Through tense pauses and a voice emotionally shaken, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson was visibly moved as he spoke about violence against people of faith.
“Thinking back to the violence in Sri Lanka over this past weekend and what happened in Christchurch as well – it is a challenging time in this world,” Iveson told the Edmonton Prayer Breakfast April 24.
“It is disturbing that this sort of violence happens. But it’s also an opportunity to respond with solidarity and ultimately love for one another ̶ and that’s what this morning is all about.”
The Prayer Breakfast gathers together civic, church and business leaders from the Christian community to pray and show support for Edmonton’s mayor, city council, and police and fire departments.
This year’s event came only three days after Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka left more than 300 dead and more than 500 injured. As well, the March 15 murders of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the rising death toll of Christians in Nigeria made religious persecution an unavoidable focus.
According to the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, nearly 3,000 Nigerian Christians were killed in 2018, and 425 have been killed in the first three months of this year.
Even if the faithful cannot feel their suffering personally, guest speaker Greg Musselman said coming together and offering prayer is a tangible way of giving support to those persecuted.
“When these things happen, there needs to be some form of an outlet we can have. For us here ̶ we can feel helpless. We can say evil is winning; that’s how it appears,” said Musselman, a minister with the non-profit Voices of the Martyrs Canada, which aids and spreads awareness about persecuted Christians.
“Out of prayer the Holy Spirit ignites something in us to do something practical. We can share these stories and turn our prayers towards those persecuted.”
Musselman has produced documentaries and other programs to bring public awareness to Christian persecution, as well as being the co-host of the daily Christian television show 100 Huntley Street.
In Sudan and Afghanistan, Musselman witnessed attacks against Christians first-hand. He has also been to Sri Lanka, and has seen how the Muslim, Buddhist, and Catholic groups of that country have lived in harmony for generations.
However, in the past two decades, Musselman says Christian persecution is on the rise, and militant groups are becoming more sophisticated and brutal in their efforts.
“In terms of pure numbers it is increasing, it’s becoming more dangerous, and we have to be more mindful of that,” he said. “Part of this is pushed because of the Internet; they’re linking together groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups and even sometimes they are showing up here in the West. I hope that cooler heads will prevail – especially in Sri Lanka and in Nigeria where entire communities are being attacked.”
A Pew Research Center study released in June 2018 showed that the number of religious people experiencing harassment by governments or other groups has been steadily increasing since 2007. Christians topped the list, having experienced harassment in 144 different countries in 2016. Muslims were close behind, reporting harassment in 142 countries that same year.
At the Edmonton Prayer Breakfast, a moment of silence was offered to the victims in Sri Lanka. Keith Taylor, pastor of Beulah Alliance Church, offered a prayer for those who have experienced persecution or violence because of their faith.
In an interview with Grandin Media, Iveson would not express his personal religious affiliation. However, he noted the work of faith communities in Edmonton has a major impact on his role as mayor.
“A leader’s responsibility is to rally the community to the right values. That is made so much easier by leaders in our faith communities,” Iveson said.
A day after the Sri Lanka bombings, hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Alberta legislature grounds and on April 25, a Mass to remember and honour the victims was scheduled at St. Theresa’s Parish in Edmonton at 6 p.m.
Iveson also noted Edmontonians of all faiths came together in solidarity with the city’s Jewish community after the October 2018 shooting at Beth Israel Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which left 11 dead and six injured.
For its part, the Voice of the Martyrs Canada is now looking into ways they can provide support after the incidents in Sri Lanka, such as helping those who lost limbs and were severely wounded in the attacks.
While he has seen the violence and devastation against people of faith, Musselman said there is always a source of hope for Christians. He sees the way Christ ultimately conquered death through suffering as a message of great relevance during the Easter season.
“I’ve seen pastors killed, churches disintegrating because they have no leaders,” Musselman said.
“I’m sure if we were Christians in the first century and we saw how all but one of Jesus’ disciples were martyred, we’d think we are going to lose this battle. But God does use persecution. It does advance the Church, but sometimes it takes a step back before moving forward.”