A Voice for the Faithful Catholic Laity
JANUARY 28, 2020
With Burning Concern
Recently the nonagenarian environmentalist, Sir David Attenborough, familiar to viewers of BBC America over many years for his nature shows, warned in bloodcurdling terms that it was almost too late to save the world from the horrors of the “climate crisis.” I remember as a child watching similar warnings during the early 1970s, of the perils the world would face by the millennium. Apparently, due to the population explosion, there would be mass starvation, wars, and revolutions because there were just too many people in the world. All that was missing was the plague of locusts.
Whether the “climate emergency” is quite as serious as Sir David warns is a matter for logical argument and empirical evidence; it is certainly a matter of debate and not dogma, despite the fact that many who doubt the extreme warnings are now treated as scientific heretics. There is, however, a real and existential crisis facing the Christians of the Middle East. It needs—as Jan Figel, the former European Union Religious Freedom Envoy, has said—a “climate change on religious freedom.”
All across the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, the Christian population is rapidly disappearing. Through war, oppression, and centuries of living as second-class citizens in majority-Muslim countries, the life of a once vibrant Christian community is being slowly asphyxiated. The boiling cauldron that is the present Middle East has made life almost impossible for Christians, especially in Iraq and Syria—but also in Egypt and now, increasingly, in Lebanon. Although the oppression of the different Christian communities has been an almost constant feature of life in the Middle East since the rise of Islam, it is possible to argue that the near-terminal onslaught can be traced to the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide, which the Ottoman Empire began in 1915. Since that awful experience, different waves of persecution have washed over the multifarious and ancient communities all across the Middle East and beyond. There are Assyrian and Chaldean families who, in the space of three generations, have been forced out of their homes by violence and persecution at least three times.
In recent decades, the growing menace of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism—financed and supported by countries like Saudi Arabia—is coming close to finally euthanizing the last remaining Christians of Syria and Iraq, where Christian communities have lived since the time of the Apostles. Although figures vary slightly, it is now widely accepted that the Christian population of Iraq has shrunk by 80 percent, from more than a million before the invasion of Iraq to fewer than 200,000 today. In Syria, one of the region’s most ancient, diverse, and beautiful Christian communities has been decimated by years of war, Islamic extremism, and jihadist violence. On a recent visit to Damascus, the youthful Armenian bishop there told me he had lost 50 percent of his congregation through death or exile; those who had left, he said sadly, would not be coming back.
As the life is squeezed out of these communities before the eyes of the world—which speaks so eloquently and passionately, not just of human rights, but of the rights of animals and nature—what has been the response of the Church in the West, and particularly here in the United States? Quite simply: ignorance and indifference. And this apparent indifference can justifiably be laid at the feet of those charged with leading the Church. It is heartbreaking to be told by bishops, clergy, and laity in Iraq and Syria that they believe, deep down, that the Church in the West does not care about them.
Obviously, there are individuals, congregations, NGOs, and others who have been working tirelessly to help. It is worth listening to voices in the Jewish community that have expressed not just surprise but consternation and horror at the vapid and listless response of the Church to the genocide of the Christians of the Middle East. I vividly remember Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York saying that a senior Jewish leader had asked him, “What the heck is wrong with you Catholics?”
Ms. Figel has said that “ignorance and indifference are allies of evil.” Therefore, if the Church in the West did care about these suffering communities, they would be enacting a concerted program of education to combat the lack of knowledge about the extent of the persecution, followed by a sustained campaign of prayer and charity—in conjunction with political pressure—to fight the indifference.
With very limited exceptions, neither of these has happened or is happening. Preaching in parishes throughout the United States, I am constantly bemused by how often people say to me, “We never hear about this.” They always respond wonderfully and generously when they are informed, and they are certainly not indifferent. Why, people ask, do we not hear about this in the media? Apart from the fairly obvious answer that, for many in the media, the suffering of Christians is not an issue, a more disturbing and damning response was given to me by a senior television personality—a Catholic—that the persecution was “a ratings killer.” Once again, if the media largely fails to cover the issue, it is up to the Church to make it central.
Someone who works in the media told me that, when dealing with a story, the reporter should assume the public has “zero interest and zero knowledge.” It appears that this is the case not only in the newsrooms but in our parishes and chanceries.
Where is the campaign of prayer for the persecuted? This is, for the Christians of the Middle East, a Lepanto moment: without a miracle, they will be destroyed. Why, then, is there no proclamation from the successor of Saint Peter to pray the Rosary for the persecuted? On Palm Sunday in 1937, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge—“With Burning Concern”—was read from every pulpit in Germany warning of the threat of Nazi ideology. Where is the encyclical on the existential threat to the Christians of the Middle East?
Is there a single bishop in the United States who (rather than behaving like a middle-level manager of a state bank) leads a weekly Rosary for the persecuted in his own cathedral? It would be heartwarming to see the same level of passion and determination given to those whom we call our brothers and sisters, instead of bishops demanding “green audits” in parishes or attempting to raise millions of dollars to expand bloated chancery offices. Similarly, when the bishops spend so much time, energy, and money on hot political issues like climate change or illegal immigration, why is there not at least an equivalent focus on not just the persecution but advocating for persecuted Christians and other persecuted religious minorities, like the Yezidis, to receive priority for immigration?
It could be because, as a former senior White House official said to a friend of mine rather cynically, “the persecuted Christians have no constituency.” Yet is the Church not their constituency? Oughtn’t our bishops be banging on the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue demanding justice for their cause?
“It is faith that makes martyrs,” St. John Henry Newman said. The martyrdom of so many men, women, and children in the Middle East is a testament to their faith. Perhaps the weak response of the Church in the West is a testament to ours.