ACN Interview: Mark von Reidemann on Religious Persecution

21.10.2019 in ACN PRESS, ACN USA, Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, By Maria Lozano, Religious freedom, Religious Freedom Report

ACN International

A look at the question of denominational organization and humanitarian support

Interview conducted by Maria Lozano of ACN International,
Text adapted by ACN Canada
  • EU Ambassador announces new European Union initiative aimed at reducing religious ignorance or religious “illiteracy” worldwide
  • Cardinal Parolin: Governments should avoid “ideological or cultural colonization”
  • 20th anniversary of the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Religious Freedom Report


Mark von Riedemann, Director of Public Affairs and Religious Freedom for the Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, was invited to moderate a panel on humanitarian aid at a recent USA – Holy See symposium titled: “Pathways to Achieving Human Dignity: Partnering with Faith-Based Organizations.” Maria Lozano, head of information at ACN International interviews him about his impressions.


ACN: The U.S. Embassy in Rome and the Holy See co-sponsored recently a symposium featuring presentations from the U.S. Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, the Holy See Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, as well as Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Secretary of State of the Vatican, about how governments can partner with faith-based organizations to better defend religious freedom. What prompted this symposium?

 Mark von Riedemann: The symposium marked 35 years of positive cooperation between the US government and the Holy See, reflecting on the work of St. Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan and their combined efforts to bring about the end of Communism in the former Soviet Union.


The intent was to communicate new initiatives taken by the US government to work directly with Faith Based Organisations (FBOs) on the ground. As Ambassador Gingrinch observed in her opening speech governments alone can only do so much. Even if the United States is one of the main providers of humanitarian aid worldwide, she noted, delivering that support efficiently requires partnerships with organizations on the ground. Catholic agencies and other FBO’s can help to make an impact in places where governments have neither the experience nor the network to do so.

The large diplomatic participation in this occasion also prompted the representative of the European Union to the Holy See, Ambassador Jan Tombinski, to announce the creation of an EU initiative called the “Global Exchange on Religion in Society”, supporting projects aimed at reducing religious ignorance or “illiteracy” in the EU and worldwide. The objective of such initiative is to acknowledge the importance of faith in everyday life. This is an absolute first for Europe, which to date prided itself of being “religion-blind.”

Cardinal Parolin praised the new initiatives. In his speech, however, he cautioned against the temptation by donor nations to impose certain cultural values or worldviews as a precondition for recipient nations to receive aid.

Yes, he requested firmly that governments avoid, when sponsoring faith-based organizations, what Pope Francis has called an “ideological or cultural colonization,” which consists in “imposing a different worldview or set of values on poorer societies, often by making the adoption of those values a prerequisite to receiving humanitarian or development aid.” Although Aid to the Church in Need has never been impacted by this as we rely solely on support from private donors, I was glad that he made mention of this as, through our project partners, we have heard time and again testimony of this kind of abuse. And it is abuse. Making food aid contingent upon the acceptance programs promoting contraception and abortion is well documented.

This symposium marks a string of actions over the last months with regard to religious freedom and attention to the issue of Christian persecution. What trend have you noted?

 Increasingly religious freedom is being recognized as a foundational right, that two thirds of the world’s population reside in countries with restrictions on religious freedom, and that Christians represent the largest faith group experiencing religious persecution.

This conference follows closely on the heels of a September 23, 2019 “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom,” the first-ever UN event on religious freedom hosted by a US president, and the May 28, 2019 UN resolution marking August 22 as an “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief.’ Over the last two years there has been a flurry of initiatives including the creation of a State Secretariat for Christian Persecution in Hungary, the US initiated International Religious Freedom Alliance and perhaps of greatest note, the growing number of nations instituting or reactivating Ambassadors for Religious Freedom and Belief in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, the USA, Norway, Finland, Germany and the United Kingdom among others.

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the ACN Religious Freedom Report. Has ACN been like a prophetic voice in the wilderness calling for religious freedom and an end to Christian persecution?

 The report has indeed been prophetic. In 1999, religious freedom was not a major topic on most government radars, yet ACN, from our project partners on the ground, received increasing testimonies of Christian persecution. For example, religious tensions in Nigeria developed with the imposition of Shari’ah law in a dozen Muslim-majority states in 1999 resulting in significant sectarian violence still ongoing today.

Since that time we have witnessed dramatic world events in the Middle East, in Africa and Asia, and the consequent suffering of untold millions have demanded greater attention and response. A pivotal moment was in 2016 when the European Union and the US passed resolutions labelling the ISIS atrocities against Christians in Syria and Iraq a Genocide. Is Christian persecution a surprise? No, it has grown over the centuries from the roots of intolerance, to discrimination, to persecution, and finally the world awakens to the genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Symptomatic of this is the reduction of the Christian presence in the Middle East: in 1910, Christians represented 13.6% of the population, by 2010 that number had declined to 4.2%. The call from the US government for a new partnership between government and FBO’s is a further sign of Western countries waking up to these realities and as such are important steps in the right direction.

