Last update: 2018-02-02 14:46:38
The dramatic situations that the Christians of Iraq are experiencing today are not new. On a number of occasions in history these Christians have been the targets of very violent persecutions.
This happened, for example, in the middle of the fourth century when the Persians killed half a million Christians in Mesopotamia and cut the throat of the Patriarch of Babylonia. Since that day his successors have worn a red robe as a symbol of that martyrdom. But they have managed to conserve their faith, forged in the experience of tribulation.
Still today the Christians of Iraq bear great witness to the universal Church: despite the pressures of the extremists who attack them and the death threats, not one of them has abjured their faith. They have paid a high price for their choice: abandoning their homes and all their possessions, and then exile.
These Christians should be defended and protected; their rights should be upheld. At the same time their frailty tells us something that is essential about Christianity: vulnerability is a part of our vocation. Power, in contrary fashion, runs the risk of compromising our witness.
Small in number, as at the time of Jesus
Before leaving the post of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in March 2008, Msgr. Michel Sabbah wrote: “Christians make up a small number in this Holy Land and in the Church of Jerusalem. This is not only the consequence of historical or social circumstances. This reality has a direct link with the mystery of Jesus on this land. Two thousand years ago Jesus came but his apostles, his disciples and the faithful that believed in him were only a small group of people. Today, two thousand years later, Jesus is in the same situation of being ‘not recognised’ in his land and Jerusalem, the city of the Redemption and a source of peace for the world, has still not welcomed the Redemption or found its peace. In this situation Christians who are witnesses to Jesus in his land continue to be few in number. To be few in this land is simply to live like Jesus did. It does not mean to live a lesser life, at the margins, or one made up of fears and puzzlement. We know why we are small in number and we know what place we should have in our society and in the world. Incorporated into the mystery of Jesus, we remain with him on Calvary, strong and sustained by the hope and the joy of the Resurrection which should be lived and shared with everyone. The mustard seed is small, Jesus tells us, but it grows and becomes a tree, and to such an extent that ‘the birds of the sky come and make their nests in its branches’ (Mt 13:31-32). The same applies to yeast which in small quantities is sufficient to make all the dough rise (Mt 13:33)” (Pastoral Letter, n. 9).
Such witness was recently offered to the universal Church by the Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria as well. Their history is well known: threatened by militant Islamists who lived near their monastery, these monks refused to leave, believing that their task was to bear witness to a life of prayer and universal love for their neighbour in an Algeria that was devastated by civil war.
This was a universal love which meant for them also agreeing to attend these terrorists when they were wounded. The monks called them their “mountain brothers”: this was not ingenuousness but a courageous choice for the Gospel that they paid for with their lives.
In the spring of 1996 seven of them were abducted and kept as prisoners in a secret place on the mountain. Two months later their corpses were found and their witness shook the world. These monks left behind them letters, poems and homilies which demonstrate that they were aware of the possibility of a violent death which they freely and as a community accepted. The film Of Gods and Men which told their story achieved international success, and not only with the usual Catholic public.
Turning the other cheek
Does not meeting violence with violence, accepting being vulnerable in order to break the vicious circle of violence that leads to further violence, simply mean following in the footsteps of Jesus who himself had to deal with violence and chose to respond to it with a love that accepted and forgave? He also paid with his own life.
It is this approach that during the course of history has guided many Christians. Msgr. Claverie, the Bishop of Oran, faced with the risk of dying in the same context of Algeria of the 1990s, wrote in 1995 a few months before himself being murdered: “Algeria is a fault line between Muslims among themselves, between Muslims and the rest of the world, between North and South, between the rich and the poor…There is a fracture and an increasingly deep abyss between us and what you find an hour and a half’s flight from here. This should be shouted out now; it is frightening! But this is specifically the place of the Church, because this is the place of Jesus. The cross is the dismemberment of He who did not choose one side or the other because He entered humanity, but not to reject one part of humanity. He is here, He goes towards the sick, the publicans, the sinners, the prostitutes, the mad; he goes towards everyone. He places Himself there and tries to keep the two extreme together. Reconciliation, therefore, is not simple; it can only take place at a high price. It can also provoke, as was the case with Jesus, that dismemberment of what cannot be reconciled. An Islamist and a kâfir (infidel) cannot be reconciled. So what should I choose? Jesus did not choose. He said ‘I love you all’, and died”.
