‘God is not indifferent’

Pray for peace in a world that needs God's mercy

We live in a scary world. Try as we may to deny it, flipping on any news channel will confirm this. It seems every day is met with a new act of violence, and that there is more evil occurring in the world than there is good.

Now is perhaps a more crucial time than ever to pray for peace in the world. Jan. 1 brings with it not only the New Year and the Solemnity of the Mother of God, but also the World Day of Peace. Pope Francis declared the theme for the 2016 World Day of Peace as “Overcome indifference and win peace.” In his message regarding the World day of Peace, he spoke of the many conflicts occurring around the world as a third world war sorts.

“Sadly, war and terrorism, accompanied by kidnapping, ethnic or religious persecution and the misuse of power, marked the past year from start to finish. In many parts of the world, these have become so common as to constitute a real ‘third world war fought piecemeal’,” he said.

Tying in with the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Holy Father encouraged Christians to “have a humble and compassionate heart, one capable of proclaiming and witnessing to mercy,” and spoke of building a culture of solidarity and mercy to overcome indifference in the world.

These indifferences are many and varied. The following are brief updates on some of the atrocities and tragedies occurring around the world.

 

The Middle East and ISIS

There’s really no easy way to thoroughly explain the root of the conflicts happening in the Middle East, but it helps to focus on a few key elements.

First and foremost, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, more commonly known as ISIS, is reaping terror not only in the Middle East but all over the world to exert their power and achieve their ends. These ends are many and varied, but in simple terms, their most important short-term political goal is making Iraq and Syria a unified Sunni Islamic state, thus destroying the democratic process and creating tumultuous political imbalance.

The end goal, however, is to establish a global caliphate; an Islamic world government run by a caliph, or a political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad. In this case, the caliph would be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

From a purely religious standpoint, ISIS is literally seeking to bring about the apocalypse; in fact, they view themselves as key instigators of it. In What ISIS Really Wants, a comprehensive piece published by The Atlantic detailing the motives of ISIS, author Graeme Wood writes, “We can gather that [ISIS] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide…and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.”

To do this, they are systematically wiping out Christians and all others who don’t subscribe to their extremist beliefs in Syria and the surrounding regions, causing a massive displacement of citizens. As a result, refugees are fleeing to nearby nations such as Lebanon and Turkey, and even as far as London and the U.S. to escape the violence.

It is a dire situation that demands worldwide cooperation and unification, not only to defeat ISIS, but to provide refuge to those who seek it.

 

Paris

ISIS has been responsible for two terror attacks in Paris in 2015: one at the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, and another at several locations in the city of Paris on Nov. 13. Collectively, 141 people were killed, and hundreds more were injured.

French soldiers patrol the grounds around the Eiffel Tower in Paris. ISIS forces attacked multiple locations in Paris on Nov. 13, killing 130 people and injuring 368. (Stock photo)

The Nov. 13 attacks on Paris were carried out in retaliation to French airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. The president of France, Francois Hollande, called the attacks by ISIS an “act of war” against the country of France.

Of the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris, Pope Francis expressed his “deep sorrow for the terrorist attacks which…covered France in blood.”

“Such barbarity leaves us shocked and makes us wonder how the human heart can conceive such horrible events, which have shaken not only France but the entire world,” he said.

The Jan. 7 attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters was carried out in response to the magazine’s history of lampooning the prophet Muhammad, who is a central figure in the religion of Islam.

Pope Francis denounced the attacks, saying “one cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion,” and that “religious fundamentalism…eliminates God himself, turning him into a mere ideological pretext.”

However, he also expressed his opposition to insulting the faith of others as Charlie Hebdo does and said such acts cannot be done without expecting some sort of retaliation.

“It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others,” he said.

Clarifying the Pope’s comments, the Vatican press office later said that “the Pope’s expression is in no way intended to be interpreted as justification for the violence and terror that took place in Paris last week.”

“Violence begets violence. Pope Francis has not advocated violence with his words,” they said.

 

Northern Africa and Boko Haram

Though not as widely publicized as ISIS, Boko Haram is just as dangerous, if not more so, than their Middle Eastern counterpart.

A woman holds a sign as other protesters gather outside Nigeria House in London, England to mark the one year anniversary since a group of Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted. Two hundred and seventy-six schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school on April 14, 2014 in the town of Chibok in northeastern Borno Nigeria. The abductions sparked protests around the world calling for the release of the girls who continue to be held by the militant group Boko Haram. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Also called the Islamic State’s West’s Africa Province (ISWAP), Boko Haram is working to achieve the same ends as ISIS. Both groups are equally extreme and deadly in their ideologies, but when speaking of pure death tolls caused by each group, Boko Haram is actually deadlier than ISIS. A recent piece published by The Independent in the U.K. states that Boko Haram was responsible for 6,644 deaths in 2014, as compared with 6,073 carried out by ISIS the same year.

Boko Haram is based in Nigeria, where they carry out most of their attacks, primarily in the northeast regions. Their targets are mainly those who do not agree with their ideology, whether they be Christians, police, politicians or even those adhering to different Muslim traditions. They currently operate under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, who was appointed leader of Boko Haram after the groups founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in 2009.

In March, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Islamic State in the Middle East, making them a part of the greater ISIS caliphate.

A news report by BBC said that “northern Nigeria has a history of spawning militant Islamist groups, but Boko Haram has outlived them and has proved to be far more lethal and resilient.” The CIA estimates their fighting force at around 9,000 men, and they’ve gained significant amounts of weapons and money through their raids on military bases and banks, the report said.

In “The Church’s Enemy Number One: Boko Haram,” an article appearing in issue 78 of the Christian culture periodical Relevant Magazine, the atrocities Boko Haram commits against Christians in particular are detailed, including assimilating captured Christians into a fundamentalist Muslim lifestyle and attacking Christians in surprise massacres at night. In April 2014, Boko Haram committed one of their most heinous acts to date when they kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria. The girls remain imprisoned by the terror group to this day.

 

Western Africa and Ebola

Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2014. According to a report by the BBC, the most likely patient zero for the disease was a toddler in a small village in Guinea. The child played in a hollow tree which was later discovered to host a species of bat known to carry the Ebola virus. Ebola is spread through bodily fluids, and it is most likely the child encountered bat feces in the tree.

There have been several Ebola outbreaks since the discovery of the disease in 1976. However up until 2014, the largest outbreak was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Around 300 people were infected and only 20 survived. The latest outbreak killed over 11,000 people and left around 1,700 survivors, which raises important questions about what the lingering effects of Ebola are.

According to Doctors Without Borders, 75 percent of Ebola survivors describe debilitating side effects even months after the disease is gone. Patients suffer from eye problems, extreme fatigue and joint pain. Scientists have found the Ebola virus in the eyes, breastmilk and possibly the semen of those declared cured from the disease. However, the lack of new infections indicates that these individuals are likely not very contagious to others, although new mothers who survived have been warned away from breastfeeding, if possible.

The biggest problem facing those who have recovered from Ebola is stigmatization. They often struggle to find jobs, and are ostracized due to lingering fear over the disease. Unfortunately, now that the epidemic has slowed, funds to help survivors and study the long-term effects of Ebola have become less popular.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.