‘I forgave ISIS.” An Iraqi Christian sitting in what looks to be a church auditorium in Jordan gives her testimony. “We love our enemy — even the ones that hurt us.”
Her story is part of an exhibit that was on display last month at New York Encounter, an annual cultural event held around the corner from what seemed to be the perfect midtown view of the Freedom Tower, part of the rebuilt World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.
She explains in a video: “First of all, because they don’t know what they are doing. Second of all, because now I am with God. As a human being, I now have a relationship with God. My relationship was interrupted. So I thank God because they opened my eyes and I was brought back to a true relationship with God. I pray for them that God may open their eyes. The bombs will never liberate, but only the people that kneel and pray. If you, me, and everyone here would kneel and pray, this could change the face of the earth. I am convinced that God could change people’s hearts in a second.
“Honestly this was an awakening for me because I was completely absorbed in my work, my kids, their homework, the things I have to do. I was completely distracted. I did not go to church very often. These circumstances made me understand. I am a believer, it is not that I do not believe, but my faith was cold.”
I thought of that Iraqi woman as Washington, D.C., gathered to pray at the National Prayer Breakfast. (Well, or at least to talk about praying. The morning has lots of speeches on the topic.) I thought, too, of this young mother — a medical professional, who felt she was abandoning people who needed her by leaving her homeland — when Pope Francis said during a recent audience at the Vatican: “Desire always the salvation of those who offend us.”
That’s tough stuff. And yet that’s what Christianity is about. And these Christians who had to upend their lives on account of ISIS — and those who have died refusing to recant their faith — are exhibit A.
Speaking of exhibits: Another exiled Iraqi Christian, also now in Jordan, living in a storage container with her family, also gave her testimony to Jerusalem-born journalist Marta Zaknoun. She explains how if she had a big house she wouldn’t see her children as often as she does now. “A big house can be sort of dispersive, colder for a family. But here no.” Sometimes one or another holds her hand while they sleep because they are so close to one another.
I asked the exiled Chaldean archbishop of Mosul — who no longer has a diocese, because ISIS drove out all the Christians there — whether he ever had hard conversations with any of his people who were tempted to at least go through the motions of signing on with Islam, in the hopes that that would keep them home and alive. “No,” Archbishop Amel Nona said, beaming like a father. “I’m proud of them.”
The woman in the church auditorium also beams with gratitude. “I know that God loved me even before, and He always took care of me. But I wasn’t paying attention, I did not know. Now I think back to the past. We were in need when we left Baghdad. We took nothing with us. I think back to the many situations where He took care of the littlest of my needs. If at night I needed a blanket, in the morning, the Caritas [an international Catholic charity] would show up at my door with a blanket. I never thought of things this deeply, but I realize now that God has been with me from the beginning, but I was not a hundred percent with him. He is present everywhere.”
In his brief address to the National Prayer Breakfast, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan noted that, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, there was some backlash against God and against people who talked about prayer. “I have noticed a growing impatience with prayer in our culture,” Ryan said. “You see it in the papers or on Twitter. When people say they’re praying for someone or something, the attitude in some quarters seems to be, ‘Don’t just pray; do something about it.’ But the thing is, when you are praying, you are doing something about it. You are revealing the presence of God.”
God is present, indeed, in the witness of these Christians who understand that their responsibility and their greatest inheritance is their faith.
God is present, indeed, in the witness of these Christians who understand that their responsibility and their greatest inheritance is their faith — these Christians who tell us: “Before, I had everything, but I was unsatisfied. Now I have nothing, and I am joyful.”
The European Parliament just did what the United States hasn’t yet managed to do: call what is happening to Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq a genocide. We might choose to look away, but it is happening out in the open, right before our eyes. Western silence is a scandal that might in fact leave the Middle East without any Christians at all, in Christianity’s cradle. But the greater scandal in doing nothing is that, if we would just stand up for these people, it would make us better. It would change everything. They have a hope that this world so often does not understand. They have a peace and a trust that money can’t buy. We’re knee deep in a contentious election cycle where nothing seems certain. Our common ground — whether we are religious believers or not — may be that we have a freedom that we do not fully appreciate.
When we really think about it: So many of us, we have everything, but do we have joy? Are we too distracted? With important things to keep us busy, like family and work and politics, do we fail to remember who we are?