  1. With regard to the expression or religious “illiteracy”, Please see the abridged version of the report :  Persecuted and Forgotten 2018 


24.07.2015 in ACN USA, Pakistan, Persecution of Christians


In Pakistan, the Church is pursuing the path of love—even in the face of violence

Father James Channan, O.P.—the former Vice Provincial of the Dominican order in Pakistan—is director of the Dominican-run Peace Center in Lahore, Pakistan, which is committed to deepening the knowledge of the faith of laity and clergy in the service of building interfaith ties with Pakistan’s Muslim majority, which accounts for 96 percent of the population of 196 million; the Christian population is just 2 percent, including 2 million Catholics.


The Friar was at the UN recently to receive the “Global Ambassador of Peace Award” from the Institute of International Social Development. He spoke July 23, 2015 with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need about Pakistan’s Supreme Court decision to hear the appeal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 under the country’s controversial blasphemy law.



Will Asia Bibi’s life be spared?

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has made a great move as her death sentence was put aside. The Supreme Court is going to review the entire case, including her death sentence. I firmly believe that justice will be done, that she will be proven innocent and that she will be released.  The blasphemy law was used to settle a personal score—the accusation was an act of revenge.

If she is freed, will her life be in danger?

Yes, unfortunately yes. Fanatics are determined to kill once someone is accused, regardless of the legal outcome of a particular case. Bibi won’t be able to stay in Pakistan and has to settle abroad. This of course has happened in a number of well-known cases in the past. Our people need to be educated and come to respect decisions of the courts of law.


How many Christians are currently in prison accused of blasphemy?

According to my estimate, there are 130 Christians whose trials are proceeding. But people will be surprised to learn that there are about 950 Muslims currently held under the law. The law is far more enacted against Muslims, and very often it is a tool to settle business disputes or personal vendettas.

But there is a big difference between accusations of Muslims and Christians: if one Muslim is accused, just one Muslim is accused. But in the case of a Christian being accused, an entire community, an entire neighborhood is accused. And in several cases the entire Christian village or a Christian neighborhood has been burned to ashes.


Do you have hope that Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law will ever be repealed?

That will not happen. It is a very delicate and sensitive matter; extremist groups are very attached to it. But certain safeguards can be put in place. The misuse of the law should be stopped, such as its use to settle personal scores or to further business purposes. Those who bring false accusations should be punished—and this idea is also being supported by a growing number of Muslims, including some top leaders.


What is your most important mission in Pakistan today?

To promote peace, build trust and mutual respect between Christians and Muslims. The goal is equal rights for all citizens—and we are making some progress. For example, several key Muslim religious leaders and scholars have become part and parcel of . These include two prominent Muslim religious leaders in Lahore: Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulama Council—which oversees 60,000 mosques and 10,000 Madrasa schools throughout the country; and Maulana Abdul Khabir Azad, Grand Imam of the fifth largest mosque in the world, the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. These men also support the punishment of those who bring false accusations under the anti-blasphemy law.

Our joint efforts are bearing forth much fruit—it is a path of love—but we need to do much more and enhance our dialogue activities throughout Pakistan. Without dialogue there is no future of the Church in Pakistan.

Do you believe then in a moderate Islam?

Yes, I do. Pakistan is an Islamic state, but the rights of all minorities should be respected. We have to work toward that—Christians alongside Muslims. The government could also do a lot more in terms of revising the Constitution and striking those provisions that relegate Christians—and other religious minorities, such Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and Baha’i—to second-class citizen status. Government should use the media to change the people’s mindset—to promote tolerance.

Today, however, Christians live in a state of fear because of all the recent violence. And they have no option of emigrating anywhere! Therefore, we need to somehow find a way to work with the Muslim majority—hence, building bridges between the communities is of vital importance, however long it takes. And Pakistan’s Catholic Church is on the forefront of this process.


What about the freedom of a Muslim to convert to Christianity?

It is a very sensitive issue. A Muslim who converts to the Christian faith comes under enormous social pressure.  Conversions are dangerous if they are publicly known—the convert’s life is in danger and so is the life of the priest who oversees the conversion, for example.



Pakistan, Clarkabad November 2014 On Nov. 4, 2014, A Muslim mob severely beat a Christian couple accused of burning pages of the Koran in eastern Pakistan and then incinerated the bodies in a brick kiln. Shama Bibi, who was four months pregnant, and her husband Shahbaz Masih were bonded laborers at a brick factory in the village of Kot Radha Kishan in the Punjab province, 28 miles south of Lahore. Father James Channan, O.P., (Father James Channan, URI-Pakistan Regional Coordinator, is a Catholic Priest and Director of the Peace Center of the Dominican Order in Pakistan) wrote to ACN: “I visited the grieving family of this couple in Clarkabad and offered my condolences and prayed for the grieving family. I met the elder brother of Shahzad – his name is Shabaz. I also went to the graves and offered prayers there along with two other Dominican priests; Fr Marcus Daniel OP and Fr Akhtar Naveed OP. …” Here: Father James Channon visiting the grieving family of the couple in Clarkabad and praying with them.