 people in a Lahore park on Easter was not the first time that Christians in the Islamic country have been targeted. (CNS photo/Rahat Dar, EPA)

FORT WORTH — When looking at international news reports that show Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, statistics often bring to mind the plight of religious oppression in the Middle East, Africa, and other faraway, perilous lands.

But one only has to look around the Fort Worth Diocese to see the scars of persecution in our own back yard.

Fr. Hoa Nguyen, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Fort Worth, said he often hears stories from his South Vietnam homeland of priests and others being beaten and locked up and churches being burned.

The oppressed still speak out, Fr. Hoa said, and many, especially young women, take to the Internet to post videos and use other social media to put a spotlight on atrocious acts.

“The Catholic Church wants people to speak out, but in a nonviolent way,” Fr. Nguyen said, adding that those who do “are very courageous people.”

Fr. Nguyen knows firsthand the horrors of Christian persecution.

Nearly four decades ago — in October 1979 — the 54-year-old pastor began a horrific ordeal when he fled his South Vietnam home after communists from North Vietnam took over his nation’s capital of Saigon.

Fr. Nguyen’s father was a banker, devout Catholic, homeowner and former employee of the South Vietnamese government, a despised target for the communist regime.

Aware that the family — including his seven siblings — faced oppression and even death, Fr. Nguyen said his parents encouraged them to find an opportunity to flee.

One night, Hoa, then 16, and his brother, Thuan, 17, fled in the middle of the night with Thuan shouting, “Di My!” “Di My!” (“To America!” “To America!”).

Father Hoa Nguyen with a painting of Jesus pulling Peter out of the waters at Galilee. (NTC photo/Jerry Circelli)

That cry began a 31-day journey in which he experienced extreme hunger, dehydration, and hopelessness while being lost at sea on an overcrowded fishing boat.

Many hardships ensued after their Nov. 6, 1979 rescue, but the brothers worked hard, earned degrees, and eventually reunited with their entire family — mother, father, five brothers, and one sister.

Fr. Nguyen was ordained on May 23, 1998 at St. Patrick Cathedral.

“I was healed and now I can heal somebody,” Fr. Nguyen said of the opportunities he found in America and the freedom to worship God.

 Fr. Nguyen said his experience transformed him and gave him the “courage to step out in life.”

“In our suffering, there is hope and faith,” the pastor said. “God is always there to guide us.”

Hoping to spread the awareness of persecution to others, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, have designated Nov. 26 as a Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians, and also “Solidarity in Suffering,” a week of awareness and education from Nov. 26 to Dec. 2. 

“The solemnity of Christ the King is a fitting time to reflect on religious freedoms and persecution,” Bishop Cantú and Cardinal DiNardo said in a joint statement Nov. 9.

The USCCB is collaborating with the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services, CNEWA, and Aid to the Church in Need on this observance.

Addressing the turbulence in the Middle East, the U.S. bishops are also expressing solidarity with Christians and all those who suffer from the conflict and persecution in the region. The Church stands at the service of all people in the Middle East — Christians, Muslims, and other minorities.

Recently, persecution in the Middle East has been addressed in the Fort Worth Diocese.

Representatives Steve Sada and George Tushia from the Melkite Mission of St. Barbara the Great Martyr in Houston visited parishes here, selling handcrafted religious items from the Holy Land, to raise funds to build a church in Houston that will serve Melkite Catholics fleeing the violence in the Middle East.

A migrant carries a child as they walk along a road near the village of Miratovac near the town of Presevo, Serbia, Aug. 25, 2015. The Balkans is seeing a surge in migration fueled by war in Syria and instability across the Middle East. (CNS photo/Agron Beqiri, Reuters) 

“People were really receptive,” Sada said, adding that Christians in the Middle East are “having a very hard time” and “are even being persecuted for their faith.”

Fr. Fadi Al Mimass, pastor, said when he reached out to bishops across Texas, Bishop Michael Olson was one of four who so far have offered an invitation to allow his representatives to visit their dioceses.

“It would be the first Melkite church in the state of Texas,” said the priest, who is from Syria and was ordained in Damascus on Aug. 18, 2000.

He said they have bought approximately 4.5 acres of land in southwest Houston and are seeking at least $1.5 million to build a church.

Many of their more than 400 families have come to the area from the Middle East and worship in a leased space at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Parish in Houston.

Fr. Al Mimass, who came to Texas in 2014, said everyone in his community understands and sympathizes with those who remain in areas of conflict and persecution.

“If they catch you praying or celebrating Mass in the ISIS area, they will kill you for sure,” he said.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church, formed in 1724 in Syria, has 1.5 million members, of which more than 700,000 reside in the Middle East, principally in Lebanon and Syria, but also in Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and the Sudan, with a small number in Iraq. About half of its members have emigrated. Instability and Christian persecution in the Middle East has led many Melkite Catholics to move, especially to Brazil and Argentina, but also to Australia, Canada, the U.S., Venezuela, and Mexico.

FORT WORTH — When looking at international news reports that show Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, statistics often bring to mind the plight of religious oppression in the Middle East, Africa, and other faraway, perilous lands. But one only has to look around the Fort Worth Diocese to see persecution in our own back yard.

Published (until 11/21/2032)