Solidarity in Suffering
On Sunday, Pope Francis canonized 30 martyrs, both priests and lay persons, who suffered and were killed in 1645 in a wave of anti-Catholic persecution in Brazil. The Holy Father also entered into the canon of saints three indigenous child martyrs in 16th century Mexico who were killed for refusing to renounce their Catholic faith and return to their ancient traditions. These children are said to be the first Christians killed for their faith in the New World.
Today, reliable reports indicate that some 200 million Christians worldwide, simply because of their faith in Jesus Christ, are still enduring or are at risk of physical violence, arrest, torture and death. Christians, in greater number, also face varying levels of oppression and restrictions on fully living their faith. Ironically – and tragically – the place where persecution of Christians is being most severely experienced is in that region of the world that is the birthplace of Christianity.
Last July, His Eminence Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), announced the designation of Sunday, November 26, 2017, as a day of prayer for persecuted Christians which also initiates “Solidarity in Suffering,” a week of awareness and education. The Solemnity of Christ the King is a fitting time to reflect on religious freedom and persecution.
An ancient practice known as the “Way of the Cross” recounts in prayer the painful progress of Jesus in 14 stations or stops. Here we remember and prayerfully unite ourselves more closely to Jesus in his suffering for our salvation. We meditate on how Jesus fell under the weight of the cross and each time struggled to get up and continue on, and how the authorities forced Simon of Cyrene to help Jesus carry his cross.
My brother and sisters, I ask all of us to consider how our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East are living their own personal Way of the Cross. Each carries a cross and they turn to us looking for some help as they bear the weight of unjust persecution, and the burden of intolerant hatred and violence directed at them simply because they are Christian.
While ISIS forces in the region have been, and are continuing to be degraded, and pushed out of some areas since the height of the genocidal violence, the situation still remains precarious for Christians and other religious minorities who have already suffered greatly.
Although some have begun to return to their homes in places like the Nineveh Plain, many people remain displaced and are struggling in harsh and under-supplied refugee settlements. Much aid bypasses these Christians in need because the United Nations and the United States refuse to provide funds to the church groups that serve them. Elsewhere, Christians face continuing marginalization and deprivations of fundamental human rights.
We hear so much today of “solidarity.” It is a word that has become a part of our vocabulary in the past twenty to thirty years. In essence it means to stand with – to be one with others. It is the practical virtue that manifests in concrete terms, the spiritual and deeper reality of human communion. Our solidarity in Christ with brothers and sisters of our faith, and also our human solidarity with people of other faiths, in a part of the world where there is clearly an effort to eliminate them is something that no person in good conscience can ignore.
Often we are asked, how is it possible that in human history atrocities occur? They occur for two reasons. Because there are those prepared to commit them and there are those who remain silent and do nothing about it. Allow me to expand on these two points.
Just as in the early Church, and throughout her twenty centuries, today the utterance of a simple phrase, “I am a Christian,” can be an offense punishable by death. So widespread is this persecution that Pope Francis and others have long called it a “third world war waged piecemeal . . . a form of genocide.” The U.S. State Department agreed in a 2016 declaration that ISIS has committed genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.
Good people are being persecuted, tortured and killed simply because they are Christian. It makes no difference whether they are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox. One way we can show solidarity with them is to stand together with them as one in Jesus Christ – Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox – notwithstanding whatever different understandings we may have on certain theological and doctrinal matters.
Looking back to the early days of the Church, we find persecution has been a constant. In those early days, Saint Stephen was among the first seven men to be set apart as deacons in the Church. In the first history of the followers of Jesus, the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, he is described as “a man full of faith” who, after his ordination, “did great wonders in signs among the people” (Acts 6:5, 8). He preaches and teaches and gives his life to service in the Church.
