By Fr. George Welzbacher
January 2, 2011
Today's celebration of the feast of the Epiphany broadens the focus of our liturgical preoccupation, centered until now on Bethlehem, to encompass the entire Middle East, whose far-flung eastern marches (ancient Persia, modern Iran) were the staging area for the journey of the Magi, those priests of the Persian God of Light who had long been familiar with the prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The more westerly lands of the Middle East-Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, North Africa- in the centuries closely following on the Apostolic Age became strongholds of the Christian faith, bastions of a nascent Christendom, though in the fifth century the heresy that claimed the human nature of Christ was swallowed up by His divine nature came to claim the popular allegiance in Egypt. Then in the seventh century, some six hundred years after the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord, and just a few years after the death of Muhammad (632), aggressive new Islamic armies swiftly set about to make the entire Middle East their established domain, their victories made easier by the mutual exhaustion of both the Persian and the East Roman (Byzantine) armies in the wake of a long and bitter war in which the two opponents had been locked together in devastating combat for many years. Only Asia Minor-the region that today is by and large coextensive with Turkey-would hold out against repeated Islamic assault by land and sea for another four hundred years, thanks in part to the challenge to invaders posed by the formidable mountain ranges that guard the region's frontiers. But in the late eleventh century, with the defeat of the Byzantine Christian army at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 by hordes of Muslim Turks streaming out of Central Asia, the gates were opened for the newcomers' swift reduction of all of Asia Minor. The response of Catholic Western Europe to the fall of Asia Minor to the Turks is known as the First Crusade (1095 ff.).
With the Muslim domination of what had been a major segment of Christendom the slow but relentless diminishment of the Christian population throughout that immense region began. Though the process would take centuries, we are witnessing today what would seem to be its tragic finale. Egypt's Coptic Christians, Lebanon's Maronite Catholics, Iraq's and Syria's Syriac Christians, both the Orthodox and the Catholic, and Palestine's Arabic Catholics, are today a rapidly dwindling minority, understandably seizing whatever opportunity presents itself to flee from persecution, while Turkey's once flourishing communities of Greek and Armenian Christians have long since disappeared. Many Greeks and Armenians -at least a million and quite plausibly far more-were slaughtered outright by Turkish and Kurdish forces during World War I and its immediate aftermath in what has rightly been defined as the twentieth century's first genocide. Hitler in fact used to cite the indifference shown by the Western world to the mass murder of their Greek and Armenian fellow Christians as evidence that his own genocidal plans for the Jews would evoke little protest from the democracies of the West.
Today the enemies of the cross of Christ judge the final extinction of a Christian presence in the Middle East to be within striking distance. Legal harassment, physical intimidation, and frequent brazen murder are the basic facts of life with which Christians living in Muslim Lands are faced, and the Western democracies, including our own Islamophile administration, have offered little effective response.
May I share with you two recent reports: one on the current situation in Turkey (legal harassment as a fact on the ground despite the Turkish government's official disapproval) and one on the recent mass murder of Christians by fanatical jihadists in Baghdad's Catholic Cathedral, an atrocity that Prime Minister Maliki has publicly and properly deplored, though murder and frequent threats of violence continue to terrorize Baghdad's remaining Christian neighborhoods.
* * * * *Wooing Christians
From: The Economist-December 4, 2010
It is well known that Kurdish tribes took part in the mass slaughter by the Ottomans of around 2 million Armenians in 1915. "Collaborating Kurdish clerics pledged that anyone who killed an infidel would be rewarded in heaven with 700 mansions containing 700 rooms, and that in each of these rooms there would be 700 houris to give them pleasure," says Mala Hadi, an Islamic sheikh in Diyarbakir.
The sheikh is among a handful of local leaders seeking reconciliation with the Kurdish region's once thriving Christians. "We are ready to face the past, to make amends," promises Abdullah Demirbas, mayor of Diyarbakir's ancient Sur district. To atone, Mr. Demirbas has been providing money and materials to restore Christian monuments in Sur. These include the sprawling Surp Giragos Armenian Orthodox church where, until recently, drug dealers plied their trade amid piles of rubbish. It is now squeaky clean and even boasts a new roof.
