Speaking for the Persecuted

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Indifference about persecution is not an option.

‘You are calling me from paradise to hell.”

Paul Bhatti recalls talking with his brother, Shahbaz, who would later be murdered for his insistence on speaking out against blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

Paul was living as a doctor in Italy. But his brother insisted: “The way to paradise lies in Pakistan.”

Shahbaz’s point — and the witness of his life – was this, as Paul describes it: “Non-involvement is not an option; we are obligated, being one human family, to struggle for those who are too weak to speak and defend themselves.”

Paul Bhatti writes about what has kept him working for religious freedom in Pakistan since his brother’s death in 2011 in a new report for Aid to the Church in Need on religious persecution throughout the world. Long story short: It’s on the upswing, and the rising “religious illiteracy” among Westerners isn’t helping matters.

At a recent conference on the plight of Christians in the Middle East and the surrounding region sponsored by the Napa Institute, Siobhan Nash-Marshall, a philosophy professor at Manhattanville College in New York, made the obvious observation that it’s hard for an American college student to understand the plight of a contemporary a world away. And so, a few years ago, she and a group of other women who felt the need to do something about persecuted Christians founded the Christians in Need Foundation. Among other things, it sponsors students from “ancient Christian communities” to study in American universities.

While we can’t — and shouldn’t: Their lands need them! — bring every persecuted Christian over here, we can start looking at their faces, listening to their stories, and drawing one another out of our indifference.

The “globalization of indifference” is how Pope Francis often refers to that chief drawback of our unprecedented interconnectedness. As my friend Mollie Hemingway put it recently in an essay on charity in the new collection from Templeton Press, The Seven Deadly Virtues, “When everyone’s your neighbor, then nobody’s your neighbor.” We’re so overloaded and easily distracted now, we don’t even look at the person sitting across from us, never mind try to imagine the suffering of someone in circumstances too evil and complicated to focus our minds on.

But instead of searching the Internet for porn or cat videos (the stuff of viral videos that is another kind of dehumanization, as it numbs us to actual human encounter), we might take a look at the archbishop of Mosul crying.

For over 1,500 years, Mor Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf explains in a video interview, there would be invasions and wars in Iraq, but Christians never stopped praying in their churches. But today is different; today they have been driven out.

This has been going on for months now. Christians have been murdered and driven out of Iraq and Syria. But this doesn’t make the evening news; it has not stopped us in our tracks.

The Syrian Orthodox archbishop of Mosul is not the first man to cry over what is happening. Last summer, an Iraqi TV host did so when talking about the Christians who were being driven out of his country. “These are all our countrymen,” Nahi Mahdi said in a video translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). “They are our own flesh and blood,” he said of his Christian neighbors.

Mahdi had in mind the likes of Ghanem Yadago, who, along with his wife and two sons, fled their home in northern Iraq. As if leaving home in the face of Islamic State terror weren’t enough, Yadago found himself having “to ask people’s help for everything.” He’s blind, a casualty of the Iran–Iraq War, during which he was hit by a piece of shrapnel.

Yadago explained to American journalist Don Duncan, writing for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, that back home “I could manage by myself because I knew the house intimately. I didn’t need anyone to help me go to the bathroom, to shave, to get around.” Living in a tent in the yard of St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil is another story, however, new and unfamiliar, as grateful as he is to have somewhere safe for himself and his family.

He now has been moved to a facility for sick and elderly refugees funded by the CNEWA, where he can be a little more independent. However, it means being separated from his wife and children, since his wife, having developed a heart condition during the trauma of the last months, needs the medical care back at St. Joseph’s. After feeding their children, she often travels to spend the night with him.

Aid to the Church in Need estimates that ISIS has managed to force a million people out of their homes.

Sarkis Boghjalian, national director of ACN, pleads for Americans to get serious about paying attention to the plight of people like the Yadago family. “Challenge your elected officials: What are you doing for persecuted Christians?” he says.

What does that challenge mean for any American reading this? Get creative. That’s what Father Benedict Kiely did. A Vermont parish priest with no particular skill set for such things, but knowing he needed to do something, he got in the business of bracelets, lapel pins, and zipper pulls with the Arabic letter used as an abbreviation for “Nazarenes,” which ISIS writes on the homes of Christians. Father Kiely set up the website www.nasarean.org/, and with the help of one volunteer working at a UPS store, 15,000 bracelets, lapel pins, and zipper pulls have been shipped to fellow Americans. All proceeds go to Aid to the Church in Need, and this past week, six weeks into his effort, he delivered the charity a check for $10,000.

Those who have been working to raise American awareness of and involvement in the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria have repeated this warning from Boghjalian: “Christianity might disappear from the very region of its birth.” That would mean, he continued, “the loss of the voice of moderation there.” But even more fundamentally, “Innocent people are being killed!” Do we look away, or do we do something? Is ignorance bliss or our highway to hell?

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.