It’s that time of year when, in the middle of Santa Claus festivities, unlikely gestures might include a hat tip to a baby born in Bethlehem or to his mother of Nazareth. This year, as Christians enter into the preparatory season of Advent (more than holiday-party time and gift-list making and buying beyond Black Friday), a coalition of Christian aid groups, in conjunction with the U.S. Catholic bishops, are holding a day of prayer and a week of awareness focused on the people who remain today in the region where Jesus Christ lived — people whose future remains uncertain.
The Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, is coming to the U.S., not for the first time in recent years. He insists that “the Middle East needs Jesus Christ,” as he told me the last time I sat down with him. That does not mean he is going to force Christianity on Muslims and Jews in the region, because that’s not the way of Jesus. But he does want to ask Americans to think differently about the region — as home to Christians, from the beginning of Christianity. He says:
You don’t expect Muslims to carry on this good message of Jesus. So we have to help the Christians to stay. And not just to stay, but to live in a dignified way, and to be able to preach and to give Jesus. In the midst of all this violence, Jesus is needed.
“A violent, troubled Middle East needs mercy,” Warda told me. “Jesus is mercy.” So many people there just want stability. They want to marry. They want a future for their children. “Enough of wars, enough of violence, enough of all these atrocities. We have to help people live a peaceful life. There’s no other choice.”
I’ve been thinking about our interview as I read a book of conference proceedings, The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East. In one of the chapters, Jane Adolphe, associate professor of law at Ave Maria School of Law and an expert with the Holy See, Secretariat of State, Relations with States, talks about the sexual violence that victims of terrorism experience — women and children in a particular way.
She notes that regional and international discussions of radical Islam and sexual violence often leave out the word “Christian,” but Adolphe points to the sexual enslavement of Christians by ISIS and notes in particular the kidnapping of 276 Christian schoolgirls from their dormitory beds at gunpoint in Nigeria by Boko Haram, as their school and village were torched. Some of the girls were subsequently left to die “defiled and bloody, tethered to a tree,” as one journalist put it. Others were “shot for being uncooperative and were buried in shallow graves.” Others became pregnant, “most if not all of them, suffer[ing] from psychological and physical injuries.” As we discuss all kinds of sexual assaults and misbehaviors here at home, surely we have time to remember them.
“The emphasis on Christian victims is not to suggest that in some way sexual violence against them is more egregious than sexual attacks on other groups, but rather to underline their plight, given certain misconceptions regarding them, coupled with the fact that in many incidents, Christians have deeper roots in a specific region than their criminal oppressors,” Adolphe notes. “Sexual violence has become a tactic of terror, and it is a mistake to believe that Christian women and children enjoy special protection.”
Warda does not want anyone to think of his people as victims, as helpless or hopeless.
Similarly, Warda does not want anyone to think of his people as victims, as helpless or hopeless. “This is the Church of the East — 2,000 years,” he says. “It’s a persecuted Church. It’s the church of martyrs. What surprised me is the care of God, his providence, such that whenever our people have asked me, ‘Where is God in all of this?’ I said, ‘Well, he was walking with you all the way and he is among you.’”
“The Christian martyr narrative,” Adolphe writes, “is correlated to the Passion of Christ, the courageous perseverance that is the path to everlasting life: ‘Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in Heaven’ (cf. Matthew 5:10–12).”
“Hope is not a concept to be understood,” Warda explains. “It’s a way of life. If we want to live in a peaceful community, then we have not to wait until then. We have to work from now. . . . So that’s the way we live. . . . We want to change the future, it starts now.”
A few good friends around the world would certainly help.