Five years ago I received a letter from a former Special Forces officer and graduate of West Point—a career Army veteran—serving in Baghdad as a security adviser to Iraqi authorities.
A Catholic himself, he wrote to me about the harassment and violence Iraqi Christians face as part of their daily routine. He knew, as many Americans still don’t, that large Christian Arab communities once thrived across the Middle East. Over the centuries, under pressure from Islam, Christian populations have slowly declined. But the past 100 years have been especially brutal for Christians of the region.
He wrote that:
“I have come to know many of the surviving (Iraqi) Christians, both Eastern-rite Catholic and Orthodox, who work here in (Baghdad’s) International Zone. I had known as an academic item about the massacre of the (Christian) Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. What I had not known was that many of the areas currently occupied by Kurds—(southeast) Turkey, northern Iraq and northwest Iran—were originally… Christian. Not having enough manpower to kill all the Christians in their empire, the Ottomans ‘contracted out’ the destruction of the Christians to their subject peoples. More than 750,000 were directly killed, died of disease and exposure, or starved to death. What’s going on now (in Iraq) very much affects the remaining Christians here too.”
Discrimination, deprivation of rights and even bloodshed against Christians: All of these indignities have a long and troubling history in the Middle East that predates Western colonialism and American interventions by many years. The horrific attack and murders at Our Lady of Perpetual Help church (also translated as “Our Lady of Deliverance”), an Eastern-rite Catholic community in Baghdad last Oct. 31, were simply the most dramatic in a long line of brutal acts designed to obliterate—either by killing or driving out—the ancient Iraqi Christian community. Observers quite rightly describe the continuing anti-Christian violence in Iraq as a form of “religious cleansing.”
In his World Day of Peace message last month, Pope Benedict XVI voiced his anguish at the growing intolerance toward religious minorities in Asia, Africa and especially in the Middle East. There’s nothing remote or theoretical about this intolerance. It is bitterly real. It’s being suffered by men, women and children who belong to the family of Jesus Christ—our family; our Church; they are our brothers and sisters. If we ignore them, we ignore our own baptism.
Last December, in a letter to brother bishops, clergy and lay Catholics across the United States, Mar Barnaba Yousif Habas—bishop of Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Diocese covering the United States and Canada—pleaded for our solidarity and prayers. He warned that we are “witnessing an ongoing genocide and forced exodus of (Iraq’s Christians) because they are Christians, and only because of their faith.
Unfortunately, the world does not care for the innocent and the poor. No matter what, the Iraqi Christians are holding (onto) their faith for consolation, and their resolve in our Lord Jesus Christ is their hope and their joy.”
The current turmoil in Egypt threatens, once again, to obscure the intense suffering of Christians throughout the region. Don’t let that happen. This is the kind of moment that determines who we really are as believers. We can’t solve the problems of the world. But we can help brother Christians who are suffering for their faith and simply trying to live in peace in a land they’ve called home for centuries, long before the arrival of Islam.
Please pray for the Catholic and other Christian communities of Iraq. And I ask all those parishes and individuals who can, to provide whatever financial support they can, to help Iraq’s suffering Church and to assist the many thousands of Iraqi Christians forced to flee their country.
Finally, please contact your senators and members of Congress. Please do it today. Urge them to ensure that the government of the United States is doing all it can to oppose religious persecution and advance religious freedom in the Middle East.