Catholic News Service (CNS) reported Monday that attacks by the so-called Islamic State militants are increasing in northern Syria, in a region that is home to ancient Christian villages.
In late February, 220 Christians in the region were abducted by the militant group. And thousands sought safety in Hassakeh province, an area that is quickly becoming the “next battleground,” CNS reported.
Analysts told the news service that Hassakeh, which juts into neighboring Iraq and Turkey, could become part of a “multifront” in a war between Islamic State militants and Christians allied with Kurdish fighters. The ratio of fighters is estimated at about 100 militants for every civilian.
Those are tough odds.
Muslims — of one sect or another — have suffered plenty of persecution in recent years. Christian persecution seems out of place — a near impossibility — to those of us living comfortably in a relatively tolerant and mostly Christian country.
Yet, there it is. Our lots have been cast together, against a group perpetrating senseless violence in the guise of religion.
The people living in these ancient Christian settlements are our brothers and sisters in faith.
They believe in the Beatitudes; in redemption; in loving one’s neighbor as oneself; the sacraments — and they may be longing to receive the Eucharist as they struggle to fulfill their basic needs.
Because of these things, they live in fear of death, facing martyrdom in some cases.
Some Christian leaders in the region have urged civilians to fight back, to defend their ancestral homes. Other clerics have called on nations around the world to offer practical aid and prayers for those under attack.
Father Rifat Bader, who leads the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Jordan, told CNS that the Catholic community of Jordan is praying for those suffering in Syria.
“The suffering is becoming greater not only for Christians, but the region in general. The whole region is on fire,” said Father Bader. “The persecution of Christians is rising and a human disaster is unfolding. These (militant) groups pretend to be Islamic, but are void of religion. They are filled with cruelty and violence destroying our civilization.”
Father Bader called for a political solution, echoing the statements made in late February by our own Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Archbishop Kurtz and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., who is the chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, sent a letter to President Barack Obama and the U.S. House and Senate leadership Feb. 23 calling for more protection of Middle East religious minorities.
“Pope Francis and the Holy See have reiterated on a number of occasions that it is ‘licit’ to use force to stop these unjust aggressors and to protect religious minorities and civilians from these horrendous attacks,” the letter said. They added, the United States “should only use military force consistent with international and humanitarian law” and should also “deploy other assets in the struggle against terrorism.”
The letter also noted the need for humanitarian and resettlement assistance for refugees, particularly for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis — including Christians, Yezidis (another religious and ethnic minority) and Muslims.
The USCCB issued an in-depth report March 6 detailing the growing refugee crisis in the region. The report says the situation is dire and help is urgently needed to alleviate the strain on Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, in particular, where a majority of the refugees are living. Some refugees have sought safety in other nearby countries, including Jordan and Lebanon.
Catholic Relief Services, the international aid arm of the USCCB, is offering support to refugees through local partners. Among those partners are the Good Shepherd Sisters, who have opened a center in Lebanon for Syrian families. The sisters are providing classes for children, regular meals and meeting other critical needs.
Let us pray, as the U.S. bishops have asked, for an end to the violence and for a return to dignity for suffering families.
And let’s join the bishops in their call for peace-building and protection of all people in harm’s way.
Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chair of the bishops’ committee on migration, wrote in a letter that accompanied the report on the refugee crisis, “We continue to call upon President Obama and other concerned world leaders to use the United Nations and other international mechanisms to end violence and build peace and an inclusive society in Syria and Iraq.”
Let’s join him in this prayer and advocacy.