This weekend Christians celebrate the paschal mystery of our faith: the Passion, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Through his death on the cross on Good Friday, followed by his rising from the tomb, Jesus fulfilled a promise he made: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he” (Jn 8:28).
The Gospel readings during these holy days paint a picture of Jesus’ last days on earth. Even though the events happened long ago, we are connected to them through Scripture and through the land in which Jesus preached: the Holy Land.
Many of the places Jesus walked with his disciples, gave sermons to crowds and prayed to his Father are sites revered and revisited by pilgrims every day. Our Christian faith can never be separated from the land where Jesus performed miracles and was even put to death.
Today, however, Christians in the Holy Land — and in other nearby countries in the Middle East — must live in fear for their own lives. Religious persecution and Islamic terrorism have wounded them deeply and tested their spirits. On Palm Sunday, two terrorist attacks at Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt killed at least 44 people and wounded many more. It was the latest in a string of vicious acts aimed at Christians in that country.
Last December, 25 people died in a terrorist explosion during Sunday Mass in Cairo. At the time it was the deadliest attack on Egypt’s Christian minority, which makes up roughly 10 percent of that country’s population. Two years ago, 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt were beheaded by ISIS in Libya and in 2011, a New Year’s Day bomb at a church in Alexandria killed more than 20 people.
Religious persecution in the Middle East, particularly the Holy Land, is threatening to wipe out the Christian population. According to a Pew Research study, between 1900 and 2010, the total number of Christians in the Holy Land region — Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syrian and the Palestinian territories — grew from 1.6 million to 7.5 million. At the same time, however, the non-Christian population grew ten-fold, from 14.2 million to 150 million.
Even though their numbers increased, the overall Christian population dropped from 10 percent in 1900 to 5 percent in 2010. War and religious persecution have further reduced the Christian presence.
It is under these extreme conditions that Pope Francis plans to visit Egypt April 28 and 29. The Vatican confirmed April 10 that the visit would still take place, even after the Palm Sunday church attacks.
Pope Francis plans to meet with the country’s political and religious leaders and speak at an international conference on peace in Cairo. He will also celebrate Mass in Cairo and meet with church leaders.
Nobody would blame Pope Francis for cancelling his trip to Egypt, which has a Catholic population of around 272,000 — less than 0.5 percent of the total population. However, the pope likely sees this visit as an opportunity to show solidarity with persecuted Christians and to address the need for peace and interfaith dialogue in the region so badly wounded by conflict.
The stakes are high for religious leaders in the Holy Land region, not unlike the times when Jesus preached a message of mercy and love. This weekend pray that Jesus’ message, spoken through the vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, is delivered safely and that his words put into motion a desire to end senseless violence across the Middle East.