SEDNAYA, Syria — Many know of the mythical Phoenix, the bird legend said to have the power to regenerate itself from the ashes of its predecessor in a Middle-Eastern desert. Given the incredible persecution faced by contemporary Christians in the same region, an analogy between the faithful in the Middle East and the mythological fowl might seem unlikely.
However, Christian leaders insist the Church in some Arab-speaking lands is indeed resurrecting out of the cinders of its burned houses of worship, the beheaded bodies of its faithful and the long-standing discrimination it has faced since Islam violently wrested this part of the world from Christendom, beginning in the seventh century.
In a concrete symbol of this heroic Christian witness, this October, a huge, monumental bronze statue of Our Lord — modeled on a similar one overlooking Rio de Janeiro — was erected near the Syrian Christian town of Sednaya, on an ancient pilgrimage route that once took the faithful from Constantinople to the Holy Land.
While such a construction would be remarkable anywhere, it is even more so, given that it happened amidst the violent conflict rending the Middle East asunder in recent years. Ever since the advent of the so-called Arab Spring in December 2010, the region has seen an extraordinary amount of violence.
And while the carnage has touched everyone, it has hit the Christian population particularly hard, leading some to say the Arab Spring has birthed a Christian Autumn.
For example, on Sept. 7, al Qaeda-backed jihadists took the ancient town of Maaloula, an ancient Christian village and one of the last places in the world that has Aramaic, the language of Jesus, as its mother tongue. The Islamists forced the conversion of a handful of people and beheaded three others, whom Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III calls “the martyrs of Maaloula.”
Signs of Hope and Renewal
Despite these manifold hardships, the Register went looking for signs of hope and renewal coming from these persecuted Middle-Eastern Christians. And the signs are many.
Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt — where Christians have been targeted in recent months by Muslim zealots, who blame them for supporting the military coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi from the Egyptian presidency in early July — says Western Catholics “have to be proud of [Middle-Eastern] Christians because we are giving new martyrs to the Church.”
Furthermore, when given the opportunity, the region’s faithful thrive. For instance, Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem told the Register that the number of Christians in Israel is actually increasing, rising from a low of 2% to roughly 5% of the current population. Moreover, Bishop Shomali noted, “our impact in the society is much more than the percentage. Through schools, through universities, through hospitals, our impact in society is recognized and appreciated.”
Additionally, in Jordan, where King Abdullah II has not only allowed religious tolerance but promoted it, the Church now has 40 priests, more than 150 nuns, 60 catholic schools, five Christian hospitals, numerous day hospitals, youth movements with about 3,000 boys and girls and the same for scouts, a general secretariat for the youth and one for the scouts, a general secretariat for parish councils (with more than 150 members), a general secretariat for a young-family movement (more than 200 families meet every Tuesday), a general secretariat for sacristans (more than 400), association of Christian mothers (hundreds), and Caritas, which has 150 employees and more than 1,200 voluntary workers, Archbishop Maroun Lahham, the vicar of the Latin Patriarchate, noted in a Nov. 13 article in Oasis magazine.
Wrote Archbishop Lahham, “Our churches are active, and life is the sign of the Resurrection.”
Strength Through Suffering
In some cases, the good news coming from Middle-Eastern Christians is simply a good attitude. For instance, Bishop Shomali said, “The faith of the Christian community in places such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq has become stronger because of the suffering, because of the persecution [and] the vexations and harassment, because we know by experience [that] suffering deepens faith. There is a special grace from God that deepens it.”
He recalled last summer’s World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. There, he said, “I met some Iraqis. I saw they enjoyed a really strong faith. I see it also in many Egyptians who come as pilgrims to the Holy Land. The faith they have, these Copts who have suffered, is much stronger than those who enjoy religious freedom.”
Antiochian Orthodox Bishop Nicholas Ozone of Brooklyn affirms Bishop Shomali’s observation. When asked whether the civil war-birthed persecution in Syria has impacted the faithful’s observance, he replied, “It is absolutely not affecting their going to church or their faith at all. If anything, it increases their faith. [We maintain our] hospitals … and orphanages in Syria.” Indeed, he says local orphanages are taking on more children, which is both inspiring and tragic at the same time.
