Pray for Our Suffering Brothers and Sisters in the Middle East
If you were to google “Christians in the Middle East,” you would probably expect to find information about the history of Christianity, the distinct cultures of the people there, or descriptions of Latin and Eastern Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. Instead, what appears, tragically, is story after story about violent oppression and intimidation of Christians all across the region.
Pope Francis has spoken out often about how our brothers and sisters in that part of the world suffer greatly because of their fidelity to Christ and the Church, and it was a major concern of Pope Benedict in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in the Middle East. Now, we are seeing more in the news media about how Christians find themselves increasingly besieged.
Journalist John Allen reports in his book, The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution, that there is “a rising tide of legal oppression, social harassment, and direct physical violence, with Christians as its leading victims. However counterintuitive it may seem in light of popular stereotypes of Christianity as a powerful and sometimes oppressive social force, Christians today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet, and too often their new martyrs suffer in silence.”
You may have seen recent television news stories on the violence, such as a report on 60 Minutes about the oppression faced by Copts in Egypt, which has only gotten worse since the “Arab Spring,” including a massacre of Coptic Christians in Cairo. There and all across the Middle East, Christian men, women, and children are being persecuted with murder, systematic kidnappings, rape and other sexual assault, bombings and other violent attacks against their churches, homes, schools, and orphanages, and imprisonment. Moreover, in some countries, speaking publicly about Jesus Christ as Lord is prohibited as blasphemy against other religions, and conversion to Christianity is a capital offense.
The suffering is growing worse in Syria, where Christians have become targets of violence after having once been under protection by government authorities. Two-thirds of the Christian churches in Baghdad, Iraq, have been bombed at least once since 2003. John Allen reports that in 1991, “Iraq boasted a flourishing Christian population of at least 1.5 million. Today the high-end estimate for the number of Christians left is around 500,000, and many believe it could be as low as 150,000. Most of these Iraqi Christians have gone into exile, but a staggering number have been killed.”
A century ago, Christians made up more than 80 percent of the population of Lebanon, but it is less than 40 percent today after decades of strife, including the recent kidnapping of 13 nuns. Indeed, a major objective of this persecution seems to be to drive Christians out of the area. And, to be sure, because of the violence, persistent tensions, and official policies which deprive them of fundamental rights, many Christians are fleeing to other countries. Due to this modern diaspora, the Middle East is being emptied – cleansed – of Christians.
Followers of Christ have known persecution since the very beginning. But Jesus assures us that those who are insulted and persecuted because of him are blessed. And he is our peace – the Lord who made us one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity through his flesh (Ephesians 2:14). Nevertheless, because it is not easy notwithstanding this assurance – even Jesus suffered anguish at the prospect of the Passion – we can strengthen our brothers and sisters in Christ through acts of solidarity and prayer.
These efforts in prayer are never wasted. When Jesus offered his disciples the instruction on prayer, he revealed to them the generosity of his love. “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do.” (John 14:13) Our voices are not unknown to the Lord. He hears us, knows us and is prepared to answer us. It is for this reason that we have such confidence. Moreover, with God, all things are possible, even peace in a land which has known so much suffering.