La Ilaha illa Allah. Al Massih howa Allah. (“There is no God but God. Christ is God.”) The striking adaptation of the traditional Islamic declaration of faith to incorporate an unshakeable belief in Christ was the defiant response of Coptic Christians in Egypt’s Minya province as they received the bodies of their dead — 29 men, women and children murdered by Islamic State militants May 26.
The chant made clear that the terrorists would fail to achieve their ultimate goal: the religious cleansing of Egypt’s 9 million Coptic Christians from their ancestral lands. Without any sign of fear, the mourners stood united in their faith, inspired by reports that some of the victims had been shot after refusing to deny their Christian beliefs.
Terrorism is designed to sow fear and destabilize the enemy to achieve a political or ideological goal. But the Copts’ steadfast refusal to repudiate their religious identity revealed an important truth: A community may not be able to prevent the carnage wrought by extremists, but it can choose how it will respond and how its members will conduct their lives going forward.
Indeed, churches and democratic societies are both uniquely qualified to defend human dignity and the rule of law as terror attacks become increasingly commonplace in our broken world. It thus should inspire us to reflect more deeply on the teachings that have guided the Church’s response to this modern scourge. “Terrorism threatens, wounds and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2297).
In the wake of modern terror attacks, Church leaders have expressed their closeness to victims and their families and explained why such attacks against civilians are intrinsically evil and can never be justified.
Pope St. John Paul II’s condemnation of the 9/11 attacks on the United States distilled the Church’s multifaceted response to the brutality, nihilism, lies and, yes, allure of violent political and ideological extremism.
John Paul framed the attack as a “terrible affront to human dignity.” The “ways of violence,” he said, “will never lead to genuine solutions to humanity’s problems.”
Then he gave voice to the question that continues to haunt our souls, as ISIS militants hunt down Missionaries of Charity and behead infants: “How is it possible to commit acts of such savage cruelty? The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people.”
The Vicar of Christ also offered words of hope: “Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it.” John Paul underscored the need for prayer in the face of grave evil. As he expressed his grief at the devastating loss of innocent life, the Holy Father explained that he had followed the “developing situation with heartfelt prayers to the Lord.”
This spiritual practice was surely established in the early life of the young Karol Wojtyla, protecting him from the brutalizing effect of state-sponsored terror during the Nazi and Stalinist occupations of Poland.
The Pope’s words directed the world to consign the soul-crushing spectacle to the mercy of the Father. Meanwhile, his stark reference to man’s capacity to unleash “schemes of unheard-of ferocity” served to remind Americans that the 19 al-Qaida soldiers who executed the attacks on the United States were not the first militants to justify the killing of civilians for a political goal. In the 1970s, European extremists waged a reign of terror on Western Europe and Britain. His deeper message was clear for those with ears to hear: No nation or community is immune to the dark allure of terrorism, which promises the self-appointed executioners power over life and death. Prayer and humility are needed to guard against moral and spiritual complacency. However, the Pope did not use his initial statement to specifically address the U.S. government’s likely response to the attack on U.S. soil. He spoke from his competence as a Catholic leader and spiritual shepherd, steeped in Christian anthropology and moral theology.
After the 9/11 attacks, however, John Paul and his successors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, did challenge problematic elements of the U.S.-led “war on terror” and related political and cultural developments.
Pope Francis and other Church leaders recently warned against populist movements in the West that view immigrants from the Middle East and Africa as a security threat. Francis has been equally forthright in his criticism of terrorist organizations that seek to justify violence in the name of Islam. “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,” Pope Francis stated at a peace conference organized by Al Azhar mosque and university during his recent trip to Egypt.
Yet perhaps the most powerful antidote to jihadist ideology is not interfaith dialogue, but the transformative witness of Christian communities that mourn their dead but still heed Christ’s call to “love your enemies.”
Pope John Paul II forgave the man who almost killed him, and so revealed the beauty, mystery and freedom of Christian discipleship.
In a message released after the May 26 terrorist attack that killed 29 Egyptian Christians, Bishop Angaelos, the general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, said that after consoling the victims and their families, he wished to address the perpetrators. (See the bishop’s statement here.)
“The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but you are loved,” said Bishop Angaelos. “You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation,” he continued. “Transformation is core to the Christian message, for throughout history we have seen many transformed from being those who persecuted Christ himself and Christians to those who went on to live with grace. We believe in transformation because, on a daily basis, we are personally transformed from a life of human weakness and sinfulness to a life of power and righteousness.”