Afterword, I got to sit down with Dr. Gray in the Cultural Center on the Christ Cathedral campus in Garden Grove, California, for an in-depth chat focusing mostly on the ongoing and horrific persecution of Christians across the Middle East. He regularly leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land (the next one, sponsored by the Napa Institute, is in April of 2015) and is very familiar with the precarious and often dangerous situation of Christians in the region, from Iraq to Syria to Israel and Gaza.
Complex and thorny issues affect their lives, and sometimes it’s near-impossible to figure out what to do that won’t wind up harming besieged and vulnerable Christian populations, who don’t seem to be on the top of anyone’s agenda — except that of the Vatican.
Here’s part one of excerpts from our conversation:
On the situation in Syria:
“It’s really tragic. I remember now, at the very beginning of the Syrian civil war conflict, I was in Jordan — I do pilgrimages every year, so I was leading a pilgrimage-talking to a lot of the churches there. There are a lot of Iraqi Christians (there) who, during the Iraq War, fled. After Saddam was overthrown, it became more and more dangerous; they became more and more exposed and vulnerable.
“The original Al Qaeda in Iraq, which then evolved into ISIS, even at that time, and in that conflict, they were targeting the Christians and making things hard. Talking with Jordanian Christians and some of these Iraqi Christians about the conflict in Syria, they were telling me, ‘The Americans don’t understand. If Assad’s overthrown, it’s going to lead to chaos.’ They said, ‘Twelve percent of Syria was Christian. All these Christians are going to be run out. It’s going to be a holocaust.’
“That opened my eyes to, we misunderstand the conflict in Syria a great deal, and the implications it’s going to have for Christians there. You can already see that this radical group of Muslims, Al Qaeda, which is now ISIS, they want to purge all that land of Christians.”
On why that is:
“They don’t understand Christianity to begin with, but they see Christianity as a Western religion, so they want to destroy the West. So even though these are Easterners who’ve lived in the East, and that Christianity came out of the East and Jerusalem, they disregard that, and they see it as something they want to destroy.
“People don’t realize — a small radical group can leverage against larger numbers in ways that are hard for us to believe, but it’s pretty powerful, using intimidation and fear and radical violence.”
On why we haven’t heard more vigorous outcry — except perhaps from Pastor Rick Warren of Christ Cathedral’s Orange County neighbor, Saddleback Church — about the persecution of Middle East Christians from American Protestant and Evangelical leaders, whose adherents outnumber Catholics in the U.S.:
“They have a blind eye to the fact that there are Christians in the East and Middle East. So, one of the things you see is, Evangelicals make many pilgrimages to the Holy Land, but they go with all the Israeli tour companies. And the Israeli tour companies don’t like to take people to Bethlehem or to Nazareth or to Jericho.
“This is the amazing thing, but most of the Evangelicals who go to the Holy Land for tours don’t go to those places, and they don’t know there’s Christian Palestinians. They don’t know it. I’m very serious. They don’t know this.
“Hopefully, most of the Catholic tours that go use Christian tour guides, and they work with the Christian Palestinian tour companies, to support the local Christians. But the Evangelicals don’t know. It’s symptomatic of the fact that they use the Israeli tour companies, and the Israeli tour companies try not to get them to see the Christian local community.
“That’s one of the beautiful things that the Catholic Church tries to emphasize. Whenever I head a pilgrimage, I always stop at a local Christian church. So we’ll go to Good Shepherd in Jericho, places like that.
“Some Evangelicals do go to some of the holy sites where there are Catholic churches, but even with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem, identified as both the place of the Crucifixion and Jesus’ temporary tomb), they’ll go to the Garden Tomb, which claims to be the tomb of Christ, which is not true.
“But British Gen. Gordon claimed to have found the tomb out there and said, ‘This is the Garden Tomb,’ but there’s no historical basis.”
Next: Dr. Gray addresses the witness of Middle Eastern Christians, what the Church does and can do about it, and why Catholics should know their Faith.