Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The tragedy of Middle Eastern Christians

By MSGR. RICHARD LOPEZ, Commentary | Published October 29, 2015

I have been blessed over the years with the presence of many Middle Eastern Christian students. I asked one Iraqi Catholic boy years ago, “Where is your family from in Iraq?” He replied, “Baghdad, but originally we were from Mosul.”

“Oh,” I said, “when did they move down from Mosul?” He said, “About 1,000 years ago.”

You can see why I laugh when I see a sign that says, “Historic district of Doraville.”

Unfortunately, Americans are largely ignorant of Middle Eastern Christians and Islamic culture. Christianity began in the Middle East. Our most ancient roots are there. Iraq at one time was 20 percent Christian; it has shrunk to 3 percent. Syria was 10 percent Christian, as is Egypt, but hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians have been forced from their homes and suffered terrible atrocities.

Refugees carry their belongings in Macedonia after crossing from a transit camp in Idomeni, Greece, Oct. 19. Refugees were walking to reach a train station to go to Belgrade, Serbia. Thousands of refugees are arriving into Greece from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries and then traveling further into Europe.

Refugees carry their belongings in Macedonia after crossing from a transit camp in Idomeni, Greece, Oct. 19. Refugees were walking to reach a train station to go to Belgrade, Serbia. Thousands of refugees are arriving into Greece from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries and then traveling further into Europe.

I was told a story by an American soldier who guarded a camp of Iraqi men rounded up for suspicious behavior during the Gulf War. Most of the inmates were Muslims, but five were Catholic. They were permitted to go to Mass and return to the camp on their honor, which they did. However, for going to Mass they were beaten repeatedly by their Muslim countrymen. Yet each week they would go to Mass and suffer the beatings. My friend says he can no longer skip Mass.

Their experience is a parable for the lives of Christians in the Middle East. When the violent surge of Islam swept over the already vibrant Christian populations of the Middle East and North Africa, Christians were sometimes tolerated, occasionally massacred, always forced to pay heavy taxes and endure second-class citizenship.

Rene Girard, a French philosopher, said that all dysfunctional societies are predicated on a scapegoating mechanism.

If you want to understand the nature of Islamic society, dialogue with a Coptic Christian from Egypt, an Assyrian Christian from Syria or a Syriac Christian from Iraq, not with someone who has never lived in those countries as a Christian. I watched a Syriac Orthodox bishop break down in tears on TV when he explained how he was expelled from his home with nothing but the clothes on his back. He said ancient manuscripts dating back to the beginnings of our faith were soon to be burned by the ISIS bullies. He cried, “I know there are good Muslim people, but why are they all so silent in the face of this genocide?” A good question, especially when ISIS is killing Muslims, too!

The question for us is what are we doing?

I know the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964 in New York was misrepresented in part by the press, but the phenomenon it illuminated—to watch murder and do nothing—applies to us in the United States.

Our Holy Father has called the destruction of Christians in the Middle East “genocide.” The Catholic and Orthodox bishops of the Middle East are begging to know how many more of their people must be raped and murdered, how many more of their churches and monasteries destroyed, how many more priests and nuns and Christians kidnapped and tortured before their Christian brothers and sisters do something?

Our media goes to great lengths to speak about a lion killed in Africa, but basically reports nothing about Christian children beheaded in Iraq. Our administration refuses to call the Egyptian and Ethiopian workers who were beheaded “Christian” and hems and haws about refugee status for hundreds of thousands facing death because of their faith. We are living in the age of Christian martyrs, and their witness should inspire us to deeper faith and more active compassion. In Egypt, where hundreds of churches, convents, monasteries, schools and Christian businesses have been burned and looted, signs like this have gone up in the burned-out ruins by Christians for their Muslim neighbors: “We forgive you. We still love you. You meant to hurt us. But we forgive you … everything works out for good.”

In Iraq, four junior high girls were caught by ISIS and told, say the words that you will follow Muhammad. Their response, No, we love Jesus, we have always loved Jesus. They, like so many innocents, were decapitated. One Muslim said of the forgiveness of Egyptian Christians, “I know Christianity had to do with forgiveness, but I never knew it would go to this extent.” St. John Paul II said, “The only thing that stops evil is mercy.”

I believe many of the oppressors will eventually turn to Christ because of the mercy and fidelity of the oppressed Christians. But how can we pray comfortably in our air-conditioned churches without fear of being machine gunned and murdered? How can we go home and sleep peacefully in our beds, knowing no one will expel us from our property and take all we have worked for? How can we look at our children and be grateful for their security and know they will not be kidnapped, raped and enslaved, and not respond to help our brothers and sisters in Christ who have now lost everything because of their faith?

The world has become aware of the plight of Syrians as thousands flee into Europe. It is thought that 700,000 Syrian Christians are now refugees. However, what of Iraqi Christians? Thousands are in camps around Erbil. If ISIS breaks through, there will be more massacres beyond belief. Thousands are refugees in Iran, not a good place for any Christian. So far the U.S. has allowed only 700 Iraqi Christians in! The blood of those left behind will be on our hands if we do not pressure our government to rescue them.

I challenge the Catholic people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta to give our young people a cause. Christmas means so much to Christians everywhere, so if you want to honor the Christ Child born in the Middle East, then help his children, who like him, have fled from their homes and live in poverty and pain.

Let CCD coordinators, religion teachers, and Catholic schools find ways to raise assistance. Let all our people become involved and educated by contacting Aid to the Church in Need or the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. We owe our faith to the heritage of the Middle East, so how can we worship at the manger this Christmas and not do something for our Christian brothers and sisters fighting for their existences in the lands of the Bible, in the home of our Lord Jesus?

Two books recommended by Msgr. Lopez are:

“Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy” (St. Augustine’s Press, 2015), by George J. Marlin, chairman of Aid to the Church in Need USA.

“The Global War on Christians” (Image, 2013), by John L. Allen Jr., author, senior Vatican analyst for CNN and associate editor of The Boston Globe.