IT IS always gratifying when a political leader acknowledges the present state of the Church. The reference to persecuted Christians in the Prime Minister’s Christmas message gives reassurance that the initiative begun by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under the previous incumbent will survive the recent upheavals. Violence and intimidation remains the lot of too many Christians around the world.
Although the season suggests a focus on Christianity, however, we would repeat our argument that support for believers of all faiths is the proper work not only of the Government but the Church. This happens already piecemeal. Widespread protest has been made about China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, for example; and the international community has overseen the destruction of Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation, from Nobel Peace Prize-winner to apologist for what has been termed the attempted genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
What is needed now is a concerted approach, along the lines of Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The story of the Epiphany invites the Church to go one step further. The involvement of the magi, presumed to be Zoroastrians, certainly non-Jews, in the account of the incarnation, an event of unparalleled holiness and mystery, is a reminder that Christ did not come into the world to save Christians. His birth was announced as good news for all people of goodwill. It is encouraging to recall the moment on 27 October 1986 when Pope John Paul II assembled leaders of all the main faiths in Assisi to pray for peace. The Vedas, the Sutras, the Qur’an, the Avesta were all heard in Assisi on that day alongside the Psalms and the Gospels. It is not merely the Epistle of St James that promotes the view that the work of religion is not its own preservation but the salvation of the whole world through the healing of the sick, the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, and the protection of the oppressed. Christ says it simply in Matthew’s Gospel: “All things whatsoever that you would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (7.12); and eight verses later: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
It is a constant failing of the Church, perhaps even a blasphemy, to overlook the works of the Spirit that are performed through non-Christians of every shade. The fruit of the Spirit, as enunciated by St Paul — love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance — are manifested in all people of goodwill. At the most basic level, the prayers of the Church should mirror the wideness of the sea by encompassing all who suffer in the coming year for their pursuit of justice and mercy.