Death and Persecution from Syria to Nicaragua

Death and Persecution from Syria to Nicaragua November 9, 2023

Before starting the Vigil Mass for Palm Sunday in 2013, I decided to check the headlines on a Catholic news website. My heart sank as I read towards the bottom of the page, “Syrian priest kidnapped as war rages on.”

During my time in seminary, I became a good friend of two Armenian-Catholic seminarians from Aleppo, Antoine Tahan and Michel Kayal.  Throughout the three years that we studied together in Rome I compared the conditions that awaited me in the United States to those that awaited them in Syria. Any personal challenge I foresaw was quickly crushed by considering the challenges they would face by returning to Aleppo. I admired their courage since they were preparing to return to a hostile war zone.

I hesitantly clicked on the headline and to my horror saw a picture of Father Michel Kayal in red vestments. I immediately emailed my other friend, Antoine, and he responded confirming the sad news. A few weeks earlier, on February 9th, 2013, Father Kayal and a Greek Orthodox priest were taken off a bus by Syrian rebels near Damascus and they were never seen again.  Scandalously, my friend pointed out, it was the category of rebels that were at that time supported financially and militarily by the United States in its fight against Syria’s president Bashar-al Assad.

On July 2013 I heard from Father Tahan again. Aleppo was under siege by rebels making it impossible to leave the city. Food was scarce and expensive. Factories lay in ruins. He described the situation as “truly difficult.” His greatest fear was that Christians in Syria would imitate Iraqi Christians and abandon their homeland.  In mid-2014 while taking some time to rest in Rome, a missile hit his bishop’s residence in Aleppo. Part of the complex was destroyed, much of it damaged, including my friend’s bedroom. Father Tahan wrote me, “for the moment there is no hope because the war is already so long.”   In February 2015, his church was bombed and it had to be closed – he had to move in with his parents.  The conflict in Aleppo came to a close toward the end of 2016 when government forces expelled the rebels from the areas they controlled.  Though Father shared pictures with me of the destroyed old bazar and the damaged ancient citadel, he also shared countless images of a faith community that persevered and was ready to make its presence known.

In the midst of war and persecution, Father Tahan continued to serve the many families entrusted to his care. He did so faithfully and courageously.  While sharing his story while the war still continued, someone asked me, “why doesn’t he stay away? He goes to Rome occasionally, he goes to Lebanon, why does he always return to Aleppo?” The answer is found in the words of Jesus: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

When Saint Paul traveled in Syria centuries ago, he heard these words from Jesus himself: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  Paul realized that those he persecuted were part of the Body of Christ; the same body that was nailed to the cross.  The Body of Christ continues to be desecrated and profaned today as Christians are persecuted and killed for their faith. Persecution is not something new in the Church, but rather, something that has existed from the beginning. Christ did not present to us a nicely manicured Church, but rather a radical way of life that pricks the world’s conscience – something the world often dislikes.  We should not be surprised or indignant when secular society ignores the Church, ridicules it, or misrepresents it.

During the past few months, a good number of Nicaraguan families have arrived to my parish, all of them speaking of horrible recent experiences at home, especially toward people of faith.  Bishops, priests, and religious are expelled and stripped of their citizenship.  Last August, President Ortega dissolved the Jesuit Order, expelled the priests and confiscated all its properties.  As you read this article, bishops, priests, religious, and catechists continue to be jailed for speaking against a dictatorial president who has a particular disgust for the Church.

All Christians, as part of the same Body of Christ, must feel the pain of those suffering tremendously. Their pain must be ours. Their sorrow must be ours. We cannot remain indifferent to the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are not just a headline or a statistic; they are one with us in the communion of saints. If we do not speak up, act, and provide support for the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ, who will?

Picture is mine, taken in Rome in 2007 or 2008 at the diaconate ordination of a friend I had in common with Father Michel.  Article written for Southern Cross.

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