UK Event to Draw Attention to a New Generation of Martyrs

Pakistani, Egyptian Bishops to Join Archbishop Nichols

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LONDON, MAY 4, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Bishops from countries where Christians are particularly persecuted are joining their brothers in the episcopate from the UK for an event at Westminster Cathedral to make an international call for religious freedom.

The Night of Witness, staged at Westminster Cathedral, is being organized by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, amid fears that persecution is threatening the survival of Christianity in a number of countries, particularly in the Middle East.

Flying in to take part in the May 17 event are Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan, and Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Luxor, Egypt. Both bishops will make key addresses, as will former Anglican bishop of Rochester, Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali, originally from Pakistan, who is an expert on interfaith issues.

The Night of Witness will include music and readings given in solidarity with people persecuted in countries including India, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria. Present at the event will be Stephen Anjum who fled with his family to the U.K. from Pakistan, after his wife, Thomesena, was shot at by extremists alleging that the Anjums' son had insulted the prophet Mohammed.

Anjum said, “People in the U.K. and elsewhere in the West are simply not aware of the scale of the problems that we face in my country. We need major moral support so that people in my country can be safe from violence and intimidation.”

Suffering today

The event begins with Mass in Westminster Cathedral celebrated by Bishop Declan Lang, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’ Department of International Affairs.

The focus then will switch to the cathedral piazza for the "rally for religious freedom," where Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster will welcome Archbishop Coutts and Bishop Zakaria. Also present will be Archbishop Kevin McDonald, chairman of the episcopal conference's committee for relations with other religions.

The spotlight will shift back to the cathedral for a prayer vigil for the suffering Church with readings and music commemorating the lives of Pakistan religious freedom campaigner Shahbaz Bhatti and others killed for their faith. Bhatti, the Pakistani Minister of Minority Affairs and the only Catholic to serve in the Cabinet, fought against blasphemy laws and become a global symbol of tolerance until his assassination on March 2, 2011. The bishops of Pakistan have already requested that Bhatti be officially recognized as a martyr. 

Vincent Masih is one of up to 20 Christians with origins in Pakistan who are coming down from Nelson, in Lancashire, to take part in the event.

Masih, whose family fled Pakistan in the 1960s, said: “People think persecution is happening a long way away and there is nothing they can do about it but that is not the case. We are going out of our way to be a sign of hope for those who suffer today.”

A report today from Vatican reporter John Allen give a sense of the scope of religious persecution: "The consensus estimate is that about 150,000 Christians are today killed around the world every year, either out of hatred for the faith or for works of charity inspired by the faith. That translates into one victim every three and a half minutes. In effect, we are witnessing the rise of an entire new generation of Christian martyrs."