Yet in the neighboring province of Mardin, Kurdish tribes continue to harass the handful of Christians who remain. Their main target is the Mor Gabriel Syrian Orthodox monastery. Perched on a remote hilltop, this 1,600-year-old monastery faces five separate lawsuits contesting its right to retain land that church leaders say they have owned for centuries but have been unable to register because of bureaucratic stonewalling. Two cases were brought by Kurdish villages dominated by the Celebi tribe, which some accuse of participating in the bloodletting of 1915 and which now provides men for a state-ran Kurdish militia fighting separatist PKK rebels. (One tribal leader, Suleyman Celebi, is a member of the parliament for the ruling Justice and Development, or AK, party.) "The others were begun by the government and rest partly on a law providing that farmland which lies fallow for more than 20 years can be reclaimed by the state as "forest".
Otmar Oehring from Missio, a German Catholic charity, calls the cases "baseless" and says "the state's actions suggest it wishes that the monastery no longer existed." He points to systematic persecution of some 2,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians living in and around Midyat. "The Syrian Orthodox community beyond the monastery has suffered repeated attacks, with land around villages often set on fire. The perpetrators are unknown, but are thought locally to be either Kurds or the Turkish army, or both, he notes in a report published last month.
The plight of the Syrian Orthodox in Midyat flies in the face of government efforts to improve the treatment of Christians. Greater freedom for non-Muslim minorities is among the European Union's main demands on Turkey, which is hoping to join. The government has made a string of gestures: restoring a church in Van and opening it to worship (if only once); giving free Armenian-language textbooks out in schools; and sending out orders from Recep Tayyip Edogan, the prime minister, that Christians must not be ill-treated. None of this impresses Samuel Aktas, the bishop in charge of Mor Gabriel. He has vowed to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. "I have remained silent in the face of these injustices; but no longer so," he declares.
* * * * *Report #2
In Baghdad, an Encore of "Murder in the Cathedral",
This report was posted on Ave Maria @ earthlink.net on December 13, 2010
The truth about the massacre in the Syriac Catholic Church. Elimination of the Christians as the prime objective of lslamic ideology. The pope meets with the survivors. And issues an appeal to the world.
The October 31 attack on the Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad, with 98 dead and many dozens wounded, attacked while they were celebrating Mass, has been seen in the Vatican as a revealing event.
During the five hour attack, the terrorists prayed twice and recited the Qur'an as in a mosque.
They devastated the altar, used the crucifix for target practice, and terrorized the children simply because they were "infidels."
What happened over those five terrible hours became known days later, little by little, thanks to the testimonies of the many wounded who were taken for treatment to Rome and other European cities.
But to return to the attack on the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, the following is a reconstruction published one month later, on November 30, in the Italian newspaper "Il Foglio".... The article was translated by Matthew Sherry of Ballwin, Missouri.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad and in other places in Iraq the killing of Christians as such continues: the last two to be murdered a married couple attacked in their home on the night of Sunday, December 5.
Members of the Al-Qaeda cell held responsible for the attack in the cathedral have been arrested. The Iraqi authorities have promised special protection measures. But the exodus of Christians from Baghdad and Mosul to the safer Kurdistan, in the extreme north of the country, continues.
* * * * *
Our Lady of the Massacre
Marco Pedersini, in Il Foglio, November 30, 2010
Raghada al-Wafi walks quickly through the streets of the Karrada neighborhood, on the shore of the Tigris that overlooks the armored heart of Baghdad, the Green Zone. Her husband is with her, she is content, and smiles. It is Sunday, October 31, and they have good news to share with Fr. Thair Abdallah, the young priest who united them in matrimony: Raghada is expecting a child. They are going to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the big Syriac Catholic church in the neighborhood, its entrance topped by a big cross.
There are two hundred faithful at the Sunday afternoon Mass, including one Chaldean and one Orthodox family. Fr. Wasim is hearing confessions near the entrance, in the shadow of the massive wooden doors. His associate, the elderly Fr. Rafael Qusaimi, is giving the choir its last instructions before the celebration. The singing begins, and Fr. Thair appears to the right of the apse, walking quickly toward the altar. In the Syrian Catholic liturgical year, it is the Sunday of the Dedication...
It is 5:15, and Fr. Thair is about to finish the homily, when outside of the church a burst of automatic weapon fire breaks the silence. The priest tries to calm the faithful, the shots have to be aimed somewhere else, he says, there is nothing to be afraid of, it is normal in a country that for years has had ears for nothing but the noises of the war. But the shooting continues, and then comes a loud explosion, near the church door. The faithful are terrorized, they want to escape but there's nowhere to run. "Let's get up, let's pray together," Fr. Thair insists...
Fr. Wasim tries to hold the church's wooden door closed, but it is thrown backward by the brigade of armed men, who burst in with faces uncovered, wearing the uniform of the Iraqi army: a classic trick in the jihadist repertoire. At the back of the church, behind the altar, the other two priests are pushing as many of the faithful as possible toward the sacristy, to shield them from the attack. "Leave them alone, take me!" shouts Fr. Wasim, and is immediately hit with a bullet square in the chest. The one who hits him doesn't even know who it is he is shooting. The priest clasps his hands to his chest, and the man turns to the companion beside him: "Who is this?" "He is a priest," the other replies, and unleashes a burst of gunfire on the dying Fr. Wasim
"Leave them alone, take me!" Fr. Thair also shouts from the altar. He too is dispatched in an instant, and dies in the arms of his dumbfounded mother.
Fr. Rafael succeeds in pushing about seventy of the faithful into the sacristy, to the right of the altar, before the terrorists throw themselves against the door. It holds, but the attackers find an alternative: the room has a little window at the top without any windowpanes, and tossing a few hand grenades inside is a game for the young butchers. The shrapnel from one of the grenades hits Fr. Rafael, wounding him seriously in the abdomen. Others are hit by the bullets that come through the door. A woman shuts her five-month-old son in a drawer, saving him from the attack.
Fr. Thair's mother cannot know this, but she is about to lose her other son, who had gone with her to Mass. The terrorists make everyone lie down on the floor, except for the young men. These must remain standing. One by one, they shoot them down.
If it weren't for its sandy color, the graceful architecture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help would seem like an alien installation compared to the monotonous buildings around it. The imposing cross above the facade stands out among the low houses, a reminder of a time when Baghdad was a multicultural city that welcomed people from all over Iraq. The Tigris surrounds the Karrada neighborhood on three sides, making it a Shiite Muslim peninsula with a strong Christian presence, in the heart of the city. Getting here from the Green Zone is as simple as crossing the river, but the Iraqi special forces don't get to the church until six in the evening, forty-five minutes after the attack.
In the meantime, inside, the armed brigade is holding the survivors hostage, and imposing silence by firing at the first sign of movement. At least three of the jihadists are kids, between fourteen and fifteen years old. Each of them wears an explosive belt - with metal ball bearings to increase the killing power - and has an automatic weapon and hand grenades. The government will say afterward that there were five of them, not from Iraq, and that they died during the attack. The overwhelming proof of their foreign origin is held to be the five passports (three Yemeni and two Egyptian) found in the rubble, which was cleaned up hastily the next day while the army blocked the entrance to the church so that no one could see the devastation. The witnesses confirm that the attackers did not speak Iraqi dialects, but the classical Arabic that is used among Arabs of different nationalities. Going by their accents, there were definitely Egyptians, and also a Syrian. This is a relevant detail, seeing that the strategy of Al-Qaeda in Iraq is controlled from areas on the Syrian border, where terrorist leaders operate, like Abu Khalaf, the military commander who was killed recently, and their great ideologue, the seventy-year-old "sheik" Issa al Masri. Issa, which means "Jesus" in Arabic.
The witness accounts, however, tell of eight persons and at least one other who commanded the operations from the terrace around the roof of the church. There may have been even more, to judge by the operation in which almost one month later, on Saturday, November 27, the Iraqi security forces arrested members of an Al-Qaeda cell in the al Mansour neighborhood in Baghdad; twelve men, with toxic material and six tons of explosives, who confessed to taking part in the attack on the church. The initial plan must have been different: bursting in, the jihadist brigade had with it four cases of explosives, which were supposed to explode around the perimeter of the church, collapsing it and killing all of the two hundred faithful present at the Sunday Mass. Why this did not happen is a secret that the five terrorists have taken with them to the grave, or perhaps it is buried in the mind of the unidentified person in civilian clothes whom a guard swears he saw leaving the school next to the church. The survivors recount that about halfway through the attack, one of the terrorists called someone outside with a walkie- talkie. "We're out of bullets, what should we do?" A quick order, with a sinister result: "Okay, now we'll start using the bombs."
Inside the church, while they are keeping the faithful hostage, the terrorists seem strangely relaxed, in spite of the siege by the Iraqi army and the muffled droning of the American helicopters watching the situation from the air. They are so comfortable that they first permit themselves the maghrib, the afternoon prayer, and then the ishá, the evening prayer, among the corpses of their victims.