Reflecting on the witness of the nineteen victims of the Church of Algeria murdered between 1994 and 1996, some people have emphasised the “Eucharistic” dimension of their witness: “nobody takes my life; it is I who give it”.
The French Orientalist Louis Massignon was convinced that Islam had a role in the Christian history of salvation. It is, he said, “a gospel spear which has stigmatised Christendom for thirteen centuries”’ and forces the “privileged of God” to engage in heroism and holiness.
This is a harsh vocation in reality and one very difficult to live up to, as was stressed by the Lebanese scholar Mouchir Aoun who emphasised the “worrying gap between vocation and conduct”: “the Christians of the East make their singularity the basis of their vocation in the Arab world. Here they believe that, given their small numbers, their struggle has a salvific meaning and an impact in the Arab world only if they apply themselves to appreciating the particularity of their spiritual contribution. But this is precisely the weak point because their social and political conduct very often contradicts their claim to a cultural and spiritual specificity. And whereas a majority can tolerate an inconsistency, a minority runs the risk of finding in it the reason for its extinction. The corruption of most of the Christian political class, the false witness of most of the members of the clergy, the mercantilism that infects human relationships, the extravagance and the snobbism of the well-off class, and the immorality of businessmen and prosperous families are other sores that afflict the Christian communities that live in the societies of the Arab world”.
This diagnosis may appear to be severe and in particular reflect the Lebanese context in which it was written, but nonetheless it brings out a real difficulty: being up to heroic witness in the context of daily life.
Legitimate defence and unarmed love
It is legitimate for the Eastern Christians to try to defend their rights and it is the duty of the international community to struggle to ensure that they return to their homes and get their possessions back.
Their survival is at stake and the possibility of the existence of plural societies in the Muslim world. At the same time, however, we must ask ourselves whether the power of the witness of Christians does not lie first and foremost in their vulnerability.
Not choosing the instruments of power and responding to an offence with love – these are the ‘superhuman’ precepts that Jesus gave to his apostles and to those who want to be his disciples. This is what was preached by Pierre Claverie before he was murdered: “Jesus tells us and demonstrates to us that God is impassioned, that Love is His name…What could be crazier than going to one’s death equipped only with an unarmed and disarming love that dies forgiving? And what is more foolish than recruiting one’s disciples from Galilean sinners, publicans, prostitutes and poor people? And yet we belong to those kinds of believers. Not bookkeepers of the licit and of the prohibited, not warriors of a conquering religion…Only Jesus can lead us on the ways of living God: alone we would never go beyond the ‘wisdom of the Greeks’ which Paul contrasted with the ‘madness of the Cross’. But our lives become tasty fertile when the risk is run of this special madness which threads through the Gospel with a jubilant audacity. It is the power itself of the divine Spirit alone that can lead us to take the step…”.
At this time of trial, therefore, the universal Church is invited to receive the fruits of grace of the heroic witness offered by the Eastern Christians.
<Cf. Christian de Chergé, Prieur de Tibhirine – L’invincible espérance, texts brought together with an introduction by Bruno Chenu (Bayard Éditions/Centurion, Paris, 1997); Frère Christophe, Aime jusqu’au bout du feux, texts brought together with an introduction by Frère Didier (Éditions Monte Cristo, Annecy, 1997); Le souffle du don. Journal du frère Christophe, moine de Tibhirine (Bayard-Centurion, Paris, 1999).
 Cf. Jean Jacques Pérennès, Pierre Claverie, un Algérien par alliance (Le Cerf, Paris, 2000).
 Louis Massignon, L’Hégire d’Ismael in Les trois prières d’Abraham, (Le Cerf, Paris, 1997), pp. 70-71.
 Mouchir Aoun, ‘Le malaise de l’identité brisée. Épreuves et traumatismes de l’inconscient chrétien arabe collectif’ in Œuvre d’Orient, perspectives et réflexions, n. 2, 2014, 27.
 Pierre Claverie, ‘Priez sans cesse’ in Le Lien (June-July 1994), published in Lettres et messages, pp. 151-154 and in Pierre Claverie, un Algérien par alliance (Cerf, Paris, 2000).