“For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” Patriarch Louis Sako said after the July 19 noon deadline passed. Mosul has been a city with a Christian presence for more than 1,700 years, but now the radical militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has banished them and is trying to expand its territory.
Our brothers and sisters in the faith were told that they must leave their homes and uproot their families if they wanted to keep the faith. If they stayed they had two choices: convert to Islam or die. As the distraught families left they were forced to hand over any money or valuables and stripped of their passports.
In Mosul, ISIS members tagged the homes of Christians with the red spray-painted Arabic letter “N” for Nazarene. This means that the home and anything in it can be plundered and occupied by one of their followers. Christians were not the only ones to be targeted, as Shiite Muslims had their homes painted with the letter “R” for being “Rejecters” of the fighters’ radical brand of Sunni Islam.
With the Christians gone, ISIS has started burning historic churches, monasteries and Shiite mosques. One mosque that was demolished was a former Catholic monastery that contained the tomb of the prophet Jonah. It had been a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims for centuries but is now a pile of rubble.
The auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, Shlemon Warduni, also described how the elderly, the sick and small children are being treated by the militants. He lamented, “We ask ourselves, ‘Why is this happening, these things against human dignity, against God, against mankind? These (militants) rip the medicines from the hands of children, small children and throw them on the ground.”
I join my voice to Pope Francis’ and the many others who have condemned and cried out against this grave injustice. It is clear from their actions that ISIS is unable to enter into dialogue and cannot be trusted to protect Christians or other minorities. It is their way or death.
So what should we do now? First, we need to express our solidarity with our fellow Christians in the Middle East through material and spiritual support. We must pray and fast for our enemies and their change of heart as Jesus commands us in the Gospel. You can also donate to agencies that are still operating amidst the chaos, like Catholic Relief Services, Aid to the Church in Need and the International Catholic Migration Network.
By taking action and standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted, you will grow in courage and mercy. These are essential virtues needed for the times in which we live and we must desire them in our hearts if peace is to come about. These two virtues are also needed for your efforts to protect our religious freedom in Colorado and nationwide.
The second thing we should do in the wake of these atrocities is reflect on how they underscore the crucial importance of religious freedom for having a civilized society. But do not stop with thinking about it. All of us should become actively engaged in the political system to protect our religious rights and to work for the common good in the light of the Gospel and our faith.
Religious freedom is not just the ability to worship in a house of prayer. For Christians it is the ability to be Christian, to let our faith impact the way we work, shop, make decisions, form our families, run our charities and businesses and interact with the rest of society. Truly encountering Jesus and his Church is so powerful that it doesn’t just affect what we do on Sundays, it affects our whole lives.
As Americans, we have been blessed to live in a country that has valued faith, and for the most part, respected the right to practice it freely. But the government’s support for faith is growing increasingly weaker. The most recent evidence of this erosion is President Obama’s executive order that adds individuals with same-sex attraction and “transgendered” people to a list of protected classes for hiring done by federal employers and contractors. The most telling aspect of this order is that it does not include any religious exemption, despite repeated requests for one.
The best defense against this is the involvement of people of authentic faith in the political system, at all levels. After the defeat of Colorado’s Senate Bill 175, several people told me that praying and acting to defeat the bill was the first political thing they had done in years. Some people even said that they had not voted in the last three election cycles because they had given up hope in government!
But the Christian attitude toward politics must be one of hope, because Christ can overcome anything. The evil one wants us to become hopeless and despair, but Jesus’ resurrection tells us otherwise. With God all things are possible for the good and the true, but we as human beings must receive and act on this truth. We are called to be people of hope who place our trust in Christ to help us make his kingdom more of a reality here on earth.
I pray that everyone who reads this column or hears about it will act to help our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and in doing so, that they will receive the grace to be courageous in the defense of religious freedom in our country as well.
Let us pray for the persecuted and their persecutors, and let us give witness to our faith no matter the cost, even if it leads us to the cross of Jesus Christ! May the afflicted be consoled by God’s grace and the hope of heaven.