Civil strife in Egypt has left its Christian minority more embattled than ever, as churches were targets of attacks last month. And, in Syria, the civil war and the use of chemical weapons on civilians has escalated the conflict to the point that the United States is considering military engagement. Church leaders in the Middle East have spoken out forcefully against the West’s approach to the Syrian conflict.
The Holy See has urged the United States and its allies to seek a peaceful resolution, not military action, in Syria.
In an Aug. 25 address, referencing disturbing and "terrible images" following the chemical-weapons attack in Damascus, Pope Francis stressed that it is "not confrontation that offers hope to resolve problems, but, rather, the ability to meet and dialogue."
Likewise, earlier in August, Pope Francis had asked Catholics to pray for all the victims of political and sectarian violence in Egypt. Again, Francis insists that violence is incompatible with religious faith, and coercion should never be used to convert nonbelievers. "Just the opposite: The true strength of Christians is the power of truth and love, which means renouncing all forms of violence," said the Pope.
"Faith and violence are incompatible! Instead, faith and fortitude go hand in hand. A Christian is not violent."
The attacks on Christians in Egypt began after the government moved to clear the streets in Cairo of two groups of demonstrators protesting the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s first democratically elected president who was removed from office by the military. Time magazine reported that 60 churches were damaged or destroyed, while some Egyptian Christian-rights groups put the number even higher, noting the looting and burning of ancient monasteries, as well as schools, orphanages and shops.
Yet U.S. Catholics, expecting a strong reaction from the White House, were disappointed. President Obama made only a passing reference to the plight of Christians during his public remarks about the turmoil in Egypt.
It is time for Washington to use its influence with a U.S. ally and foreign-aid recipient to help defend Christians. Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging the administration to "support and encourage respect for human rights, religious freedom and the building of an inclusive democracy in which all Egyptians have a stake and a voice."
"Towards these ends," the bishop said, "we urge you to press for an end to the violence, a return to the rule of law, the protection of the Christian community and the initiation of ‘dialogue and reconciliation’ that leads to an inclusive future for all Egyptians."
U.S. Catholics should make these goals part of their daily prayer and consider contacting their representatives in Washington to actively support policies that will defend the fundamental civil rights of our brothers and sisters in faith. And we would do well to follow Pope Francis’ mission prayer intention for this month — and not only this month, but always: "That Christians suffering persecution in many parts of the world will by their witness be prophets of Christ’s love."