This morning, after initial reports that he might ignore a congressionally mandated deadline, Secretary of State John Kerry did the right thing and acknowledged what has become a global consensus: that ISIS is perpetrating a genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria and other countries in the region.
Father Benedict Kiely is a parish priest in Vermont who has found a vocation within a vocation in recent years, having been called to serve and raise awareness about the persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Responding to the genocide has become a mission of his. He recently returned from the region and talks a bit about what he saw and what genocide means for some of the people he met there. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Did you see genocide when you went to Iraq?
Father Benedict Kiely: My first visit was in May 2015, my most recent visit in January 2016. On the first visit I was with people who were still in shock, driven from their homes in the thousands by ISIS. They were, and are, truly refugees, although they have to be called “internally displaced persons,” a nice euphemism that hides the reality of the horror they experienced. I heard many stories of escaping ISIS — and, sadly, of those who did not escape. When every Christian man, woman, and child is driven from home, with only the clothes they were wearing — only because they are Christian — then you see genocide. On my most recent visit, I met with people who still did not know where their loved ones were. Husbands have been taken from their wives and forcibly converted. They know genocide is an important legal definition, and if the total destruction of Christian communities that have been in Iraq for nearly 2,000 years is not genocide, nothing is.
Lopez: What does genocide mean if you are living it?
Kiely: It means living in a construction container when you used to live in a nice home. It means husbands and wives not having the privacy to make babies, because eight or nine people are living in the container with them. Fear of the future — great fear that if the political situation in Kurdistan should deteriorate, they will have nowhere to escape to. Many of the clergy I spoke to told me of the deep psychological trauma the people have experienced, especially the women and children. One word I heard again and again was “dignity.” The people feel they have no dignity, no rights, and that the world doesn’t care.
In May of 2015, many people seriously thought they would be back in their homes by Christmas. They thought the West would come to their aid and drive ISIS out and that they could live in peace. Some spoke of wanting to leave at that time, but many wanted to stay. That has all changed. Now despair is everywhere. Many people, perhaps even the majority, want to leave. I asked one bishop if they would live in the containers for years. He angrily told me that would never happen — they would all leave. Perhaps the saddest thing I heard was what one lady tell me, that, when spring came (about now), they would do the “long walk,” as she called it, to Europe. “I would rather drown trying to get to Europe,” she told me, “than stay here.”
Lopez: Where do people want to go? What do they need and want?
Kiely: Obviously, if there was peace — and, most importantly, if they could be assurance of security and protection — many would wish to be back in their homes. Who wouldn’t? If your family has lived in the same place for nearly 2,000 years — with the history, the culture, and speaking Aramaic, the language of Christ — leaving that all behind is a profound loss. But when ISIS destroys all the homes, the churches, the antiquities, and when your neighbor has stolen your property and is living in your home, how can you go back?
So now many wish to leave, to join the other communities in the world of refugees, especially in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Perhaps people don’t realize that the largest Iraqi community in the world outside Iraq is in Detroit. These people are hard-working, would contribute to society — and respect our women. We should welcome them! Apart from food and shelter (which is becoming a serious challenge, as the food allowance has been cut and charities are reporting less donations), if they are to stay, they need jobs, education, and stability, but above all they need hope — hope that they are not forgotten, hope that the world actually cares.
Lopez: Did anyone tell you what they would like Americans to know?
Kiely: Unfortunately, but in the interest of truth, I have to say many blame, at least partially, the United States. First for destabilizing the region with the removal of Saddam, and then for the abandonment of Iraq under Obama. Although people are very grateful for food and shelter, I heard, from many different people, a real sense, almost of surprise, that a country with so many Christians seems to be watching as their Christian brothers and sisters are eradicated. A priest said to me, “We feel totally powerless, there is no country which is taking our side.” They do not want to be forgotten.
Lopez: How is the faith of the people you spent time with?
