November 25, 2010
An eerie silence has fallen over the recent massacre of Catholics in Baghdad. On the Vigil of All Saints, one hundred and twenty faithful at Mass were worshipping in Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance. Gunmen entered wearing military uniforms. There was an immediate explosion of gunfire. Windows shattered; doors collapsed; and, amid the broken glass everywhere, splattered blood and bullet marks. The dead littered the cathedral floor.
The priest offering Mass was shot. His blood splattered over the altar where Christ’s own sacrifice is made present. Another priest coming out of the confessional was shot. The massacre continued for two hours. Fifty people were killed and seventy injured. No mercy even to infants and children. In the midst of the slaughter, three year old Adam stumbled among the bodies. His mother and father lay lifeless on the cathedral floor. He kept following the terrorists as they went around, pleading in his young voice, “Enough! Enough!” After a while, they turned around and gunned down Adam. Heartless and barbaric!
The savage actions of these gunmen marked a total disregard for the common values that all reasonable people uphold. So hardened had they become in their perverted ideology that they invaded a place of worship. Religious freedom meant nothing to them. Human life, even less. Where people had gathered in love, they left in blood their message of hate. The smell of incense suffocated with the stench of death.
The Islamic State of Iraq, the local branch of al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the Baghdad attack. The world media reported the incident, but perhaps not strongly enough to stir up the outrage that decent people should feel when innocent people are senselessly killed in acts of terrorism. Perhaps we have become somewhat immune to the news of murders and massacres. Some of us may even forget the grim reality that Catholics today do not enjoy religious freedom around the world. Our Catholic brothers and sisters are actively being persecuted not only in Iraq, but in other areas of the Middle East, in India, in Pakistan, in the Sudan and some African countries.
In the past decade in Iraq, sixty-two churches have been destroyed and the violence against Christians has increased. Since the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq, over two-thirds of the country's Christian population has fled the country. In the cities of Baghdad and Al-Basra, whole neighborhoods of Christians have disappeared because of violence and threats. An exile with no hope of return.
However, in America, we cherish the freedom of religion. With our long history of welcoming others of different beliefs, we find it almost impossible to understand how others do not respect the right of freedom of religion. Today, Saudi Arabia does not permit a single Christian church to be built on its soil. Almost one-third of the population of that country is foreign workers. Many of these are Christians. Yet, these individuals cannot own a Bible. They are not allowed to meet together publicly to pray. And, they are even forbidden to display any Christian symbol. No freedom of religion, no tolerance.
Nonetheless, The United Nations’
Universal Declaration of Human Rights expressly states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom to manifest his religion or belief, individually or collectively, publicly or privately, in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (Article 18). Religious freedom is rooted in the inherent dignity of the human person created with intellect and free will and with the responsibility for his or her own choices before God. Yet, not all countries guarantee religious freedom. But America has.
From our very beginning, America has valued religious freedom. In 1623, William Bradford, elected governor under the Mayflower Compact, made the first Thanksgiving Proclamation. He began his proclamation by saying, “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest … has spared us from pestilence and disease [and] has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience…” Thanksgiving Day began with expressed recognition of the principle of religious freedom. Two centuries later, Thomas Jefferson stated that “among the inestimable of our blessings, also, is that ...of liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will ...”
Now almost two centuries later, we still celebrate Thanksgiving civilly and, because we are free, religiously as well. On Thanksgiving Day, we interrupt our work; and, in church, synagogue, temple, mosque and home, we thank God for the many blessings that he gives us as a nation. It is sadly true that proactive courts are now attempting to turn freedom of religion into freedom from religion. Yet, at the same time, the words “
In God We Trust” remain not only over the doors of both chambers of Congress but over the conscience of most Americans.
This Thanksgiving, we turn to God with gratitude for his blessings to us. We pray also for all who still do not enjoy their God-given rights, especially the right to religious freedom. May our common turning to God in thanks be a pledge of religious freedom for all people everywhere. Strengthened by God’s grace, may we say to all who persecute and murder others for their faith, “Enough!