Pandemic heightens dangers to international religious freedom

AMMAN, JORDAN — Christians and others practicing their faith experienced serious challenges to religious freedom around the world this year, heightened by dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The challenges ranged from institutionalized practices to violent killings and kidnappings. Others saw threats to religious freedom in pandemic lockdown restrictions.

In Iraq, where Pope Francis is set to make a pilgrimage next March, pandemic conditions permitting, Catholic leaders have expressed grave concerns for the conflict-ridden country’s brutally displaced Christians and other religious minorities, like the Yazidis.

About 150,000 Christians are left in Iraq; prior to a U.S.-led invasion in 2003, they numbered 1.5 million. Sectarian warfare followed, devastating the country’s historic and diverse Christian communities and culminated in the takeover by so-called Islamic State militants of their historic heartland in the Ninevah Plain in 2014. Christians fled, threatened with conversion to Islam or death, while Yazidis faced genocide and sexual enslavement by ruthless Islamist militants.

Catholic Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil has warned of “a growing loss of hope” among Christians. But he recently told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “To have His Holiness come to visit us now may very well be the thing that saves us. Certainly, this visit will provide real strength and courage to the Iraqi Christians to remain in our homeland and rebuild here.”


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