Are Persecuted Middle East Christians Martyrs Rather Than Victims of Genocide?

(photo: Screenshot)

Pope Francis said on Saturday that he did not like to use the word genocide when referring to persecuted Christians in the Middle East, preferring instead to use the term “martyrdom”.

Some were perplexed by his comment as the Pope was the first to use the word in referrence to the atrocities in the Middle East last year, and believe it may have been an attempt to reclaim the word “martyr” from Islamists.

Speaking at Villa Nazareth, an apostolate in Rome that offers educational opportunities for young persons in need, the Pope made the point that every Christian is called to bear witness, also in difficult situations.

For this reason, he said “I do not like it — and I want to say this clearly — when we speak of the genocide of Christians, for instance in the Middle East; this is reductionism.

“The truth is a persecution that leads Christians to the faithfulness and consistency in their faith. Let us not transform a mystery of faith to sociological reductionism … We do not carry out a sociological reductionism of what is a mystery of faith: martyrdom.”

The Pope words were somewhat baffling, not least because he was the first global leader of such a high standing to use the word genocide ­— and insisted on using it — in the context of persecuted Christians in the Middle East when he visited Bolivia last year.  

The Holy Father said: “Today, we are dismayed to see how in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world many of our brothers and sisters are persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus. This too needs to be denounced: in this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide — I insist on the word — is taking place, and it must end.”

His comments helped propel a concerted effort to have the U.S. and other countries recognize the slaughter of Christians and religious minorities by ISIS and other Islamists in the Middle East as genocide. On March 17, Secretary of State John Kerry did just that, after international pressure and a campaign led by the Knights of Columbus and others.

In April 2015, the Pope also controversially described the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I as "the first genocide of the 20th century" and urged the international community to recognize it as such.

His words sparked a diplomatic rift with Turkey which believes the estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed to be an exaggerated figure, and claims they were, in any case, victims of civil war and unrest. Francis is expected to refer to the slaughter again as genocide when he visits Armenia at the end of this week.

But the context and timing of the Pope's latest remark are important. Sources say the Pope’s words last Saturday may be aimed at reclaiming the word martyrdom which has been hijacked by those accused of modern-day genocide in the Middle East, namely ISIS terrorists and suicide bombers. It’s also believed the Pope, in addressing the issue as a religious leader in a Catholic setting, naturally wished to focus on a religious category rather than a sociological one that primarily has significance in international law.

Also it should be noted that two patriarchs from the region have also said something similar: both the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, and Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai have said they would prefer not to describe the persecution of Christians in the Middle East as genocide (Twal said such a description came too late and doesn’t correspond with reality).  But Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad said it was genocide, as did Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan. Unlike the other two patriarchs, the latter two live in the most affected areas.

But it is also perhaps interesting to note that the word genocide initially referred to the deadly persecution of Christians rather than the eradication of an ethnic or other religious group. In his book The Lost History of Christianity, Philip Jenkins writes that Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin first coined the term in reference to the Assyrians, and Christian Armenians before them, who were massacred by marauding Muslim forces in the early part of the 20th century.

So shocking were the anti-Christian purges, Lemkin argued that a new legal category be created, called crimes of barbarity — primarily “acts of extermination directed against the ethnic, religious or social collectivities whatever the motive (political, religious etc.). Lemkin then developed this theme, eventually coining the word genocide for such atrocities in 1943. He applied it to a “uniquely horrible act demanding international sanctions” that has “its roots in the thoroughly successful movements to eradicate Middle East Christians.” 

Now that the atrocity of slaughtering Christians in the Middle East has been recognized as genocide in the interests of applying international sanctions, the Pope appears to have wanted to move on and make a distinctly religious  point: that Christians are first and foremost called to bear witness, and those Christians killed in the Middle East are therefore martyrs before they are victims of genocide.   

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy