The Catholic Church and the Persecution of Christians in the Middle East

Can the Vatican help?

With great fanfare, before a crowd of 800,000, with 1,000 bishops and 150 cardinals in attendance and a TV audience of several millions, the Vatican recently added two new saints to its pantheon. Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were canonized for having effected medical miracles that saved the lives of three women who had begged their intercession for, respectively, Parkinson’s, internal hemorrhages, and a brain disease.

Those were, obviously, marvelous outcomes for these three individuals. But pull back the lens just a bit and the mood of jubilation appears ill placed. In light of what is happening to Catholics in the Middle East, the crowd should have been praying for miracles on an entirely different scale.

In Iraq, Syria and Egypt, Christians face a relentless campaign of murder, kidnapping, arson, bombings and persecution. In Turkey, Lebanon and Palestine, the anti-Christian violence is less overt, but there, too, intimidation and discrimination have fueled a huge exodus. Islamic extremists and fundamentalists are determined to drive Christianity out of its birthplace in the Middle East—and they are succeeding. A few decades ago, 20 percent of the Middle East was Christian; today that is down to 4 percent. Iraq alone has lost 80 percent of its Christians during just the last ten years. By any standard, this is ethnic cleansing.

But the numbers, however dramatic, can’t express the human cost. The sectarian war and the random violence in Iraq and Syria are bad enough, but Christians face special targeting. Their churches are regularly mortared and firebombed, congregants killed by suicide bombers or assassins just for attending mass. In Iraq, I met priests who had been kidnapped, tortured and beaten. Their teeth had been knocked out with revolver handles and their spines broken with hammer blows, until finally, a ransom was scraped together and they were dumped on the street half-dead.

And what is Rome doing about all of this? Not very much. One almost gets the impression that religious persecution is too messy for today’s modern, ecumenical church. Consider how it has sanitized sainthood. Formerly, the path to sainthood was martyrdom—you became a saint by enduring agonizing trials and torments before being killed in horrific ways, all the while holding firm to your faith. Today you can live out your life in comfort, die a natural death, then heal an ailing person from beyond the grave, and be declared a saint. That’s much more civilized, but it obscures the harsh fact that Christians are still being hunted, tormented and killed in horrific ways, yet are heroically holding steadfast to the faith. Instead of being an inspiration, one feels that they are seen as a sort of embarrassing blemish on the pretty contemporary face of interfaith dialogue.

Consider, for instance, the statement by the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries, in which they finally ventured to address the issue at all. Well yes, they acknowledge therein, Christians are being persecuted…although maybe the word persecuted is too strong…True, they are being murdered and driven from their homes…but they can take comfort from the words of Jesus, “happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”…which is not to say, of course, that Christians are necessarily righteous! …waffle, waffle, waffle.

‘Persecuted’ is too strong a term? Tell that to the parents who lost their children when a convoy of school buses, ferrying students from the Christian area of Nineveh to their classes in Mosul, was ambushed. Tell that to the survivors of the massacre at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, who—with the words “you are all infidels”—were taken hostage by armed gunmen who went on to execute fifty-eight of the worshipers, including small children. Tell that to the hospital director in Mosul who was told that her position is too high for a Christian and she and her family would be killed if she did not voluntarily resign. Tell that to the Christians in the rebel-held Syrian city of Raqqa, who have been informed that they are now “dhimmis” and must pay a special tax for the privilege of staying alive in “Muslim lands”, though they may not maintain churches or give any public sign of Christian observance.

The situation in Syria and Iraq is volatile, explosive and tragic, and remedies are not readily at hand. Still, there is much that Rome could and must do for its own.

Before we begin that discussion, though, we must remember that the Vatican is not just a prayerful, spiritual place—it is a political powerhouse of the first order. It commands an army of top-notch analysts and diplomats. Its diplomatic corps officially goes back to the year 1500, but its experience at navigating even the most Machiavellian corridors of worldly power predates that by centuries. Popes were not just moral authorities and observers of secular happenings, they were weighty players, shaping events in Europe, the colonies, and the world. Certainly, this formidable institution could come up with some effective strategies if it wanted to and hardly needs our advice. But here goes, anyway:

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