BUDAPEST — The persecution of Christians in Iraq has led to “many thousands” of Muslims converting to the faith in the country, according to the newly appointed archbishop of Mosul.

Chaldean Archbishop Najib Mikhael Moussa, a Dominican and Mosul native appointed to the formerly ISIS-occupied archdiocese in January, said that “many thousands of Muslims discovered the Person of Jesus Christ” after the “kind of violence” Christians faced there — persecution that led the faithful to become “stronger and stronger” in their faith.

“Yes, we lost everything except our faith in Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Moussa told participants at the Second International Conference on Christian Persecution in Budapest. ISIS occupied Mosul from 2014 to 2017, during which they committed many atrocities and drove almost every Christian from the ancient, once-Christian majority city. Only a handful of Christians have since returned.

To help the persecuted, Archbishop Moussa went on, “one must help the persecutors first,” by “releasing” Islamists from being “prisoners, real slaves of ideology,” through giving them the Gospel so they can “discover the God of love and help them get away from death and violence.”  

He also underlined the importance of preserving the region’s patrimony of Christianity that dates back 2,000 years — the “faith, liturgy, history, our mother tongue, our manuscripts, our documentation” — otherwise, “the tree will die if separated from its roots.”  

 

Fostering Collaboration

The Nov. 26-28 gathering of religious and civic leaders, diplomats and volunteers, which was hosted and sponsored by the Hungarian government, was aimed at fostering collaboration among those working to protect Christians from persecution and to offer the persecuted solidarity in a world in which they largely feel forgotten — also within the Catholic Church.

The meeting, which attracted double the number of attendees than the first conference in 2017, is a fruit of the Hungarian government becoming the first of its kind to establish a government ministry for persecuted Christians, providing tangible help by giving aid directly to persecuted Christians through its “Hungary Helps” program.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán opened the conference by explaining why his country feels especially called to help persecuted Christians.

“We’re sowing a seed,” he said, “giving the persecuted what they need and getting back from them the Christian faith, love and persistence.”

A frequent call during the conference was for world leaders to raise their voices in support of persecuted Christians who continue to suffer gruesome attacks, discrimination and other human-rights violations for their faith in many parts of the world.

Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch and all the East deplored that after “five years of sounding the alarm, our cries haven’t been heard by many” and that “very few tangible steps have been taken to counter this real threat to our existence as indigenous people in the land of our forefathers.”

Noting that over the last two decades 90% of Christians have left Iraq, and 50% have left Syria, he stressed that what has been taking place in the Middle East is “nothing less than a genocide.” He commended the “heroism” of many Christian faithful and praised Hungary for its help, but called on the United States and the European Union to lift sanctions on countries such as Syria, as they “only hurt the ordinary people.”

What Christians need, he added, is for their human rights to be respected, “equal citizenship,” the same “rights and obligations” others have, and not to be made to feel “second-class.” He also called for “dialogue between all parties.”

 

Cardinal Péter Erdő

Hungarian leaders, meanwhile, called on world leaders inside and outside the Church to do more.

Cardinal Péter Erdő, primate of Hungary and archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, said the world “must not keep silent about the persecuted, or regard physical attacks as if nothing happened,” and instead draw attention to these actions if they occur.

“We must effectively raise our voice in favor of those persecuted, so world leaders don’t stand for such actions,” he said. The persecuted “deserve aid and support” and “must be able to return to their homeland and be provided with help so they can begin their lives and work again.”  

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Sziijártó said that whenever he raises the topic of persecuted Christians at meetings of EU ministers, they urge him to say “religious minorities.”

“Well, I want to say ‘persecuted Christians,’” he said to applause. The Hungarian government “rejects” an approach of the international community that deems any form of anti-Christian sentiment as “acceptable,” he said.

So far this year, 2,625 Christians have been arrested without any legal basis, and more than 1,200 churches have been attacked worldwide, Sziijártó noted. Christians, the conference heard, are the largest persecuted minority in the world, with some 245 million Christians around the globe suffering extreme persecution.

The conference also drew attention to the persecution of Christians beyond the Middle East, particularly in Nigeria, where Islamist groups Boko Haram and members of the Fulani tribe have committed atrocious crimes.

Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme of the Diocese of Maiduguri, a focus of Islamist attacks, said the government under President Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani himself, is “deeply involved in the persecution,” which Bishop Doeme said is not only violent but includes discrimination.

The Nigerian prelate, who in 2015 had a vision of a sword turning into a rosary and Jesus telling him three times that Boko Haram would be cast out by praying the Rosary, said his flock was severely traumatized by the attacks. But he added that they had an “unshakeable” faith and had become stronger in the face of persecution. The sources of strength, Bishop Doeme said, were the Eucharist, Eucharistic adoration (one hour before Mass in every parish) and devotion to Our Lady through the Rosary.

 

Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis

In a short reflection, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis told the conference participants that she hoped Hungary would not be the only country to single out Christians for help. She observed that “no one seems to take to the streets for religious freedom and peace anymore,” but, rather, people seem “more worried about global warming and animal life.”

“Where have we come to if plants and animals are more valued than human beings?” she asked. “Of course, we all want to live in a healthy environment, but how can we accept and tolerate the most atrocious artificial procedures when it comes to our own species?” she continued, referring to hormone treatments to harvest eggs in surrogate mothers for surrogate children and gender-reassignment surgery.

Her concerns were echoed by Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria, who remarked that the “global ambitions of Islam are literally taking root right across the world,” while passion among Christians was “in recession.” Christians are neither “hot nor cold; and because you’re neither, I will spit you out,” he said, quoting the Book of Revelation. The world is seeing a “symptom of our own failure,” he said, and Christians have taken “too much for granted.”

“People say Christianity is dying, but we’ve not attempted to locate the source of our lack of passion,” he continued. “Look at Europe, the free love, sex of the 1960s” that led to adoption of a “nihilist philosophy.” Young Europeans, he said, “haven’t rejected Christianity but have never been offered it in the first place.”

 

U.S. Aid Not Reaching the People?

Presidential assistant Joe Grogan read a message from President Donald Trump, who conveyed his “warmest greetings” to the conference participants. The president said he was “gratified” that Hungary shared the same conviction as the United States in defending religious freedom and added that his administration is taking “concrete steps” to prevent attacks on citizens because of their beliefs.

But away from the presentations, the Register learned that, despite the Trump administration’s decision in 2017 to give aid directly to the persecuted rather than through third parties, Catholics in Iraq have seen little of the nearly $373 million that the administration says it has given, mostly to persecuted Iraqi Christians under the “Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response” initiative.

“We’re mystified where most of these funds has gone,” said one source from the Nineveh Plain region, adding that the region had only received a relatively small fraction (around $700,000), which had arrived over the past six months. The aid has been administered through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a federal government agency providing civilian foreign aid and development assistance.

The final day included a speech from Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, who said the restoration of churches and infrastructure in the Middle East was of “the highest priority” so that Christians may return to the region.

He similarly called on world leaders to listen to persecuted Christians “being exterminated before our very eyes” and shared details of how an interreligious group in Russia is helping the faithful in Syria through a “number of humanitarian initiatives.”

He closed by expressing hope that the conference “would help Christians of both East and West unite their efforts in the cause of peacemaking.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.