Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
The city of Damascus in Syria claims the title of being the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. The Hyksos, the Aramaeans, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Muslims, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans and the French have all left their imprint on this ancient city. Today, in the midst of a protracted civil war in Syria, its citizens cling to their normal routine in the shadow of Roman ruins and along the alleyways of the souks.
For Christians, the very name “Damascus” conjures up the memory of the conversion of St. Paul. On his way to this city to persecute Christians, the Risen Lord appeared to Paul. How appropriate that this same city would recently host the leading patriarchs of the Middle East who wished to face head on today’s brutal persecution of Christians.
On June 8, the patriarchs of the Antiochian Greek Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, and the Maronite Church gathered in Damascus. These church leaders were looking for a way out of the conflict and chaos caused by those who are imposing their extremist Islamic ideology on both Christians and Muslims who oppose them. They urged a political, diplomatic solution to the crisis.
In their public message, the patriarchs reminded the world of their right as Christians to live in the Middle East. They said, “We are authentic (people) of this land, deeply rooted in its earth that was watered by the sweat and blood of our fathers and grandfathers, and we confirm more than ever that we are staying.” They also issued an urgent plea for the world to help Christians survive in the lands where Christianity was birthed.
The statistics sadly confirm the disappearance of Christianity from the Middle East. At one time, Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, was 90 percent Christian. Today, it is 65 percent Muslim. Just 30 years ago, Lebanon was 60 percent Christian; today it is barely 25 percent. More than a third of the 600,000 Syrian Christians have fled their country. And almost half of those fleeing Iraq are Christian. After World War II, the Middle East was 14 percent Christian. Today, it is less than 4 percent.
In the radical vision of ISIS, the killing of Christians, as well as moderate Muslims and other minorities, has become a way to instill fear, impose the extremists’ radical ideology and establish a caliphate after their own making. In June 2013, ISIS kidnapped and beheaded Father Francois Murad in front of a cheering crowd. The following month, ISIS kidnapped the Italian Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio. They shot him 14 times. In April of 2014, they killed the Dutch priest Father Francis Van Der Lugt by shooting the septuagenarian twice in the back of the head. These are a few of the hundreds of individuals that have been captured, tortured, sold into slavery, abused, drowned, crucified or beheaded.
On Aug. 29, the Church beatified Syriac-Catholic Bishop Flavien-Michel Malké. A hundred years ago, on this very same day, he suffered martyrdom. In 1895, under Ottoman persecution of Christians, Malké’s church and home in southeastern Turkey were sacked. Many of his parishioners were murdered, even his own beloved mother. When Bishop Malké refused to convert to Islam, he was martyred and his diocese was wiped off the face of the map. On Aug. 9, the Syriac Patriarch of Antioch remarked, “In these painful times experienced by Christians, especially the Syriac communities in Iraq and Syria, the news of the beatification of one of their martyrs, will surely bring encouragement and consolation to face today’s trials of appalling dimension.”
Undoubtedly, the example of this one holy person will give courage and hope to those suffering persecution. But, his beatification should also make every decent human person question how is it possible that killing others for their religious beliefs continues? Why is it so widespread today? Why are the powerful nations of the world so complicitly silent?
In the Sub-Sahara nations of Nigeria, Sudan, and elsewhere, Islamists are kidnapping, enslaving, raping and killing Christians. In Saudi Arabia, foreign workers are forbidden to hold gatherings to pray as Christians. In Pakistan, a 12-year-old Christian girl was kidnapped, raped and forced to sign a marriage contract to a Muslim man. And when she refused to give in to his demands that she convert from Christianity to Islam, she was severely beaten. The list of atrocities could continue.
Why are governments, including our own, so timid in facing the reality of the systematic destruction of the Christian faith? Why are news media so interested in the latest remarks of political candidates running for the presidency and so deaf to the cry of the persecuted?
The brutal disregard for the dignity of the individual and the freedom of conscience and religion, the torture, the violence are history repeating itself. We cannot shun our responsibility as decent human beings. Distance does not absolve us of the need to speak out and take action. The killings cry out like the blood of Abel. We are our brother’s keeper. And our sister’s. Anyone who suffers is brother and sister to each of us. We cannot close our eyes. We cannot remain silent.