Pope Francis is probably doing more than all other world leaders combined to keep the plight of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians before the world’s indifferent eyes. On Sunday, he appealed for the release of kidnapped clergy in Syria: men all but forgotten amid the ever-increasing horrors of that country’s civil war.
Francis is also using the Holy See’s diplomatic machinery, largely unseen, to improve the lot of Christian refugees on the fringes of Syria and Iraq.
The facts are, by now, well established. More Christians are suffering religious persecution in the Middle East today than at any time since early history, according to the Pew Research Center. At the start of the 20th century, the faithful represented 20 per cent of the population; now, they make up just five per cent. At the present rate of attrition, the region’s 12 million Christians are likely to be reduced to six million by 2020.
The immediate goal must be to protect Christians – and, indeed, all religious minorities – from the black-flag- waving fanatics who insist that everyone must conform to their version of Islam. Now that Turkey has joined the battle against ISIS, that group faces yet another powerful enemy that may test its mysterious resilience to its limits. With ISIS distracted, if not yet defeated, the coalition should increase the security of Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Mandeans and other minorities.
Many Syrian and Iraqi Christians would regard such efforts as too little too late. They are right, of course. As Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, put it: “If we attend to minority rights only after the slaughter has begun, then we have already failed.” There is no doubt that we have indeed failed the Middle East’s minorities. But that is no excuse for leaving those who remain to the torturers, beheaders and slave masters of ISIS.
Every generation of Christians faces a test. In the 20th century, the faithful were pitted against totalitarian regimes that tried to relegate the Church to history. In the 21st century, our challenge seems to be defending our persecuted brothers and sisters in far-flung lands. The Middle East presents this trial in the starkest form. Eliza Griswold, author of a recent powerful New York Times report on the region’s Christians, says: “We’re certainly looking at the potential end of Christianity in the Middle East if no one does anything to protect these ancient communities that are dwindling now.”
It’s tempting to feel helpless as the faithful face extinction in the region where the Church first spread the life-changing message of the Resurrection. Few of us are responsible for taking the decisions that would grant minorities some security. But we can all help in at least two ways: praying daily for the safety of the Middle East’s religious minorities, and donating to the charities supporting them. Can true prayer and charity overcome distorted piety and violence? That is the question at the heart of our blood-flecked century.
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