Persecuted Christians in Iraq Deserve Our Help, and a Visit from Pope Francis
The slaughter of Christians on Easter morning in Sri Lanka reminds us starkly: the Church is being persecuted. All across the world. A new report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom points up the enormous scale of religious intolerance. Much of it’s aimed at Christians.
It happens in little ways, too. This spring, a major human rights activist, Faith McDonnell, was kicked off Facebook. She was told her account got deleted. Why? For sharing the story, with public video and pictures, of the Coptic martyrs of Egypt. It took a national uproar, led by author and radio host Eric Metaxas, for Facebook to revisit its decision.
Why would that happen? Some might say “political correctness,” the fear of offending Muslims. And that’s partly true. But I think there’s much more to it than that. Even we Christians don’t really want to hear stories of martyrs. Not most of the time.
We Won’t Count the Cost
We don’t want to count the potential cost of our faith. We’d rather not wonder how we might act if the butchers of ISIS demanded, with knives at our throats, that we confess Jesus Christ. Notice what ISIS’s jihadists didn’t ask. They didn’t say, “Are you Catholics?” or “Are you Protestants? Or Orthodox?” In fact, the martyrs were Copts. Ancient theological differences sunder the churches. But martyrdom unites us. Or it ought to. We’re one to the enemies of the Cross, and that should make us friends.
Western Christians of whatever stripe have been too long indifferent to the fate of their fellow believers on the front lines of persecution. I know because 87 percent of my own community, Iraqi Christians, was ethnically cleansed from our homeland of thousands of years. This happened during and after the U.S. occupation, which we were told was to liberate us. In the chaos thereafter, ISIS arose. But it’s really nothing new, just the latest face of the same jihadist monster we have faced for more than a millennium.
I’ve devoted my life to raising awareness of the needs of Iraqi Christians, and raising the funds to help them. They need food, water, and shelter. But even more they need hope — the hope that those who remain in Iraq can stay, and that those who have fled might return. That would mean Western pressure on the government of Iraq. Also training and weapons, so we can protect ourselves against the next ISIS that arises. (We’ve learned the hard way that we can’t count on any government.)
A Second Holy Land: Iraq
I wish more than anything that Western Christians would see Iraq for what it is: a second Holy Land, where many of the key events of the early Church actually happened. Where the Faith spread quickly and sank deep roots, which outlasted foreign invasion and persecution. Where ancient monasteries still hold some of the oldest extant manuscripts of the New Testament, and the writings of Church Fathers who lived and wrote in Iraq.
It’s a land that was recently washed with the blood of its own Christian martyrs. In 2010, 48 Iraqi Christians, including two priests saying Mass, were slaughtered at Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad. Stop for a moment. Imagine that happening at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. All those victims are now candidates for sainthood. Smaller massacres have happened all across the country, and many of our ancient churches now lie in ruins, covered with triumphalist Islamist graffiti.
Three Martyrs’ Stories
Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul was kidnapped and murdered along with three fellow Christians in 2008. He was the leader of the whole ancient Chaldean Catholic community. His “crime”? He’d spoken out for his persecuted people, and opposed adding sharia law to the Iraqi constitution.
Two years before, in Mosul, Syrian Orthodox priest Rev. Paulous Eskandar was found dead, with his body mutilated. Jihadists took credit, saying “We will kill all Christians, starting with him.” As AsiaNews reported, this happened shortly after “the death of Elder Munthir, 69, a high-ranking leader of the Presbyterian Church in Mosul.” In 2007, according to AsiaNews:
An armed group gunned down and killed Fr. Ragheed Ganni and three of his aides. The murder took place right after Sunday mass in front of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul where Father Ragheed served as parish priest…. [H]ours later the bodies were still lying in the street because no one dared retrieve them.
There are so many more such stories, it breaks my heart. But we don’t really want to hear them. And Facebook doesn’t want you to share them.
The cross and our duty to shoulder it lie at the very heart of the Christian faith. These men’s terminal witness starkly reminds us of that.
The West Needs the Same Zeal
The Western Church lacks the early Christian zeal, the fire which burned bright in the hearts of Christians, from Ireland to Persia, India, Mongolia, even China.
I urge Pope Francis to take the first step, to be the symbol of hope for the Eastern Christians whose blood has been shed for our common faith. As leader of the largest Christian church, he should defy his advisers (who insist that it’s too dangerous) and make his way to Iraq. He should visit the graves of his sheep, and imitate the apostle John by hugging the foot of the Cross. So should we all.