The Bishop’s Letter: The suffering of Christians in the Middle East
Catholic Outlook August 2014 Letter of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP,
Bishop of Parramatta
Many of us recall the name ‘Isis’ from school history lessons. The ancient Egyptian goddess of nature, fertility and magic, she was worshipped across the Greco-Roman world. She was also the central figure in the 2013 horror film, Isis Rising: Curse of the Lady Mummy.
‘ISIS’ also stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (variants include ‘ISIL’ and ‘al-Sham’), a terrorist organisation, lately much in the media. It came to prominence in the civil war in Syria and through recent incursions in Iraq. Its members, who include some radicalised Australians, regard Al-Qaeda as too moderate!
Half a million Christians and Muslims have fled from their path to northern Iraq.
ISIS’s stated aim is to establish a caliphate in the Middle East – a radical Sunni Islamist state incorporating Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus and Southern Turkey. The result: governments in disarray, armies and police in flight, churches destroyed, streets full of corpses.
Many people from that region have made Western Sydney and Australia their home; we are blessed to include many amongst our Catholic community. They are often themselves victims of the instability and devastation that has marked the Middle East in recent years – and from ancient times.
They are the lucky ones who have escaped and they have a strong sense of their identity and mission as Christians. We join them in praying for peace in their countries of origin.
In Syria, ISIS has subjected Christians to “dhimmi contracts” which treat them as second-class citizens and force them to pay up big or face beheading or crucifixion. Iraqi Christians fear the same fate is ahead for them. And this unfolding catastrophe is affecting the whole of the Middle East, especially now Lebanon and Jordan.
Christians in the Middle East are used to such suffering. Though amongst the most ancient Christian communities they have declined dramatically in recent years. Prior to the US-led military invasion of 2003, in which Australia took part, 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq; around two-thirds have since left. In the past year alone the number of Iraqi churches fell from around 300 to 50.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS are telling Christians to leave the Middle East. When Al-Qaeda killed 58 and injured another 78 in Our Lady of Deliverance Church in Baghdad in October 2010, Pope Benedict XVI condemned the attack as ferocious and ungodly.
When 38 more were killed in a Christian market in Baghdad last Christmas, Pope Francis said that this continuing injustice must be “denounced and eliminated”.
Persecution and religious cleansing
Sadly, the Western powers and media seem largely indifferent to all this. But as fellow Christians and fellow human beings, we cannot turn a blind eye to this persecution and religious cleansing.
Of course, sometimes we feel powerless to help. Like Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, we may wonder: why, Lord, do you allow so much undeserved suffering? Why are your creatures so hateful and divided?
One thing we might say to this is that God created us free: we are not robots or apps blindly following the Maker’s instructions. The only goodness and love worthy of the name is that which is chosen freely. But with such freedom comes the risk that we will abuse it, turning away from good and choosing evil.
Secondly, as our greatest theologians have said, God sometimes permits evil so some greater good may come of it (Augustine, Enchir. Xi; Aquinas, STh Ia 2, 3, ad 1). Though the sin of Adam radically disrupted human relationships with God and each other, at Easter we call it felix culpa, a happy fault, because it “earned so great a Redeemer”.
Other evils and suffering can also be occasions of love and goodness. When Christ commanded that we love our enemies (Mt 5:44), He was not being naïve about what this might cost us: but He was also aware of what such generous and courageous loving can make of us and what impact such witness can have upon others.
Some courageous Christians, including many priests and nuns, have chosen to remain in Syria and Iraq in order to minister in parishes, hospitals and schools to Muslims and Christians alike. They are determined to keep up ‘the hard loving’.
The solace they offer in this “valley of tears” is a radical countersign to hate; their hope for a world where tears will be wiped away and death be no more (Rev 21:4) is an answer to despair.
How blessed we are in Australia to live in a stable democracy based on Judeo-Christian values that enable people of many different faiths and backgrounds to live in friendship, peace and prosperity.
We cannot take all this for granted and must be ever vigilant lest it be undermined. And we must pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East and even for their persecutors, that God’s kingdom come, “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace” (Preface of Christ the King). Bishop Anthony’s Catholic Outlook Letters are archived on the Diocese of Parramatta’s website
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