St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica in Toronto is illuminated by red lights for Red Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Red Wednesday is an annual commemoration for persecuted Christians around the globe. Photo by Michael Swan

Red Wednesday unveils horrors faced by persecuted Christians

  • November 17, 2022

Forced conversions, lost childhoods, years of hiding, living in limbo — the persecution Christians face around the world was given specific, concrete shape by the testimony of survivors at the annual Red Wednesday vespers in Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica.

“The first thing they did was forcefully convert us to Islam,” said a 16-year-old Nigerian survivor of kidnapping by Boko Haram, the northern Nigerian terror group whose name means “Western Education is forbidden.” 

Taken with 21 other children when she was seven-years-old, Maryamu Joseph is recovering in a trauma centre set up by the Diocese of Maiduguri with help from Aid to the Church in Need. Aid to the Church in Need sponsors the annual Red Wednesday event to commemorate persecuted Christians worldwide. The annual event sees cathedrals and parish churches around the world bathed in red light after dark. St. Michael’s and Montreal’s Mary Queen of the World Basilica were Canadian churches taking part in the Nov. 16 event.

Joseph’s testimony about how she suffered because she was a little Christian girl was read from the ambo by Aid to the Church in Need-Canada’s executive director Marie-Claude Lalonde. But other testimonies came from Christians now living in Canada thanks to refugee sponsorship by the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Dena Salmoon recalled a childhood spent under the shadow of war in Iraq. She was eight years old when the second Gulf War brought down the government of Saddam Hussein and opened up the country to chaos and ethnic strife. The terror and uncertainty reached new heights in 2014 when Islamic State armies swept through the Christian villages in the centre of Iraq, after Salmoon’s family had already fled into the Kurdish-controlled sanctuary in the north of the country. 

At 27, Salmoon has graduated from university and works in health care, but she will carry her memories of growing up against the backdrop of fear because she was born into a Christian family.

Red Wednesday Maire-Reine-du-MondeThe cathedral basilica of Marie-Reine-du-Monde in Montreal, Quebec is seen illuminated for Red Wednesday, Nov, 16, 2022. (Photo courtesy Linda Couture)

“I was in Erbil, where I witnessed firsthand the horrific scenes of displaced and injured people,” she told the darkened St. Michael’s Cathedral with a sparse crowd of worshippers spread out among the pews. “The churches were filled with thousands of people in fear — something I will never forget.”

Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins led the prayers, seated behind an altar illuminated in the red light of two spotlights. He reminded the assembly that Christians are “the most persecuted people in the world,” and that martyrdom is central to Christian history and identity.

“We celebrate Mass over the tombs of the martyrs,” he said.

The altar of St. Michael’s Cathedral stands over the tomb of the Archdiocese of Toronto’s founding Bishop Michael Power, whom Collins called a “martyr of charity.” Power died while ministering to Irish typhoid victims in the fever sheds on Toronto’s waterfront in 1847. 

“We pray that the witness of martyrs may inspire us,” Collins said. “We proclaim the radiant joy of the resurrection.”

Aid to the Church in Need is a pontifical foundation of the Catholic Church which supports pastoral services to Christians facing discrimination and persecution around the world. In 2021, the global foundation fielded 6,782 applications for aid from Christians around the world. The group distributed $177.4 million to fund projects and services.

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