I almost didn’t have the heart to read the piece beyond the headline and sub: Iraq’s beleaguered Christians make final stand on the Mosul frontline; Some Christian families from Mosul have sought refuge in St Matthew’s Monastery…Others vow to take a stand against the Islamists – whatever the cost .
Imagine having to leave your home, your work — pack up the family and seek sanctuary in a Monastery, not knowing whether your life will ever seem stable again.
Feeling helpless in the face of this reality for the Christians in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and unwilling to simply link to the story and say “let us pray for them” — as legitimate and sincere as that may be — I turned to Michael La Civita, whose career has been in service to these Christians. He is communications director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), and oversees the publication of its award-winning magazine, ONE. He guest-blogs here to help us gain some perspective. Prayer has power and yes, we must pray for them, and fast, too and offer material assistance if we can, but perhaps all of that can be better-directed, and more efficacious, if we have a clearer picture of what the day-to-day of it has been.
Today’s headlines are dramatic; the emotion raw: “Middle East Christians Feel Abandoned.” “Beleaguered Christians Make Final Stand.” “Christians Wonder if it is Time to Leave.” “Christians Last Journey.”
As the artificial geopolitical construct that is the Middle East collapses, millions of lives are altered irrevocably and indiscriminately each day: young and old, male and female, city sophisticate and nomadic shepherd, Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Armenian, rich and poor. In Iraq and Syria — by far the largest states in the region created by the Western Allied powers after their victory in World War I — the pressure cookers once controlled by strongmen have exploded, unleashing violent forces so extreme even Al Qaeda has repudiated the bloodletting.
Iraq — once awash in cash thanks to its oil reserves — has disintegrated, its people exhausted by more than 25 years of constant war. Syria — once the bedrock of regional stability — has crumbled, its people displaced and maimed. Meanwhile, extremist militias overrun vast swaths of devastated territory to restore an Islamist empire akin to those that dominated the region for centuries.
Middle East Christians bear the brunt of these brutalities. Though descendants of those who first received the Gospel almost 600 years before the advent of Islam, Christians are perceived by the extremists as imports from the West and, therefore, as enemies of Islam. Spread from Egypt to Iraq, and numbering no more than 15 million, Middle East Christians possess neither powerful allies supplying arms, nor an exclusivist ideology capable of rallying and uniting a diverse community with distinct traditions, rites and histories. And so to survive, Middle East Christians do what they have always done during similar waves of violence in their long history: they head for the hills.
Observers describe the current wave of violence in the Middle East, and the flight of its minorities — especially its Christians — as an existential threat. Can the Middle East survive without its Christians and other minorities? Sure, but can a region thrive though overwhelmed by extremist ideologies at odds with mainstream Muslims?
In November, I traveled to one such Christian retreat on the eastern slopes of Mount Lebanon. The town of Deir el Ahmar, or Bloody Convent, commemorates the massacre of monks ages ago. Proud hometown of entertainer Danny Thomas, Deir el Ahmar lies some 20 miles from the Syrian border in an area that has shielded Middle East Christians since the eighth century. There, in the nearby village of Bechwat, in a lean-to storage shed abutting a local Maronite shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother, I met a Syriac Christian family of five.
Mr. Yakoub took time from his custodial concerns at the shrine to recall the danger of traveling on a public bus from his family home in Hassake, near the Iraqi and Turkish frontiers in northeastern Syria, to Damascus. For more than 18 hours, and through 17 checkpoints controlled by militants, extremists, soldiers or criminals, he traveled with all that was left of his life: his wife and three children, Ulah, Abdalahad and Caesar. Leaving behind his elderly parents and his younger brother in Damascus, Mr. Yakoub and family then hitched a ride to Lebanon, undoubtedly the most dangerous part of their flight.
The children, seated on the floor of their converted shed and dressed in their Catholic school uniforms, listened attentively to their father, as their mother covered her mouth to hold back the sobs. Their lives had been turned upside down, he said, but “thank God we are safe.” The children spoke about the difficulties of attending a French-language school — the norm in Lebanon — knowing only Arabic. Ulah, a shy 15-year-old, quietly asked my host, Good Shepherd Sister Micheline Lattouff, if the sisters could help her and her brothers with their studies. “Of course!” the spirited nun replied, beaming at the chance to lend a hand.
Ironically, even as Christian families such as the Yakoubs are flushed from their homes, the many works of the churches in the Middle East are recognized and valued by Middle Easterners of all faiths and communities. Catholic schools teach Alawis, Druze and Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as children from other Christian communities. Hospitals provide the best of care, especially to the poor, the displaced and the refugee. Priests and religious sisters are respected as community leaders and allies of those in need.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association, an agency of the Holy See founded in 1926 and based in New York, works through the local churches in the Middle East. Working with partners such as Sister Micheline, CNEWA works to build up that church — even if in flight —affirm human dignity, alleviate poverty, encourage dialogue and inspire hope.
I left that shed in Bechwat — now home to a family of five — smiling as the youngest member of the family, Caesar, climbed a low wall and onto a homemade swing, constructed of a used tire and frayed rope suspended from a tree. As he rocked to and fro, his gags brought smiles and weak laughter from his siblings and his parents, forgetting if only for a moment their trials.
That particular visit (which is but one of many I have made to the Middle East in the last 25 years) speaks volumes why it is imperative Christianity survive and thrive in the Middle East. Through their schools, shelters, hospitals, clinics and other social service initiatives, Christians restore dignity, self-respect, trust and even joy to families robbed of these basic human values by extremists and their destructive ideologies. And, in doing so, Christians instill and inspire hope, which defines our faith in the Resurrection.