Our Suffering Christian Family

A Coptic Orthodox bishop surveys a damaged church in Minya, Egypt. (CNS photo/Louafi Larbi, Reuters) (Dec. 9, 2013)

A Coptic Orthodox bishop surveys a damaged church in Minya, Egypt. (CNS photo/Louafi Larbi, Reuters)

During this Lenten season, I want to share a few thoughts with you that will take the form of a weekly blog following the First through the Fifth Sundays of Lent. We contemplate in a special way the suffering of Christ and his words to his disciples the night before he was to suffer, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Today I would like to reflect with you on how the Body of Christ continues to face persecution and suffering, and also our obligation to pray for our Christian sisters and brothers who endure this passion.

The resolution recently submitted by the Obama Administration for consideration by Congress affirms that horrific atrocities are being perpetrated against Christians and other religious minority groups in Syria and Iraq. Similarly in other parts of the world, most prominently Nigeria and Sudan, but also places like India, a veil of darkness has descended over whole communities that once were alive in the light of Christian faith.

This is not a new situation. While the names of the Islamist extremist groups are fairly new – ISIL (or ISIS) and Boko Haram – the systematic violence has been going on for some time. At the Synod of Bishops on the Church in the Middle East five years ago, the ominous threats to Christians there were a major concern. Throughout his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about those who suffer greatly because of their fidelity to Christ and his Church.

Pope Francis too has sought to raise international awareness of the growing crisis of suffering Christians around the world. Last year, our Holy Father wrote to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, appealing to the international community to stir itself to find ways to protect the innocent. Here in Washington D.C., an ecumenical summit of scholars, dignitaries and religious leaders from the Middle East met to call attention to the gradual eradication of Christianity in the very land where it all started and first began to grow. With increasing intensity, religious leaders from these besieged lands have implored the world to help.

Meanwhile, more and more the nightly news includes reports of videos showing the beheading of people taken captive. Included in this horror is the recent mass decapitation of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian hostages in Libya. “They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christian,” Pope Francis said after receiving the news. “The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”

While public awareness of this humanitarian crisis has increased to some degree, in many official quarters it is met with passivity, if not effective indifference, with no sense of empathy or urgency. Meanwhile, the Islamic extremists are expanding their reign of terror and the list of other atrocities committed against Christians and other religious minorities is growing: crucifixion; torture; kidnapping; women and children sold into sex slavery; bombings of homes, schools, and orphanages; imprisonment; and the choice imposed on Christians and others between conversion to Islam, the payment of taxes and second-class citizenship or forced exile, and the list goes on. In addition, churches have been desecrated and destroyed, and holy artifacts have been stolen and sold on the black market.

For centuries, ancient Christian communities in these regions had lived peaceably side-by-side with their neighbors who come from other faith commitments. Now, many of these areas have been emptied of Christians.

“In the face of such unjust aggression, which also strikes Christians and other ethnic and religious groups in the region,” Pope Francis has said, “a unanimous response is needed, one which, within the framework of international law, can end the spread of acts of violence, restore harmony and heal the deep wounds which the ongoing conflicts have caused” (Address to Diplomatic Corps, January 12, 2015). To be indifferent to the suffering and evil around us is to act in a way not worthy of our humanity, much less our calling as Christians. History shows time and again that the longer that we do not act against evil and aggression, the more the situation solidifies and the harder it becomes to act later.

Every day, more people are killed, raped and displaced from their homes. These long-suffering people cannot defend themselves. It is critically important that the United States and the rest of the international community recognize the urgency of the moment. They need to take all necessary lawful action now to protect Christians and others and provide for their security to return to their homes safely. The people who are suffering do not have the luxury of waiting. For them, any further delay will mean that help comes too late.

There is also something we can do ourselves, something just as essential as providing security and humanitarian assistance, and that is prayer. We join in prayer as a sign of our own communion with our Christian sisters and brothers. We pray for all people in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere who suffer so cruelly at the hands of extremists.  And we also pray that peoples’ hearts be touched in those troubled lands and throughout the world so that toleration and religious freedom become accepted characteristics of whatever political order is established.

Last Christmas, our Holy Father wrote a letter to Christians in the Middle East. Offering them the consolation and hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, he said, “The situation in which are you living is a powerful summons to holiness of life, as saints and martyrs of every Christian community have attested. . . . You are a small flock, but one with a great responsibility in the land where Christianity was born and first spread. You are like leaven in the dough.”

Reading the stories of Christian refugees who have been brutally forced from their native lands, where Christians have been present since apostolic times, while heartbreaking, is also profoundly inspiring. These sisters and brothers of ours fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs – and their Christian faith. They could have stayed simply by giving in, by becoming Muslim as demanded by the Islamists, but they gave up everything they had for Christ. When we here are put to the test of remaining firm in the faith or giving in to the contrary demands of others, we should remember the witness of these modern-day martyrs.

During this Lenten season and beyond, please continue to pray in a special way for our suffering Christian family.