Horrifying evil shocks us into paralysis. That is the point of terrorism: not just to kill, but to demoralize any opposition into hopelessness and inaction. As urgent as it is to document Christian persecution in our time to shine a light on it, it’s important too to understand that evil doesn’t stand unopposed. There are signs of hope: the heroic virtue of many Christians in the face of genocidal attack; the help they have received from noble allies; and some signs that the tide may have turned and things can get better.
Earlier this spring I heard Steve Wagner, the head of Solidarity with the Persecuted Church, give an inspiring and informative presentation about the conditions of persecuted Christians in the hot spots of Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. Here is my email interview with Wagner, which I hope you will find as heartening as I do.
Catholic Vote: What are the differences in the situations and needs of persecuted Christians in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria?
Steve Wagner: The experience of persecution is different in every country. In Iraq, Christians have abandoned their homes and fled the Islamic State. They are a displaced community living in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and being supported by other Christians, notably the Chaldean Church. The task in Iraq is to help these displaced Christians persevere until they can go home, which might be as soon as this year. This means principally education and employment support.
In Syria, a substantial number of Christians remain — between 500,000 to a million. Many have never been compelled to leave their homes. They live in regions controlled by the government of Syria. Christians in Syria need us. They need the support of the international Christian community to keep parishes open and functioning, and they need our support because the Church is also a major provider of social services. The main concern in Syria is that the post-conflict country be a place where Christians can live in peace as equal citizens. We have a vital interest in the outcome of the Geneva peace process, and fervently hope it goes forward.
We are nearly at the end of the reign of terror by Boko Haram in Nigeria. The Church there is providing services to people displaced by the violence, and caring for some who escaped their abduction by Boko Haram. Solidarity with the Persecuted Church will be working with the local Church to rebuild parishes desecrated by Boko Haram.
CV: You have been somewhat optimistic that the tide is turning on Christian persecution in Nigeria and in Iraq near Mosul at least. Can you give us an update? Has Nigeria continued to make progress in defeating Boko Haram? Do you still think Mosul will be re-taken? Syria has been in the news a lot lately — what is your take on how things stand for Christians there today?
SW: The government of Iraq has committed to recapturing Mosul this year, which implies the liberation of the Nineveh Plain from which most Christians fled. In Nigeria, the government continues to contract the space in which Boko Haram can operate. I believe we will shortly be able to help the Diocese of Maiduguri begin the process of rebuilding.
In Syria, the number one priority of Christians and all Syrians is to achieve a ceasefire. Sadly, Russia seems to have decided it will not work with the current American administration. I believe John Kerry deserves credit for attempting the role of peacemaker, and the failure of his efforts reflects Putin’s animus toward Obama. Hopefully a new administration will have more success.
Aleppo, Syria, is a city divided in two. To the West is the government-controlled sector, in which many Christians live. To the East, the opposition- controlled sector. The violence we are reading about now is the effort by the government to retake the entire city. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura a few days ago offered to personally accompany the opposition forces as they withdraw from Aleppo and move to other areas. He did this to remove the motive for government attacks, which are killing non-combatants. It is good for Christians that Aleppo will not fall to the opposition, none of whom would be tolerant of a continued Christian presence. But the best outcome is a general ceasefire.
CV: It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the atrocity stories connected with Christian persecution — and of course, that feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless against evil is part of the aim of terrorism. But helplessness is hardly the whole story. I wonder if you would share with readers some of your pictures and your examples of admirable behavior?
SW: I am very impressed by the courageous leadership of the Christian Church in the Middle East. Most of the Church in Syria is administered by the five Patriarchs of Antioch. These are courageous men who continue in the face of war to tend to their flocks. I am also very impressed by the work of individual priests to care for their people, particularly the priests in exile in Iraq of the Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox Churches. Solidarity with the Persecuted Church is supporting several of their initiatives, such as the creation of mobile health clinics to meet the needs of the people.
