INTERNATIONAL: Aid to the Church in Need's call to defend religious freedom
By John Pontifex and John Newton
Flying in to take part in the event on Thursday, 17 May is Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan
Calls for action to uphold religious freedom will be made by leading bishops from the UK and overseas at an event – the first of its kind – involving music, dance, video and prayer.
The Night of Witness, staged at Westminster Cathedral, is being organised by Aid to the Church in Need amid fears that persecution is threatening the survival of Christianity in a number of countries, particularly in the Middle East.
Flying in to take part in the event on Thursday, 17 May are Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan and Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Luxor, Egypt.
Both bishops will make key addresses, as will former Bishop of Rochester Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, originally from Pakistan, who is an expert on inter-faith issues.
The Night of Witness includes music and readings given in solidarity with people persecuted in countries including India, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria.
Present at the event will be Stephen Anjum who fled with his family to the UK from Pakistan, after his wife, Thomesena, was shot at by extremists alleging that their son had insulted the prophet Mohammed.
Mr Anjum said: "People in the UK and elsewhere in the West are simply not aware of the scale of the problems that we face in my country.
"We need major moral support so that people in my country can be safe from violence and intimidation."
The event begins with 5.30pm Mass in Westminster Cathedral celebrated by Bishop Declan Lang, chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales' Department of International Affairs.
The focus then switches to the cathedral piazza for the 'rally for religious freedom' at 6.30pm, where Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster will welcome Archbishop Coutts and Bishop Zakaria.
Also present will be Archbishop Kevin McDonald, chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference committee for relations with other religions.
Proceedings then get underway with performances by award-winning Catholic pop group ooberfuse, singer Helen Munt, the West End Gospel Choir, musician Hammad Baily singing in Urdu, the Eliot Smith Dance Company, and renowned Catholic performance poet Sarah de Nordwall, who will MC the event.
At 7.30pm, the spotlight shifts back to the cathedral for a prayer vigil for the suffering Church with readings and music commemorating the lives of Pakistan religious freedom campaigner Shahbaz Bhatti, Indian priest Fr Bernard Digal, Fr Ragheed Ganni from Iraq and others killed for their faith.
Vincent Masih is one of up to 20 Christians with origins in Pakistan who are coming down from Nelson, in Lancashire to take part in the event.
Mr Masih, whose family fled Pakistan in the 1960s, said: "People think persecution is happening a long way away and there is nothing they can do about it but that is not the case. We are going out of our way to be a sign of hope for those who suffer today."
The event coincides with the launch of a report by Aid to the Church in Need Christians and the Struggle for Religious Freedom, which assesses the importance of tackling religious persecution and chronicles incidents of violence and intimidation in many of the worst-offending countries.
In his foreword to the report, Bishop Lang writes: "Those Christians facing sustained violence, especially in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, show an extraordinary courage that should serve as an inspiration to those of us who do not face those dangers but are still called upon to give a witness to our faith."
He added: "We are called to enter more deeply into solidarity with those who suffer for the Church and to do so through prayer, practical support and by raising our voices about this often-hidden crisis."