The day after a priest was brutally murdered in France, a panel at World Youth Day in Poland discussed the importance of religious freedom worldwide.
The panel left an Iraqi archbishop deeply impressed at how Catholic youth from around the world are not only aware of the persecution of Christians – particularly in the Middle East – at the hands of ISIS, but are anxious to demonstrate their solidarity.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq, was greeted with one standing ovation after another as he spoke to thousands of young people at World Youth Day (WYD) about the targeting of Christians in his country.
World Youth Day is a weeklong gathering of young Catholics from around the world that will conclude on Sunday with a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
The panel discussion took place Tuesday at Tauron Arena Kraków, the site for English-speaking pilgrims to World Youth Day. The arena has been dubbed “Mercy Center” for the week, and is being sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and a number of partners.
Pope Francis will visit the arena before he departs for Rome on Sunday.
Christians now suffering in the Middle East “will be so moved to learn of this tremendous support, and they will be encouraged in hope knowing that so many youth around the world care about them, and care that they continue to be allowed to practice their faith in the place where Jesus himself lived, in the place where his language is still spoken,” said Archbishop Warda of Erbil, Iraq, immediately after the panel discussion.
In addition to Archbishop Warda, the panel included Archbishop of Baltimore William Lori, who has served as the chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; author and commentator George Weigel; and Vice President of the NGO Roads of Success, Jacqueline Isaac. An American of Egyptian descent, Isaac has spent more than a decade advocating for the rights of minorities and women across the Middle East, and recently testified before the U.K. Parliament and U.S. Congress.
The discussion had a particular poignancy as it was held in the wake of the murder of Father Jacques Hamel in France. Despite the pain that follows such an act, panelists called for a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, especially with those who are carrying out violence and intimidation against Christians.
“We are to be the carriers of [God’s] light and his love,” said Isaac. “And I promise you that it will radiate and break through the darkness.”
Archbishop Lori observed that Christians would rather use the gift of freedom to evangelize or serve the poor instead of fighting legal battles over the right to practice the faith. He also noted that the implications of the struggle are usually far removed from the every-day lives of the young.
He asked: “What should our response be in the face of the secular view of religious liberty, where liberty is considered the ‘right’ to discriminate?” We can’t go along with that point of view. Without religious freedom, life becomes a hard place, where no one and nothing stands.”
Weigel emphasized that “religious freedom is not freedom of worship alone.”
He pointed out that “religious conviction, not only leads us to worship, it leads us to educate, leads us to serve, leads us to heal, it leads us to religious communities that have a right to be themselves.”
Mercy Centre has been organized by the Knights of Columbus – the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization with nearly two million members – together with the Sisters of Life and the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., and other groups.
The Knights of Columbus, with 4,000 members in Poland, is also celebrating its 10th anniversary in that country this year.
For more information and a complete listing of World Youth Day programming, visit wydenglishsite.org or follow #WYDMercyCentre #kofc on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.