It should be said that in France the situation of the Christians of Iraq is not a great generator of emotions. How can we explain that in our parishes as well we do not share sufficiently in the worries of our brethren in the East? The explanations without doubt vary. The press reflects the consciences of our country: the Christians of those areas are seen as an external problem. And then there is certainly a sort of fatalism: the region has fallen prey to deathly quakes for such a long time that all of us have become habituated to what is unacceptable.
The fact that here in the West religions are officially respected but often the object of suspicion does not help matters. The situation of persecuted Christians in the world often provokes in our politicians only a polite and tardy compassion that is rarely followed by consequences. Asia Bibi has begun his fourth year of protective custody in a Pakistani high security prison without this depriving the world of its sleep; Meriam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag gave birth in a Sudanese prison, breastfed her baby chained up on death row, was freed for a few years in response to American pressure, and was then arrested again. Once again there has been an absence of important French voices capable of putting up opposition with simplicity, strength and firmness.
The communal reflex of a human group leads it to defend its own members. That Christians have received the vocation to love all men without distinctions as regards race, culture or religion is a teaching that comes directly from the Gospel. But this – which is a grace – should not make us close our eyes to the disasters that befall our nearest neighbours.
In 1794 Rochefort was the place of one of the greatest massacres of priests in our history. 829 refractory priests were deported by the Committee of Public Health. Out of 829, only 274 survived: they had sworn never to speak of the horror that they had witnessed in order to allow France to rise up again. Today the city of Qaraqosh, in the plain of Ninive, with the inflow of refugees, has become the largest Christian city in Iraq. Do you hear the cries that come from it? They are those of a refugee camp. Qaraqosh is not Rochefort because the massacre is under way. This is why we cannot keep quiet in silence.
Yesterday the Patriarch said to me that a division of the country would be preferable to a civil war which would kill all the innocent first of all. If only the international community could help in finding a solution…But let us not expect everything from states and their diplomacy. Let us act here and now, as indeed the Pope has invited us to do.
When John Paul II welcomed me to the College of Cardinals he laid emphasis on the meaning of the purple of the cardinalate: it is a reference to the blood of martyrs. For this reason today I invite Western Christians to raise a fervent prayer to heaven for our Eastern brethren. I invite them to cultivate awareness of this brotherhood that unites us beyond any distance, beyond the centuries. I would like to repeat to them the words of the Patriarch: ‘What we most lack is your nearness, your solidarity. We want to be certain that we are not forgotten’.
I propose that we encourage the associations that at the present time work in the plain of Ninive. I beseech Western Christians and all men and women of good will who work in the field of health care, of education, of alimentation and of first aid to come to the help of the survivors. I would like to launch a twinning of our diocese with one of the dioceses that is most in need. I propose that a percentage of the money of the collections of our parishes, if they so wish, should be given during the course of the year to alleviate the poverty of our brethren in Iraq. I invite all Christians to remain vigilant and careful and to watch over their brethren.
May the heirs of St. Pothin become the brothers of those of St. Thomas, the Apostle of the East! As Pope Francis has said, we are faced with an ecumenism of blood: it is not Catholics, Protestants or Orthodox that are martyred – it is Christians. And there is reason to fear that the persecutions will not stop with the Christians. From today the city of Qaraqosh should become a sanctuary for all the belligerents and a port of peace for the thousands of civilians of all confessions who go there. Because it is men who are killed, in silence, amidst the cries of a Brazilian football pitch.
The Patriarch said to me: ‘We retain our hope but, as you know, hope is fragile’. And if their hope was also in our hands? Pope Francis observed: ‘Christians persecuted for their faith are many in number. Jesus is with them, and so are we’. So are we!
Complete version of the appeal published in Figaro on Thursday 26 June 2014.