Writing in the 2nd century, Tertullian once famously said that the blood of martyrs if the seed of the Church. If this is true, then the consequences of this are even more acutely felt today in the 20th century, where .
Earlier in June of this year, on the Feast of the First Roman martyrs, Pope Francis gave a homily and spoke of this tragic reality occurring in our day:
There are more witnesses, more martyrs in the Church today than there were in the first centuries. So during this Mass, remembering our glorious ancestors, let us think also to our brothers who are persecuted, who suffer and who, with their blood are nurturing the seed of so many little Churches that are born. Let us pray for them….
One need not read the news too long to confirm that Christians are, indeed, facing grave threats around the world:
Boko Haram continues daily their murderous attacks and kidnapping of Nigeria’s Christians. Coptic Christians are recovering shattered livelihoods after the spate of attacks thrust upon them during the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. Syrian Christians remain caught in the midst of a civil war going on three years now, with the rebels growing more radicalized each day. There are countless other examples in Sudan, in Pakistan, in Kenya, and more.
Most recently, and what prompted my reflection, was the precarious state of Christians in Iraq. It was earlier last week when Islamic State fighters (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS) forced Christians in Mosul, part of their newly formed Caliphate, to either leave the city, pay a crushing tax known as the jizya, or convert to Islam. Otherwise they would face immediate execution.
Up to last week, that greatest attack the Iraqi church suffered was in 2010, when jihadists massacred worshippers at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad attending Sunday Mass. Apparently, that was only the start. The events in Mosul are another anguished chapter in the history of Christians in modern Iraq. No Christian in the West can hear of these stories and not be heartbroken.
Before the war in 2003, there was once an estimated 1.5 million Christians in that country; now that number has dwindled down to 400,000. It may be that we will come to see the Chaldean Catholic Church, which has been there since ancient times, extinguished in our lifetime. Although many Christians have been martyred, an even greater number more have simply emigrated to other lands for safety, with a large Iraqi Christian community now living in the United States.
Hearing all of this news, what can we do? What can be done in the face of such carnage? I am reminded of what St. Paul writes, “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36).
Certainly, the first thing must be to pray. Far too often, I have taken it for granted that I can read scripture, pray, and worship in peace. So many of our brothers and sisters cannot. As I write this piece on Saturday night, I am reminded that tomorrow morning we will celebrate Mass. This week has reminded me of the precious gift that we have. As Pope Francis encouraged us, we can be present with our brothers and sisters in that way and entrust them to God.
Secondly, in the short-term, we can donate money, volunteer, or organize fundraisers for groups like Caritas Internationalis, Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Charities, and other groups who are already helping Iraqi Christian refugees. Join me in giving something, even if it is little, or add to your normal tithe. Anything would help and, if enough of us do it, that will make a difference!
Finally, in the longer term, Christians must advocate for countries to respect the right of religious freedom and develop frameworks for a healthy interaction between faith and reason, governance and freedom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the right to exercise religious freedom is an “inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person” which must be “recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order” (See CCC #1738).
If we are successful, we will realize why the right to religious liberty is the highest right that we have. Properly understood, this is because every other good and human right is ordered to enabling us to fulfill that which we were ultimately made for: to seek God, to worship him in spirit and truth, and to attain the blessedness of heaven.
We can all do these three things in some capacity or another. Let us not grow discouraged when faced with the immensity of this task. Our Lord reminds us, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). We can also remember the examples of the faithful ones who have gone before us in ages past and who give themselves for the faith even now.
To end, let us meditate upon these words from a recent Mass reading:
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels,
That the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
Perplexed, but not driven to despair;
Persecuted, but not abandoned;
Struck down, but not destroyed;
Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
So that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
-2 Corinthians 4: 7-11
As we do this, in the words of our Holy Father, let us also do so with them in our hearts: “[O]ur brothers and sisters who are persecuted, who suffer and who, with their blood are nurturing the seed of so many little Churches that are born.” Our Lady of Salvation, pray for us!