Those were the powerful words spoken by Bishop Gregory John Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, at a conference held last week on the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria by the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as ISIS). The conference, hosted by the Hudson Institute, was full of grim news about the sufferings of Christians in communities that have their roots in the Apostolic Age — Chaldeans, Armenians, Assyrians, and Syriacs.
Bishop Mansour knows very well what he was speaking about — his flock has its roots in Lebanon, and he has made numerous trips to the region. Statistics cannot fully tell the story of the misery caused by ISIS, but they can help us understand the scope:
- Hundreds of thousands of Christians languish in poorly-supplied refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Kurdish areas of Iraq. Most will never return to their ancestral homes.
- Over 100,000 Christians forced to flee the city of Qaraqosh on a moment’s notice, under threat of death by ISIS if they refused to convert to Islam.
- Over 25,000 Christians fled Mosul under the same threat.
- Countless Christians have been killed by ISIS fighters, including the 20 Copts who were publicly beheaded in Libya by ISIS because they would not reject their faith.
- Over 450,000 Melkite Christians have fled Syria because of its civil war.
- Churches and other religious sites have been specifically targeted by ISIS for destruction, thus robbing Christians of their heritage and history.
The evidence is all there before us — we are witnessing genocide in our times. Christians face extinction in the region that is the birthplace of our faith.
What has been the West’s response? To our shame, the West is doing virtually nothing to aid the persecuted Christians. Our American government leaders — including our President and Secretary of State — have said and done virtually nothing.
How can this be? Cardinal Dolan, who also spoke at the conference, gave the very simple answer — they’re silent because we are. He’s absolutely right. Aside from strong statements of condemnation by the Holy Father, and letters written by the U.S. Bishops’ Conference to Congress and the President, our Church has not done enough to put this crisis on the political and public radar screen. Catholics and all Christians need to step up and start making noise.
At the conference, the Cardinal outlined our agenda to respond to our brethren in need:
- We need a sense of urgency — This is not something that can wait for a change in political administration. Action is needed now.
- We need to give this constant publicity — We can’t be embarrassed to stress this issue over and over again.
- We need to identify the problem, “fanatical Islamic Christophobic terrorism” — This is no time for political correctness. We have to speak the truth.
- We need to affirm and support moderate Muslim voices — Without our support, the voices of reason within Islam will continue to be afraid to come forward and oppose the radicals.
- We need to do advocacy — We have to press our government for real, effective action. We also need to contact representatives of the governments where the atrocities are taking place, and demand that they take action. Laypeople must take the lead here.
- We need to engage in interreligious action — Our Jewish friends are eager to help us, because of all people, they know genocide when they see it, and they know that you have to fight back. We have to enlist an “ecumenism of the martyrs” among all people of faith, especially our fellow Christians.
- We need to act through “the optic of faith” — While the pragmatic responses are crucial, we also have to remember the power of prayer and spiritual solidarity, including prayer for the conversion of heart for the men of ISIS.
There are some steps that people can take right away, like supporting groups like the Catholic Near East Welfare Society, which is providing humanitarian aid to the displaced Christians. We can also start writing our public officials, from the President and the Secretary of State, as well as our Senators and Congressional representatives.
I’ll give the last words to Bishop Mansour. He remarked that the main difference between ISIS and us is very simple — “we love, they hate”. He added that we cannot be passive in the face of evil, but we must stand up and oppose it with all our might.
And he gave us what should be our motto: “Hatred — No. Defiance — Yes.”