Posts Tagged ‘Persecution of Christians’

Blood and Seed

Friday, December 1st, 2017

One June 3, 2007, a Chaldean Catholic priest, Fr. Ragheed Aziz Ganni, had just finished celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at his parish Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, Iraq. There had long been trouble in the city, with violence directed against Christians, including a bomb detonated at the Church a week before.

As Fr. Ganni left the church with three subdeacons, Basman Daoud, Ghasan Bidawid and Waheed Isho’a, they were confronted by Islamic militant gunman.

The men demanded to know why he hadn’t closed the church as they had ordered. Fr. Ganni responded “How can I close the house of God?”

The gunmen then opened fire, murdering Fr. Ganni and his three friends.

The story of Fr. Ganni, a true martyr of the faith, is only one of hundreds of thousands of stories about the suffering of Christians in the Middle East at the hands of Islamic extremists. Particularly since the so-called Islamic State began its rampage in 2013, Christians in the region have been murdered or forced from their homes under threat of death, their homes have been stolen or destroyed in combat, and their churches desecrated. Our State Department has rightly called it a “genocide”. Sadly, the United Nations still hasn’t done so, and there has been much criticism of their relief efforts.

We Americans are scandalously ill-informed about the Christian churches of the Middle East and how they have been persecuted. This is why the Bishops of the United States set aside this week as a Week of Awareness and Education in solidarity with persecuted Christians.

In addition to our Roman Catholic Church, there are six other Eastern Rite Churches in the Middle East that are in communion with us — Maronites, Melkites, Armenians, Chaldeans, Coptics, and Syrians. In the region there are also Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and various Protestant communities.

In the West, we easily forget that these are the most ancient Christian communities in the world, dating back to Pentecost. We read in the Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul’s letters about the founding of some of these Churches. Our Christian brethren can trace their roots back to the earliest centuries of the Church, and many of them still celebrate the Eucharist in the ancient languages and rites — including the Aramaic language, which Our Lord and the Blessed Mother spoke every day.

There is an old saying from the early centuries of the Church, that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. There have been many seeds planted in the bloody soil of the Middle East. Faced with brutal persecution, hundreds of thousands of Middle East Christians have migrated either to refugee camps, nearby cities, or abroad.  According to some sources, the population decline has been precipitous. There were nearly 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003, and this number has dropped to as few as 250,000 today. Sharp drops in Christian population have occurred in Syria and Egypt as well. Some of these historic Churches are in danger of extinction in their ancestral homelands.

But many Christians want to return to their homes and rebuild their lives. I recently had the honor of meeting Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Iraq. Christians have been there since as early as the first century, and the city is home to a wide variety of religious believers, including Sunni, Sufi and Shia Muslims and Yezidis. It has been on or near the front lines of battle for several years now, and many thousands of its Christian and Yezidi inhabitants have fled. Many of them wound up in nearby Mosul, a strategically important city that was captured by Islamic State and was the site of brutal combat as Iraqi forces liberated it last year. But the Christians who then sought to return to their homes and churches found them to have been destroyed.

Archbishop Warda has been one of the leading advocates for peace and he has been laboring mightily to help his people return to their homes. He is a leader of an ecumenical coalition, the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, that is seeking to rebuild the region. He gave his testimony at a UN conference this week, emphasizing the importance of the continued Christian presence for stability in the region. There has been a great deal of support from the international community, particularly from the Knights of Columbus. Archbishop Warda is grateful for the financial help, and recognizes that much more is needed.

But when asked what more the Church in America can do, the Archbishop asked for prayers, first and foremost. But he then asked for greater awareness in America about the Churches in the Middle East. Knowing more about our suffering brethren can only increase our sense of solidarity and empathy for them, and can encourage them that they will not be alone and forgotten once the world’s attention turns elsewhere.

There are a number of great organizations that are helping the Christians in the Middle East on the ground, like the Catholic Near East Welfare AssociationAid to the Church in Need, and the Knights of Columbus. The USCCB has a huge amount of information on the situation there, and we should all make use of that to better educate ourselves.

USCCB also has a beautiful prayer for our persecuted brethren:

O God of all the nations,
the One God who is and was
and always will be,
in your providence
you willed that your Church
be united to the suffering of your Son.
Look with mercy on your servants
who are persecuted for their faith in you.
Grant them perseverance and courage
to be worthy imitators of Christ.
Bring your wisdom upon leaders of nations
to work for peace among all peoples.
May your Spirit open conversion
for those who contradict your will,
that we may live in harmony.
Give us the grace to be united
in truth and freedom,
and to always seek your will in our lives.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Our Lady, Queen of Peace, pray for us.

And perhaps we could add a prayer to Fr. Ganni, who died as a courageous witness to his Faith, and ask for his intercession for peace in his homeland and for all persecuted Christians around the world.

Hatred — No. Defiance — Yes!

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Over 25,000 Christians fled Mosul under the same threat.
  4. 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.
  5. Over 450,000 Melkite Christians have fled Syria because of its civil war.
  6. 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:

  1. We need a sense of urgency — This is not something that can wait for a change in political administration.  Action is needed now.
  2. We need to give this constant publicity — We can’t be embarrassed to stress this issue over and over again.
  3. We need to identify the problem, “fanatical Islamic Christophobic terrorism” — This is no time for political correctness.  We have to speak the truth.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.”