Then there is a refusal to be cowed. For instance, according to Father Greiche, on the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption on Aug. 15, Muslim Brotherhood-influenced mobs destroyed roughly 60 Egyptian churches and even more hospices and schools. Rebuilding destroyed churches began the very next day, he noted, with the army doing some of the rebuilding.
Nor have Christians allowed persecution or war to stop them from living the Gospel command of loving their neighbors. Said Patriarch Gregorios III, “Since the beginning of 2012 [about a month into the civil war], we have a committee giving help to about 3,000 families without discrimination: Christian, Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox. It does not matter. We have spent $40,000 helping people, again without discrimination.”
The Situation in Iraq
In Iraq, Patriarch Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church told the Register that “the situation in Iraq is very different from other countries in the region. We have full freedom to teach our people, to build churches, to open schools, hospitals.”
But Patriarch Sako said, “The crucial problem is security. This is for all Iraqis. … Sure, we Christians, we have suffered a lot. Christians have been killed, others kidnapped, tortured and have been released with a high ransom. And 61 churches and monasteries have been attacked; 1,000 Christians died. But we still are a sign of hope for the others, because we always build bridges and not walls.”
Furthermore, the patriarchate is actively looking to serve its faithful in a practical way so there is less incentive for them to flee to the West. For instance, Patriarch Sako said, “when the seminary transferred to Erbil in the north, it left the old one empty.” As a result, the patriarchate opened the living quarters there in the former seminary to newly married couples and to poor families in order to help them become financially stable.
Also, he noted, “Christians have private schools and hospitals, and more Muslim students and sick are coming to study or to be cured. They have confidence in the nuns. This is an excellent witness.”
Considering that the odds are decidedly not in their favor, some Middle Easterners show heroism by not moving away. In recent years, other Christians understandably have fled from the region’s violence and persecution in droves.
And yet Father Greiche says many have made a conscious decision to stay. “Their first inclination is not to flee our mission in Egypt,” he commented about local Christians who have made a decision not to be forced from their native country. “The mission is to rebuild … to help the poorest … find work, find homes, educate their children, and, most of all, above everything is to keep the light of our Lord Jesus Christ, he who lived in Egypt when the Holy Family fled from Herod. Christianity still lives in Egypt, and we need to keep that torch burning.”
Turning the Other Cheek
And perhaps the greatest witness of all is the collective decision of Middle-Eastern Christians to follow one of Christ’s most difficult commands: turning the other cheek.
In his Oasis article, Bishop Lahham said, “The voice of the Church in Palestine and Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Iraq aims at being the voice of truth, a voice that invites us to refuse violence, war, terrorism, killings and revenge.” Likewise, Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X of Antioch declared in a September 2013 address in Amman, Jordan, “We reject the logic of violence, killing and kidnapping.”
Father Greiche said that Christians who were attacked in Upper Egypt (which is actually in the south of the country) possessed arms, “but they did not use them” against their attackers. “This means that the teaching of Our Lord is really inserted into our Christian communities in Egypt: not to resort to arms like those who attack them,” he said.
The magnitude of the violence that continues to confront the Middle East’s beleaguered Christians was on tragic display again on Christmas Day, when a pair of bombs in Christian neighborhoods in Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad killed at least 37 people.
Pope Francis drew attention to those attacks when he issued an Angelus appeal on behalf of the world’s persecuted Christians on Dec. 26, the feast day of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.
“We are close to those brothers and sisters who, like St. Stephen, are unjustly accused and subjected to violence of various kinds,” the Pope said, as Vatican Radio reported.
The Holy Father added that, although Christians shouldn’t be surprised by such mistreatment, as Jesus warned that his followers would be persecuted and that this persecution offers an opportunity for profound witness, “injustice in the civil [sphere] must be denounced and eliminated.”
Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.