By BosNewsLife News Center with reporting by Philippa Hitchen
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN (BosNewsLife)-- Pope Francis and leaders of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) group agreed Thursday, December 14, to cooperate on tackling the "worst persecution" of Christians in church history despite "major theological differences", officials said following talks in the Vatican.
“We want to see this world to be a place where peace, justice and righteousness reign”, said Bishop Efraim Tendero, the secretary general of WEA. His WEA involves Protestant Churches in 129 nations representing more than 600 million evangelical Christians worldwide. Thursday's meeting with the leader of the world's one billion Catholics was aimed at increasing cooperation between the Catholic Church and evangelicals, he explained.
Tendero said he was bringing to Francis a “call for closer partnership” in protecting religious freedom, promoting the distribution of Bibles and addressing social justice issues. The WEA leader wants to see a world “where everyone has a decent standard of living, and where Jesus Christ is recognized as Lord of all.”
Also attending the papal audience was Reverend Thomas K. Johnson, the WEA’s religious freedom ambassador to the Vatican. He stressed there was an urgent need to join forces to combat the increasing persecution of Christians worldwide. "The problem is not confined to one particular area of the globe," he said, adding that the last three years may have seen "the worst persecution in the whole history of the Christian Church."
One in 12 Christians today experiences high, very high or extreme persecution for their faith, according to rights activists and researchers. At least 215 million Christians face severe persecution, with 100 million of those living in Asia, said Open Doors, a respected advocacy group. Many Christians are also known to have died for their faith including in the Middle East and Africa where Islamic State militants have beheaded Christians.
Johnson recalled, "the important international consultation" that took place two years ago in the Albanian capital, Tirana, on "discrimination, persecution, and martyrdom." Officials of the WEA, the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and the Pentecostal world discussed ways of responding to the problem “in a unified manner.”
While Johnson admitted there were "still problems of discrimination between Evangelicals and Catholics in some countries" he stressed that Evangelicals have always been made to feel “very welcome in the Vatican”.
As a philosophy professor and human rights specialist, he is mainly focused on Catholics and Evangelicals publishing “education materials that we’ve developed together”. He said Thursday’s meeting with the pope was part of small steps that can lead “to a broader coalition over the years” and reinforce the message that “Christians of all varieties need to be protecting each other in the public square.”
Bishop Tendero noted that the WEA and a group of the pope's top advisors known as the Pontifical Council just completed seven years of dialogue, culminating in a joint document on Scripture and Tradition. While significant theological differences remain, it’s increasingly important to “look for a common agenda,” rather than “focus on what differs and what pulls us apart,” he told Vatican Radio.
Before his appointment as head of the WEA, Bishop Efraim served for over 20 years as national director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches and as president of the Philippine Relief and Development Services, working to support the poor and needy. While realizing that 80 percent of the Philippines population is Catholic, Tendero called relations with the Catholic Church very good. He said he was recently asked to address a retreat for the Filipino bishops conference.
The WEA leader said there was also a robust, practical cooperation on issues such as human trafficking, combating climate change, fighting corruption, promoting peace, and providing relief and development for victims of the many typhoons affecting the region.
(BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos contributed to this report).