ROME – In just a little over a month, the curtain will rise on a keenly anticipated Synod of Bishops on Synodality in Rome. Though notoriously difficult to define, “synodality” generally refers to the idea of the whole Church journeying together, with members listening to one another in establishing priorities and policies.
To date, much of the commentary about the looming synod has focused on what “listening” might imply vis-à-vis the standard canon of contested issues in Western Catholic debate – blessing same-sex unions and the ordination of women as deacons for the left, for example, or the traditional Latin Mass and the struggle against abortion on the right.
Surely, however, if “listening” is to mean anything in a global Church of 1.3 billion people, more than two-thirds of whom today live outside the traditional boundaries of Western civilization, it must imply that issues of greater concern in other parts of the world have to be taken at least as seriously.
For an example with obvious contemporary relevance, consider the issue of blasphemy laws.
According to a January 2022 analysis by the Pew Research Center, forty percent of countries around the world had laws against blasphemy and/or apostasy as of 2019, meaning 79 nations out of the 198 considered in the study.
These laws are found in every region of the world, including 14 nations in Europe, although they’re most common in the Middle East and North Africa, meaning largely Islamic nations.
Enforcement of these laws varies widely, but in at least eight nations charges of blasphemy or apostasy can lead to the death penalty: Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Those countries have a combined population of almost 600 million people.
In many places, however, the theoretical legal penalties attached to either blasphemy or apostasy are just the tip of the iceberg, since the mere charge is often enough to inspire vigilante actions by non-state actors which result in violence and terror, usually directed at religious minorities – which, often enough, mean Christians.
Recent events in Pakistan confirm why this background remains deeply relevant.
On Aug. 16, angry mobs of Muslims attacked a series of Christian homes and churches in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad after rumors spread that a Christian man and a friend had ripped pages out of a Quran, the Islamic holy book, and written disparaging comments on them. In response, messages allegedly were broadcast from loudspeakers at a local mosque encouraging Muslims to seek retribution.
Among the targets of the violence was St. Paul’s Catholic Church in the Jaranwala neighborhood of Faisalabad, which was set ablaze during the rampage. Though no one was killed, several people suffered injuries and scores of others were forced to flee their homes. There were also complaints that in some instances police stood by and allowed the violence to unfold, though officials have argued that such restraint was intended to avoid further inflaming the situation.
In the wake of the assaults, Archbishop Benny Travas of Karachi said that such incidents confirm that Christians in Pakistan, who make up just around 1.5 percent of the population, “are in reality second-class citizens who can be terrorized and frightened at will.”
Pakistan’s bishops’ conference has designated today as a day of prayer “for peace and harmony in our country,” inviting all people of good will to join Christians in the initiative.
Father Jamil Albert, head of the Franciscan Commission for Interfaith and Interreligious Dialogue in Pakistan, said Christians in the country are living “in constant fear, uncertainty and a state of shock,” and added that right now in the affected area of Faisalabad, many Christians have fled their homes and are sleeping on the streets or in fields, fearing further reprisals.
To be clear, Pakistan is perhaps the most notorious case of the use of blasphemy laws to intimidate religious minorities, but it’s hardly an isolated case. Various estimates, including one from the British intelligence agency MI6, suggest that at least 200 million Christians around the world live in situations of risk for physical harassment and persecution, many of them in nations in which blasphemy and apostasy are criminalized.
Virtually all observers who have examined the application of blasphemy and apostasy laws concur that it’s inherently a flawed and subjective enterprise – what constitutes “blasphemy” for one individual or group may be wildly different from another, and there’s simply no legally objective way to make such determinations.
Granted, the phenomenon of blasphemy and apostasy laws may not be of much direct concern to Catholics in the affluent West, where the most common public reaction to religious utterances isn’t usually outrage but rather indifference. However, for a broad swath of today’s Catholic population, the nature and application of such laws, including their extra-judicial enforcement, is literally a matter of life and death.
As it turns out, Cardinal Joseph Coutts, the retired Archbishop of Karachi, Pakistan, whose former assignment was as the Bishop of Faisalabad, will be taking part in the upcoming synod as a member of its ordinary council. Over the years he’s been an active campaigner against blasphemy laws, which he contends are too easily manipulated to grind axes or push hidden agenda.
If the synod really wants to listen, in a truly global key, it could do a lot worse than to hear what Coutts and participants from similar neighborhoods might have to say.