The following is a letter from our Fr. Jhon Madrid from our parish bulletin.
For several years Nigeria has been fighting Boko Haram. This Islamic insurgency is known for kidnapping women and young girls, forcing conversion of Christians, and having destroyed hundreds of churches in the past four years. Also, since the outbreak of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, we have seen how hundreds of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities have been forced to leave their ancient homeland. It is devastating to read stories about whole parishes in exile trying to survive and keep their faith alive even though they reside in foreign refugee camps. As we have witnessed, Christian leaders have expressed grave concern about the spiritual life of their displaced communities. But what is our role as we see the suffering of our brothers and sisters? Do we break the silence?
Following the reflection of a priest friend, I would like you to imagine sitting home one day when suddenly you hear megaphones screaming from cars outside. With a hate-filled militancy, soldiers declare you must abandon your faith and pay a tax that is more than the value of your home, or leave everything behind. You are told you have one hour to decide. You have to have in mind that to stay is to die, but so is to leave. As you try to decide what to do, you hear your beloved elderly neighbor arguing with the soldiers, explaining that this is not how we are meant to live, and then you hear a shot and the screams of his daughters as they are taken away. As the father of two young daughters, you look at them, you grab your family, your elderly parents, and you run, making your way into the desert with little food, water or hope. If the terrorist get hold of your daughters, they will be sold as sex slaves. You can see their prices online.
As your heart breaks to the future and mourns for the past, you cry out to the world around you, you cry out because someone in this world must break the silence. A lot of spiritual leaders, journalist, and leaders have broken this silence. For instance, Pope Francis has spoken several times of the many Christians, who continue to be persecuted, and of the complicit silence of many powerful world leaders. Also, James Foley, a Catholic journalist, broke the silence with his pen and camera, telling the story of those who are suffering in Syria. As his mother said, “he gave his life to expose the suffering of Syrian people.” Those who beheaded him mocked his faith, but he was not silent. His voice and example continue to speak and to challenge us all. It is sad to read about Christians telling the stories of ISIS’ targeting of their home parishes, villages, and families. Sermed Ashkouri, a Syriac man living with his family in America, took his children this past summer to the town in Syria where he grew up. He wanted to show his children where many of their family members died because they refused to be silent, because they loved their faith.
Even though the beauty of fall in New Jersey arrives, the horror of Christian persecution continues undiminished in the Middle East. Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, Turkmen, Kaka’e, and other minorities are persistently persecuted. Christian groups in Egypt, Eretria, Ethiopia, Nigeria and other countries in Africa are targeted with increasing ferocity. Iraq, which had 1.5 million Christians a few years ago, today has fewer than 200,000. Recently, we have seen how thousands of Syria’s Christian population fled to Europe. We have heard about how desperation left a 3-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach. The religious minorities that once flourished in a vibrant and diverse Middle East are fast disappearing. The world would be wise to break the silence, wake up, and realize the solution is not in the redistribution of peoples, but rather in getting rid of the very violent extremist at its source. The world has to refuse to be silent.
It is disappointing to see that despite ISIS’ targeting of Christians and religious minorities, the US State Department refuses to grant these communities –these families- preferential treatment in the processing of visa requests. Last year, the State Department granted nearly 1,000 visas to Syrians, only 28 of whom were Christians. In Iraq, only one out of seven visas being granted is to Christians. In our parish community and as people of faith and good citizens, we have a chance to make a difference. We all can break the silence and ask presidential candidates what they will do to stop Christian persecution in the Middle East. As political campaigns are on their way, I hope we may not be defined by conversations about the Donald’s hair and the Hillary’s email, but rather by the cry to speak for the voiceless.
Fr. Jhon Madrid