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Lawrence P. Grayson

Today's Ignored Martyrs

    ISIS is carrying out its vow to systematically kill and persecute Christians in countries of the Middle East and North Africa. On Palm Sunday, as Holy Week began, Islamic State suicide bombers in Egypt exploded their lethal weapons in two Coptic Christian churches, killing 47 people and injuring more than 100 others. Shortly before last Christmas, a suicide bomber killed 30 worshipers in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. On February 15, 2015, ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, and released a video of the group murder.

    Radical Islamic terrorist groups are employing barbaric tactics in a jihad, including mass slaughters, beheadings, kidnapping, rape, abductions of women and girls, compelled marriages, forced conversions, destruction of churches and involuntary migrations. The results are devastating, forcing Christians to flee their ancestral lands.

    In Iraq, for example, the Christian population has decreased from 1.4 million in 2003 to 275,000 in 2016. In Syria, the number of Christians dropped from 1.5 million to 500,000 in just five years. A similarly large exodus is occurring throughout the region. In the early 20th century, Christians constituted 20 percent of the population of the Middle East; in 2010, they made up only 5 percent; today, it is undoubtedly less. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, in announcing that the Order gave $1.9 million in 2016 to support these persecuted peoples, stated that 2017 may be “the decisive year in determining whether many Christian communities throughout the Middle East will continue to exist.”

    Religious persecution is a worldwide problem, but a region where oppression of Christians is experienced daily is the Holy Land, the place where Christianity began. In that area, which is under Israel’s control, Christians must contend with severe restrictions on routine living, especially in the occupied parts of the West Bank, due largely to the separation walls, checkpoints and military procedures that Israel has installed to protect itself from attacks by Palestinian extremists. Religious fundamentalism in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, as well as Jewish fundamentalism and settler movement, are also serious concerns. The conditions on travel, education, housing and employment have become so onerous that there has been a large emigration of Christians from the Holy Land.

    Today, Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Nazareth where he grew up, and Jerusalem where he died and resurrected are nearly devoid of Christians. In Jerusalem, where 27,000 Christians lived in 1948, today there are about 5,000. If there is no change, there soon may be no Christians living in the region. The Holy Land with its numerous sites so integral to Christian history then would become nothing more than a spiritual theme park, attractive to pilgrims and tourists, but not hospitable to the Arab Christians whose families have lived there continually since the time of Our Lord.

    The persecution of Christians extends beyond the Middle East. Under Caesar’s Sword, a global research project on religious persecution, reports that about 200 million Christians around the world are “at risk of physical violence, arrest, torture, even death simply because they live and practice a faith that is not acceptable to the rulers in that part of the world.” It has concluded that “Christians are the most widely targeted religious community, suffering terrible persecutions globally,” with at least 60 percent of the cases of global religious persecution and 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination directed against them. Even the Vatican is considered at risk of Islamic State terrorism.

    The Pew Research Center, in its recent annual report on Global Restrictions on Religion, noted that government laws targeting religious groups and societal hostilities, including hate speech, harassment, vandalism and violence against individuals of specific religions, increased markedly from 2014 to 2015. In 2015, 40 percent of the countries worldwide were rated to have “very high” or “high” levels of religious hostility. This was up six points from 2014. While the cited countries are in all parts of the world, the highest levels by far of both “government restrictions on religion” and “social hostilities involving religion” were in nations of the Middle East and North Africa, the same regions where ISIS is operating.

     Last year, the European Union, the United States and the British Parliament each declared that the persecution of Christians by ISIS is genocide. In spite of these resolutions, the oppression continues, for these governmental bodies have not supported their resolutions with concrete action. Until then, nothing will change.

    World leaders can no longer delay. Pronouncements are not enough. To save and protect the Christians of the Middle East, world leaders must take swift and aggressive steps to end this crisis.

    Pope Francis, in his Regina Coeli address in 2015, said: Everyone is called to a “spiritual journey of intense prayer, concrete participation, and tangible help in the defense and protection of our brothers and sisters who are persecuted, exiled, killed, and beheaded just for being Christians…They are our martyrs of today, and there are so many, we can say that they are more numerous than in the first centuries.”

    In his visit to Cairo on April 28, the pope urged participants at an International Conference on Peace to “say once more a firm and clear, ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.” He continued, “We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God.”

    The next day at a Mass for 15,000 people, the pope recalled the meeting of the forlorn disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and how their despair was turned into life, “for when human hope vanishes, divine hope begins to shine in its place.” He provided a message of hope, saying that “when we reach the depths of failure and helplessness, when we rid ourselves of the illusion that we are the best, sufficient unto ourselves and the center of our world, then God reaches out to us to turn our night into dawn, our affliction into joy, our death into resurrection.”

    As a worldwide moral leader, the pope must continue to speak out, urging the heads of the world’s major countries to take specific actions to eliminate all religious persecution.

Vivat Jesus!

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Published May 2017


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