‘Why do people go to church on Christmas?” It was one of the questions passersby asked as they noticed the security line before midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve. There were some colorful things said, as well, as you might imagine after 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in the Big Apple. And there were also some who mistook the crowd on Madison Avenue as a very long line for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. But the enhanced security — with New York’s and counterterrorism’s finest all around — did become an opportunity for solidarity with those whose lives are at risk simply for what they believe.
How many of us gave thought on Christmas Day to those who died in the attack on a Coptic cathedral in Cairo only days before? As we were moved by the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds and George Michael and Prince and other celebrities who died in 2016, how many of us remembered Father Jacques Hamel, who was murdered by Islamic militants earlier this year while celebrating Mass in France?
Saying a prayer or keeping the persecuted in mind might not seem like much. But it means the world to people living a world away from us in the West, people who often feel forgotten by the cultural and political leaders and power brokers.
Earlier this fall, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, from the Archdiocese of Erbil in Iraq, visited St. Patrick’s and communicated peace. His was not a political manifesto about what the United Nations or the next White House need to do, but a witness. He explained that “to be persecuted is the fate of the Church of the East.” Christianity is a minority in the Arab world, and that’s a reality they didn’t start dealing with when the so-called Islamic State showed up. “But to be forgotten,” he said, “this would be a really very painful, painful moment to realize that nobody remembers you.”
Warda perhaps could have criticized U.S. policies that may have exacerbated the pain of his people, or called us out on our routine indifference. (While opening Christmas presents on Christmas Day, most of us probably did not think of the Christians who fled their homes more than two years ago now and fled to Warda’s churches.) Instead, Warda was thankful.
We’ve been blessed. Persecuted, but blessed that we were not been forgotten. We have not been forgotten, because we have so many brothers and sisters, blessed and beloved, wonderful people like you, praying for us.
He was particularly grateful that during the Easter season this year, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan had visited Iraq, bringing attention to the plight of the displaced Christians for whom Warda and the Church are laboring, in hopes of rebuilding their lives and their sense of hope.
“Hope is not a concept to be understood,” the archbishop explained to me over the summer when I had the opportunity to spend time with him. “It’s a way of life. . . . Live it today. We want to change the future. It starts now.” Back in Erbil, he has opened a new university and equips people to do just this. There are certainly options — for professors who might want to consider teaching there and for Westerners who might want to support efforts at keeping a Christian community in what we often think of as the Islamic world. But all Warda asks of most of us is that we do not forget them, and he asks us to pray that “our people will go back again to rebuild our villages and stay and be bridges of peace.” “Please,” he said from the altar of St. Patrick’s, “do not forget your brothers and sisters who’ve been persecuted for their faith, for their belief in Jesus Christ all over the world, especially in Iraq and Syria.” And “tell our story,” he said.
When I asked him why it’s so important that Christians remain in Iraq and Syria, given all the risks, he said:
The Middle East needs Jesus Christ. And no one else could give the Middle East Jesus Christ except the Christians. . . . In the midst of all this violence, Jesus is needed.
I thought of that as the cardinal put the statue of the Christ Child in the manger just as Mass was to begin at midnight. That humble presence of God in the world that is Christmas is also the most powerful. Archbishop Warda knows that. His people who chose their faith over home and worldly security know that. As we need the bomb squad for Midnight Mass during a year that saw so much anger and violence in American city streets, do we?