Kiely: Inspirational! This is the great mystery of grace. These people, unlike most of us, have actually been faced with the ultimate choice: convert or die. They were targeted because they were Christians. They fled their homes because they were Christians. The faith under real persecution, as we saw during the Cold War, is always strengthened. To be celebrating Mass in Aramaic, on a Sunday night in a refugee camp, with my friend, the courageous Father Douglas Bazi, who himself had been captured and tortured by Islamist extremists, was an experience of grace. Father Douglas told me that his time of prayer while he was being held and tortured was the most powerful experience of prayer he had ever had. One cannot be with these people and not be thankful for the freedom we have — and a little ashamed, of how often we forget that our faith is the greatest gift we have been given.
Lopez: Do people find it odd that a parish priest from Vermont has become an activist on this issue?
Kiely: In Iraq I am just a priest. That’s part of the great blessing of being a priest. It gives one a unique entry and access that being a member of an NGO would not. It is extraordinarily humbling to be thanked, by people who have suffered so much, for the little I have done. I think they are so grateful that an American priest (even though I’m English!) would visit and try to help. But it’s a call that I believe I have received and that, through the generosity of my bishop, I will now be able to devote my priestly ministry to, as I first study Arabic and Aramaic and then work as a priestly advocate for the persecuted.
Lopez: People feel powerless on this issue. We know the government can do something. What can individuals do?
Kiely: The government absolutely can do something, and should! Recognizing genocide, as the U.S. did today, is an important step. Welcome large groups of Christian refugees. Targeted minorities must be prioritized. That’s not bigotry. It’s common sense. Ordinary people do, indeed, feel powerless. Since I have been involved in this ministry and appeared on television and radio, many wonderful people have contacted me, desperately wanting to do something. We advocate, we speak. We don’t let the Christians disappear from the news cycle!
Lopez: Can prayer really do anything? Are petitions during Mass — and more — a necessity?
Kiely: The wonderful Dominican sisters from Mosul, who all fled ISIS, told me first and foremost to pray for them. Prayer is not a last resort. It’s a first resort. Remembering our brethren at Mass is an absolute necessity. Otherwise the old phrase “out of sight, out of mind” becomes reality. Sadly, for many Christians in the West, the persecuted really are not a burning concern. How can that be? What has shocked many of the Christians in Iraq is how little attention the Church itself is giving to this issue. Again, in the interest of truth, I have to tell you that many were dismayed that global warming, not the liberation of the persecuted, seemed the focus of Pope Francis’s address at the U.N.
Lopez: Should the murder of the four nuns and others in Yemen have an impact?
Kiely: What is quite clear — and has been very clear for some time, for all but the most blinkered secularist — is that there is a global war on Christianity. Just read the annual report of Aid to the Church in Need. In India, for example, extremist Hindus have been destroying churches, killing and raping.
But the rise of Islamic extremism is a worldwide phenomenon. ISIS is just the most brutal and repugnant example. The nonsense, regularly spouted by politicians, that “this has nothing to do with Islam” is either deliberately disingenuous or fatally foolish. I take my lead from one of the most respected scholars of Islam in the world, Father Samir Khalil, an Egyptian Jesuit, who has said that Islam is a religion both of violence and of peace. It is a choice. From reading the graphic account of the martyrdom of the four Missionaries of Charity in Yemen, it is abundantly clear, yet again, that they were murdered — martyred — just because they were Christians. It really is genocide.
Lopez: The religious-freedom issue we face at home pales in comparison. But should we see a connection?
Kiely: Absolutely. There is a new kind of secularist “sharia,” which would remove the Christian presence from the public square. That is why we hear so much now about “freedom of worship” rather than freedom of religion. The intolerance of the secularist, liberal mindset is actually feeding the rise of extremism. The rise of the Right in Europe is a perfect example of that. Decades of “tolerance” of everything except orthodox Christianity have left Europe spiritually bankrupt — or, as Pope Francis has said, in a “spiritual vacuum.” I continually hear in my head the words of Hilaire Belloc, written before the Second World War: The “cement that held Western civilization together is crumbling.” That cement was Christianity.