My 2014 Person of the Year

On last month’s Christmas special edition of The World Over Live, EWTN news director Raymond Arroyo offered his pick for 2014 Person of the Year: the persecuted Christians of the Middle East. I felt that this was a good choice because it highlighted the increasingly desperate situation of the ancient Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, and the Holy Land who endured so many terrible sufferings in the past year–wanton terrorist violence, destruction of their churches and other priceless cultural treasures, forced displacement, and even martyrdom for their faith–all largely ignored by an indifferent world. A handful of voices in the wilderness, including Patriarch Sako of Baghdad and Prince Charles of England, courageously and repeatedly attempted to awaken the consciences of world leaders, urging them to do what lay in their power to stop these tragedies, but their appeals generally fell on deaf ears.

The increasingly obvious “globalization of indifference” decried by Pope Francis is indeed a cancer growing within our twenty-first century global society that is eating away at that society from the inside. This indifference is a bitter fruit of the destructive ideology of radical secularism, the pseudo-religion of the post-modern age that sees no need for God or religion in public life or international affairs. One major consequence of this indifference is an alarming erosion of religious freedom around the world, even here in the United States, a traditional haven of religious liberty. We are witnessing the truth of Pope Benedict XVI’s statement during his visit to Cuba in March 2012 that “When God is put aside, the world becomes an inhospitable place for man.” The words of Saint John Paul II uttered ten years before that remain true today: “The building of a global culture of solidarity is perhaps the greatest moral task confronting humanity today.” Popes John Paul, Benedict and Francis have all made quite clear that such a global culture of solidarity cannot be built on moral relativism or religious syncretism or the tyranny of unregulated market forces or any other subjective standards; on the contrary, a thriving global community can only be built on the truly universal objective standards of respect for the natural law and human rights that are deeply engraved in the hearts of all men and women.

The tragically endangered Christian minorities of the Middle East remain in great need of our prayers, compassion, financial support, and political activism on their behalf. If we Catholics and Christians in this country were to unite in prayer and charitable support for these people and rally our nation’s leaders to take concrete steps to defend their religious freedom, we could make a tremendous difference in the situation and help rescue Middle Eastern Christians from extinction.

On the subject of religious liberty and in light of the foregoing reflections, I will now offer my own choice for 2014 Person of the Year. Her name is Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, and she is the young Sudanese Catholic convert who was unjustly incarcerated and condemned to death for renouncing the Islamic faith of her childhood and marrying a Christian man. Meriam’s story has certain parallels with the persecuted Christians of the Middle East. Like them, she was persecuted for her Christian faith. Like them, she refused to renounce her Lord and Savior. And like them, her plight was generally ignored by an indifferent world.

But thankfully, in Meriam’s case (as also in the case of the Middle Eastern Christians), not all human hearts were coldly indifferent. As the clock ticked down to her scheduled execution immediately following the birth of her second child, millions of people all over the world joined her husband Daniel Wani, a businessman and U.S. citizen, in prayer that her innocent life be spared. And God in His great mercy used the power of prayer to deliver Meriam Ibrahim from death. By negotiating with Sudanese authorities, the Italian government and the Vatican managed to rescue her. Instead of being executed, she was released from prison, then re-arrested, re-released, and finally fled the country with her husband and two children. They arrived first in Italy, where Meriam’s dream of someday meeting Pope Francis came true. Then the Sudanese Catholic family headed across the Atlantic to make their permanent home in the United States.

Amid all the terrible things that happened in the world last year, this was a wonderfully refreshing success story for religious liberty. America played its traditional role as a safe haven for victims of religious persecution and as a land of opportunity for immigrants hoping to make a fresh start in life. Catholic leaders in the Vatican and Italy acted as noble defenders of religious liberty, doing battle “in the trenches” behind the scenes to defend the basic right of a single person to hold and practice her faith without government interference. Justice prevailed, and an innocent human life was saved. And because of her courageous dedication to her Christian faith in prison and under threat of death, Meriam Ibrahim now stands before us as a true heroine of religious liberty. May God bless her and her family.

Inspired by Meriam’s example, with trust in Divine Providence and under the protection of Mary Immaculate, Patroness of the United States, let us take up with renewed vigor the cause of religious liberty here in America in 2015. Despite numerous court injunctions, the unjust and unconstitutional HHS mandate is still on the books, still attempting to coerce us to violate the natural law and our religious convictions by promoting the murder of the innocent unborn. It is a stain on our national conscience, a blot on our reputation for religious freedom. We must do away with it! Congress must pass legislation to abolish this mandate without further delay. It is of critical importance to the future of America that our First Amendment rights be preserved intact. So let’s continue the fight to defend our cherished religious freedom until it is fully restored. It will definitely be worth the effort.

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