Today, however, Stephen is most remembered not for pioneering the diaconate, but rather for his death. Since the early days of the Church, in fact, Christians have honored Stephen with the title Protomartyr. It is a Greek compound word meaning “first martyr” and it belongs to Stephen alone. But while Stephen was the first of the martyrs, he was certainly not the last.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch is one of the great figures of the ancient Church. He was bishop in the city where the disciples were first called Christians (see Acts 11:26). Much of what we know about Ignatius is what we can glean from seven letters he wrote as he journeyed from Antioch to Rome. “Journeyed” is perhaps the wrong word. He was traveling as a condemned prisoner under military escort for the execution of his death sentence in the capital city.
It was in this era that the Emperor Trajan, in an exchange of letters with a provincial governor, Pliny the Younger, approved of a basic test in the treatment of Christians: Those persons who persisted in professing they were Christian were deserving of execution. Those who disavowed Jesus and offered wine and incense to the Roman gods would be set free unmolested.
Fast-forward to today, and we find that the Age of the Martyrs is not passed. It is reliably asserted that more people died for the Christian faith in the 20th century than in all the other centuries combined. The 21st century appears to be no better – with not a few of the executioners posting videos of their atrocities online to make a public spectacle of each death, as in the days of the Roman persecutions.
These atrocities committed against Christians, largely by ISIS and other similar groups, have included beheadings, shootings, systematic kidnappings, rape and other sexual assault, sexual enslavement and human trafficking, bombings, destruction of houses of worship, and even crucifixion – all part of a genocidal effort to cleanse Christians from the Middle East. In has also taken a huge toll. According to a report by the papal Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), since the start of the Arab Spring in December 2010 and the resulting civil war, the Christian population in Syria has been cut almost in half.
To read the reports and personal testimonies of the extreme suffering and crimes against humanity inflicted upon Christians, to listen to accounts of girls as young as seven being raped, sold or given away as sex slaves, of torture and forced conversions is disturbing and heart wrenching. How can such things not strike the consciences of people everywhere?
Yet, these people and their stories are also profoundly inspiring. Our sisters and brothers might avoid the violence if they simply gave in to demands to give up Christ and converted to another belief. Instead, they stand firm in the faith, giving up everything they have, even sometimes their lives, for Jesus Christ.
By standing together in solidarity with persecuted Christians today, each one of us supports and strengthens their witness to faith in Jesus Christ. For these persecuted men, women and children are walking the road Christ himself walked, a way of rejection and self-sacrifice, even to death, a death from which Christ emerged victorious in his Resurrection.
Each of us, I believe, has at least the power to raise our voice and be in solidarity with people distant from us, unknown to us, not a part of our immediate community, not a part of this family, not a part of our nation. This is not a Christian crisis that should be of concern only to Christians. It is a human crisis that we all need to address. These men, women and children are a part of our human community. I think it should rest on the conscience of each one of us. Not just religious leaders, but scholars, news media, the film industry, and public leaders must join together and tell this story. Atrocities happen because there are those who commit them and those who simply remain silent.
The image of Simon of Cyrene stepping forward to help Jesus carry his cross has forever been imprinted indelibly in the consciousness of Christian iconography. So, too, can we step forward to help our suffering brothers and sisters carry their cross.
The language of the Church is prayer. We must turn our hearts and minds to God, to lift up our brothers and sisters in prayer, and to beg for God compassion’s and mercy on them.
The USCCB is collaborating with the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services, CNEWA and Aid to the Church on the project of solidarity in suffering. Securing the future of Christians in the Middle East and American leadership in this effort will also be the subject of an upcoming summit of In Defense of Christians on October 24-26. My hope is that you will take advantage of the resources that are now available to assist our parishes, schools and campus ministries in observing this day of prayer and week of awareness. These resources are available on the following webpage: www.usccb.org/middle-east-Christians.
For nearly two millennia, Christians have lived peacefully in the Middle East with their neighbors. Today, they can play a crucial role in reconciliation and rebuilding, and there is still time to help. But time is running out. Together, alone, individually, collectively, whenever the opportunity presents itself and even when it is inconvenient, we must lift up our hearts in prayers, offer our hands in help and raise our voices in witness. These are our brothers and sisters!