This year, as Christians enter the holy season of Advent, a coalition of Christian aid groups, in conjunction with U.S. Catholic bishops, are holding a day of prayer and week of awareness focused on the people who remain today in the region where Jesus Christ lived, whose future remains uncertain.
The Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, Bashar Warda, is once again coming to the United States to make a familiar plea. He insists “the Middle East needs Jesus Christ,” as he told me the last time I sat down with him. That does not mean he is going to force Christianity on Muslims and Jews in the region, because that’s not the way of Jesus. But he does want to ask Americans to think differently about the conflict-torn area -- as home to Christians from the beginning of Christianity.
“You don’t expect Muslims to carry on this good message of Jesus. So, we have to help the Christians to stay. And not just to stay, but to live in a dignified way, and to be able to preach and to give Jesus. Amid all this violence, Jesus is needed.”
“A violent, troubled Middle East needs mercy,” Warda told me. “Jesus is mercy. ... Enough of wars, enough of violence, enough of all these atrocities. We have to help people live a peaceful life. There’s no other choice.”
I’ve been thinking about our interview as I read a book called "The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East." In one of the chapters, Jane Adolphe, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law, talks about the sexual violence that victims of terrorism, especially women and children, experience. She notes that regional and international discussions of radical Islam and sexual violence often leave out the word “Christian,” but Adolphe points to the sexual enslavement of Christians by ISIS and notes in particular the kidnapping of 276 Christian schoolgirls from their dormitory beds at gunpoint in Nigeria by Boko Haram, as their school and village were torched. Some of the girls were subsequently left to die “defiled and bloody, tethered to a tree,” as one journalist put it. Others were “shot for being uncooperative and were buried in shallow graves.” Others pregnant, “most if not all of them, suffer(ing) from psychological and physical injuries.” As we discuss all kinds of sexual assaults and misbehaviors here at home, surely we have time to remember these girls and others like them.
Adolphe is quick to note that “(t)he emphasis on Christian victims is not to suggest that in some way sexual violence against them is more egregious than sexual attacks on other groups, but rather to underline their plight given certain misconceptions regarding them coupled with the fact that in many incidents Christians have deeper roots in a specific region than their criminal oppressors. Sexual violence has become a tactic of terror, and it is a mistake to believe that Christian women and children enjoy special protection.”
Similarly, Archbishop Warda, when you talk to him, does not want you to think of his people as helpless or hopeless victims. “This is the Church of the East. 2,000 years. It’s a persecuted Church. It’s the church of martyrs. What surprised me is the care of God, his providence that whenever our people have asked me, 'Where is God in all of this?' I said, 'Well, he was walking with you all the way and he is among you.'"
“The Christian martyr narrative,” Adolphe writes, “is correlated to the Passion of Christ, the courageous perseverance that is the path to everlasting life: ‘Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in Heaven,’” as the book of Matthew tells us.
“Hope,” Archbishop Warda explains, “is not a concept to be understood. It’s a way of life. If we want to live in a peaceful community ... we have to work. ... We want to change the future, it starts now.”
A few good friends around the world would certainly help Archbishop Warda and his cause.