ISIS Be Warned: Persecution Only Strengthens the Faith of Christians
ISIS destroyed another ancient Christian holy site last week. The latest casualty in their 26-year-long campaign to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth was the Mar Elian monastery in the town of Qaryatain near Homs, Syria.
They first kidnapped 230 people—including dozens of Christian families—after taking Qaryatain, releasing about 48 of them and transferring 110 to Raqqa province, the headquarters of the Islamist group. Then they bulldozed the monastery.
How many times has something like this happened? One hundred? More?
It’s getting to be old news, and yet, it should alarm us as much as if we were hearing it for the first time.
It also should motivate us to uncompromisingly own our faith.
When I read the accounts of the bombing and bulldozing of churches and monasteries in the Middle East – mainly in Iraq and Syria, but there have been others – and of the thousands of Christians kidnapped and slaughtered, I’m reminded of the Early Church.
Between the first persecution under Nero in 64 to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians experienced 129 years of persecution. It’s unknown exactly how many Christians were killed during that time, but we can imagine the impact based on historical documents, inscriptions, and the catacombs.
It wasn’t easy being a Christian in the first three centuries.
Yet, they carried on. How?
They committed the Scriptures and traditions of the faith to memory and practiced in secret – homes, catacombs, hidden places. They communicated through symbols and supported one another in quiet, away from the eyes of the emperor and his henchmen (at least as much as was possible).
In much of the world, Christians still have the right, for the most part, to practice their faith and their churches still stand. But, what if that was to change? We’d be in the same predicament as the Early Church, and as the current Christians under persecution in the Middle East.
Perhaps we need to learn from them.
Perhaps it would be good for us to become less dependent on the exterior things of our faith – church buildings, prayer books, and the like, and form ourselves to become more dependent on the faith that lies within us.
Let me qualify that: our churches, shrines, sacramentals, sacraments, Bibles, devotionals and so on are vitally important, grace-giving, and faith-sustaining. We cannot, should not, do without them. They are irreplaceable.
But, what if they were taken from us, or if we were somehow prohibited from using them?
Yes, that could happen. Regardless, it would do us good to challenge ourselves to become stronger Christians internally, for example by committing devotions, Scripture, songs and even parts of the Mass to memory as well as making frequently spiritual Communions.
There’s a German priest I know, Fr. Joseph Kentenich (1885-1968), who was captured by the Nazi’s and imprisoned for a month in solitary confinement – a converted bank vault too small to stand up nor lay down in. He could hear the screams of the other prisoners breaking down mentally and from physical pain as they were tortured.
Yet, he remained sane and holy.
He had committed the tools of his faith to memory and depended on that to sustain him in God’s grace. This practice also was fruitful throughout his internment in Dachau concentration camp from 1942-45 in spite of the torture and torment he and his fellow prisoners had to endure there.
As founder of the Apostolic Movement of Schoenstatt, Father Kentenich taught this same method to his followers as a way to sustain themselves in God’s grace through any trial they may face.
What we commit to memory and internalize remains with us no matter whether we’re surrounded with beautiful holy things or we’re trapped in darkness, both figuratively and actually.
They say history repeats itself, and I believe that’s true. The persecution of today’s Christians is reminiscent of the persecution of the early Christians. For their sake and our own, we should be striving, not only to deepen, but also to own our faith.
Let ISIS force our faith in, not out.