In general, the bishops and patriarchs are not young men, yet the energy and determination with which they have risen to help and console their people and also to travel the world trying to raise awareness is inspiring.
There is Nigerian Bishop Oliver Doeme [read more about him here]. I have not met him but another Nigerian bishop told me about him. You’ve got to love a pastor who walks the streets of his city every evening in his cassock just to give courage to his people.
There is despair and hopelessness in the refugee community in Iraq, no question. They desperately want to go home. But there is also courage, fortitude and charity in the community. Here is a photo of one Iraqi family living in one of the container crates that serve as housing for some displaced Christians. The sign in this woman’s home is a scripture passage from Galatians: “be slaves to one another out of love.” How can we not admire that adherence to faith in the midst of suffering?
I’m inspired by this photo, too, which is taken from the Kurdish city of Al-Qosh looking South towards Islamic State lines only a few miles off. At one point when it appeared ISIS would advance further North, every able-bodied man stood here in a line to prevent them from advancing and to protect their families.
CV: Tell readers about the actions of the Kurds and Kurdistan. Are the Kurds majority Muslim? And yet they have taken in refugees and defended them, no?
SW: The Kurds are a Sunni Muslim people. And they deserve a lot of credit for the welcome they have provided to fleeing Christians, under great financial burden. There was already a Christian Church in Kurdistan, the Chaldean Church, which has enjoyed excellent relations with the Kurdish government. Indeed, there has been a Christian deputy prime minister in Kurdistan. Displaced Christians are not living in a way any of us would want to live, but their basic needs are being met, thanks to the efforts of the Chaldean Church, but equally because they’ve simply been taken in and supported by the Kurds.
The Christians living in exile in Kurdistan are thankful to be alive. Their number one priority is to go home. Very few want to emigrate to the West. They have been displaced now for two years. It is a spiritual Calvary, like the Jewish people experienced in the Babylonian exile, though quite a bit shorter (please, God).
CV: The desire of Iraqi Christians to go home brings us to something else not well understood: that the people in the massive refugee camps we see in the news aren’t Christians fleeing persecution. Why do Christians tend not to be in the big internationally-run refugee camps?
SW: Christians do not go to the UN-run refugee camps because these are majority Muslim, and Christians do not feel safe. The fact that Christians are not in the UN refugee registration system is a major reason Christians represent such a tiny portion of Syrians relocating to the United States. [Author’s note: to date, the United States has accepted 10,801 Syrian refugees, of whom just 56 are Christian.]
CV: The West seems to want to respond to the refugee crisis by simply trying to absorb all the refugees. But Christians, as you have indicated, do not seem to want to emigrate to the West. They want to stay in their lands. Why is it so important to the Christian bishops to keep their people together — and what helps them be able to stay?
SW: The leadership of the Christian Church in the Middle East, patriarchs and bishops, is committed to the preservation of the Christian presence in the place of its birth. Surveys of displaced persons in Iraq find that the vast majority (85+%) want to return to their homes, not come to the West. Our job is to help make it possible for the people to persevere in a condition of exile until they can go home, and to help them reclaim their communities when the opportunity arises. This includes things like providing generators for local schools so the kids can be educated.
CV: What is the mission of Solidarity with the Persecuted Church and how can people who want to support that mission support you?
SW: The mission of Solidarity with the Persecuted Church is precisely to help the Christian Church persevere and triumph in places where she faces persecution. We accomplish this by providing material assistance for projects requested by the churches themselves, so that the local Church can do those things it thinks are needed to endure. SPC seeks to be the vehicle for concerned people who want to express their support and solidarity for Christians brothers and sisters at risk. By contributing to an IRS recognized non-profit such as Solidarity with the Persecuted Church, individual contributions are tax-deductible. In fact, it is not legal for American citizens to send money to Syria; they must work through an established organization such as SPC.
To learn more about specific projects of Solidarity with the Persecuted Church, or to donate, visit solidaritypersecutedchurch.org.