By Sam Lucero
DE PERE, Wis. (OSV News) — A prayer service to spotlight the persecution of Christians around the world expanded its focus this year as one Wisconsin parish included both Muslims and Jews in its remembrance.
Since 2020, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in De Pere has participated in the Aid to the Church in Need’s #RedWeek initiative, which honors persecuted Christians around the world.
The annual event is typically observed the last full week of November, but the parish marked the observance a week earlier due to the Thanksgiving holiday.
This year’s service, held Nov. 15 at the parish, also remembered victims of war in Israel and Gaza.
The war began Oct. 7 after Hamas and other Palestinian militants from Gaza attacked some 22 civilian agricultural communities and cities inside of Israel, a wave of terror that killed around 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took 240 people as hostages back to Gaza.
Israel’s military response to the attack since Oct. 7 has left more than 13,300 Palestinians killed, a majority of them women and children, 6,000 reported missing, and over 30,000 injured in Gaza, according to Nov. 20 figures given by the Hamas-run government media office. The death toll can not be independently verified due to the ongoing fighting.
The dead include at least 18 killed — all but one of whom were Palestinian Christians — in an Israeli air strike at St. Porphyrius Church in Gaza City Oct. 19. The Greek Orthodox church was serving as a shelter for Palestinians fleeing Israel’s strikes in Gaza.
“Whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, we are people who are suffering and this raises awareness about the plight of folks who continue to have challenges in living their faith,” said Deacon Shaun Johnson, who led the evening prayer service at Our Lady of Lourdes.
“There are more martyrs today than there were in the early church, so this gives a great opportunity for us to make it present in our minds and in our consciousness and raise it up in prayer,” added Deacon Johnson, who also serves as diaconate director for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Aid to the Church in Need was founded in 1947 as a way for the church to meet the material and spiritual needs of homeless and displaced people in Europe following World War II.
Over the decades, as communism and other challenges to religious freedom grew around the world, so did the ministry of Aid to the Church in Need.
In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI elevated ACN to the status of a pontifical foundation under the aegis of the Vatican.
“Today, ACN continues working to counter the persecution and killing of Catholics and Catholic religious by Islamic fundamentalists,” ACN’s website states, “and is reaching out to the millions of displaced persons in Syria and Iraq, and other countries in that region.” It serves people in more than 145 countries.
The #RedWeek event began in 2015 with Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer statue
being illuminated in red to symbolize the blood of Christian martyrs throughout history and to raise awareness about today’s persecuted Christians. The following year, Rome’s Trevi Fountain was bathed in red.
Norbertine Father Peter Ambting, a native of the Netherlands and former pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes (one of the Green Bay Diocese’s parishes served by the Norbertine religious order), introduced “Courage in Red Week” to the parish in 2020.
While serving in the Netherlands, Father Ambting worked with Christians from the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan who sought refuge from war and persecution.
With the church’s east facade illuminated in red, about 30 parishioners turned out for the Nov. 15 prayer service.
“We live in a world that is very divided, a world that is very fragmented and tonight we come together to pray as a community, to join together in the hope and the joy that is Christ, that overcomes all darkness,” Deacon Johnson told parishioners inside the darkened church, illuminated by small red candles surrounding the altar.
“So it is fitting that we join together in prayer in darkness, because this light that we will carry out from this church hopefully will lumen the world in which we will encounter.”
The service included prayers recited during vespers, the evening prayer service in the church’s liturgical prayer called the Liturgy of the Hours, which the baptized have prayed since the church’s beginning in Jerusalem to sanctify all parts of the day.
Jody Strnad, Our Lady of Lourdes’ director of music and liturgy, said the parish’s respect life ministry chose to include Jews and Muslims from Israel and Gaza in this year’s prayer service.
“We are especially thinking about those who are being martyred in the Middle East,” she said. “With everything going on in the world, this is such an important thing to be doing.”
Sam Lucero writes for OSV News from Wisconsin.
NOTES: More information about Aid to the Church in Need’s #RedWeek campaign can be found at https://www.churchinneed.org/acns-redweek-puts-spotlight-on-christian-persecution.