Outside, the armed forces are waiting for who knows what, because it is clear to everyone that there will be no offer of mediation, from either side. A lay employee of the Baghdad curia who has rushed to the site of the siege tries to make himself useful. He is determined, he wants to make use of his detailed knowledge of the building layout to unblock the situation. But as soon as he tries to offer his help to the soldiers, he is told bluntly "this is our business, get out of here." The soldiers also brusquely push away a man who is begging them to do something to save his wife and two children, a boy and a girl, held hostage in the church. The standoff lasts almost three hours.
Night falls. The walls of Our Lady of Perpetual Help turn red, then fade to black. The siege is suspended in an unreal sunset, muddied by the mist, for the entire time from the arrival of the Iraqi army to the final blitz to try to free the hostages. Intermittent gunfire breaks the silence, marking the rhythm of the confrontation into the distance. Neither side studies the other: the wait is on to enact an ending already written.
The terrorists shoot anyone who pulls out a cell phone, as demonstrated by the wounds of two girls hit in the hand and arm when their phones started to ring. They shoot at the first suspicious sound, and the children who cry are killed instantly. Among the splayed bodies, the dead and living are piled up together. One girl recounts: "A chandelier had fallen on me, pinning me down by my side. I had shards of glass stuck in my skin, a man's foot on my head and a girl's body pushing down on my chest, covering me with the blood that was pouring from her wounds." As she heard the bullets whizzing past her, she was able to call her family waiting for her at home: "I was sure that I was going to die, and I wanted to say good-bye to them for the last time: I love you." A member of the brigade shoots the furnace, so the gas will asphyxiate anyone nearby.
The crucifix becomes a shooting target. The terrorists riddle it with gunfire - the survivors recount - shouting mockingly: "Come on, tell him to save you!" And again: "You are infidels. We are here to avenge the burning of the Qu'ran and the Muslim women imprisoned in Egypt." They are alluding to the false news, denied even by the Muslim Brotherhood but used as a pretext by Al-Qaeda in the offensive against the Christians, according to which the Egyptian Coptic Church locked up in a convent Carnilia Chehata and Wafa Constantine, the wives of two Coptic priests, as punishment for their conversion to Islam.
When the bullets stop flying, the grenade thrown by a terrorist also ends the life of Raghada and of the child she is carrying in her womb. According to some witnesses, the woman met her death while being clutched by one of the terrorists, who had grabbed her and then blown himself up. Nor would her husband be alive to see the raid by the Iraqi army, which starts piling in through the main entrance of the church in a single clump, the umpteenth proof of the stupidity of unprepared and poorly led soldiers. "The Marines are more intelligent," notes Fr. Giorgio Jahola, a priest from Mosul who has come to Rome to have his injuries tended to at the Policlinico Gemelli. "The whole perimeter of the church is surrounded by windows, which can easily be reached from the terrace. The side entrances were usually blocked by cement barriers, but the authorities had had them removed during the two days before the attack. So other passageways were available."
The terrorists were ready: they had already recited the prayer of martyrdom: "Allah is most great, Allah is most great, there is no God but Allah." And they were determined to blow themselves up. Two of them succeeded, a third was stopped by the Iraqi soldiers when, at 9:05, they disconnected the electricity and a voice shouted. "We are the Iraqi forces, get up and be calm: we will save you."
The blitz will not be remembered among the most dazzling in history: the exchange of gunfire lasted for twenty minutes, until 9:25, when the nave and sacristy of the church were liberated. The entrance to the church was then unblocked, and, amid the disorder of the emergency workers, relatives started to run frantically from one hospital to another, in the hope of finding their loved ones still alive somewhere. Inside and around the church, 58 dead were counted, not including the attackers.
Three days later, on Tuesday, women dressed in black accompany seven coffins wrapped in the Iraqi flag. The human rights minister, Wijdan Mikheil, is at the ceremony together with the Shiite political leader Ammar al Hakimm, whose face is streaming with tears. The smoke of the incense fills the air, while more than seven hundred people greet the caskets covered with flowers that advance slowly toward the altar. Two of them hold the bodies of Fr. Thair and Fr. Wasim. One moment more and they will be buried together in the cemetery under their church, poor and ravaged.
* * * * *And finally, an editorial comment from The Wall Street Journal.
Wall Street Journal 12/14/10
The New York Times to its credit made the continued persecution of Iraq's Christian minorities its lead story in yesterday's paper. Amid bloodshed on a large scale in so many places, this may seem like a relatively minor, if unhappy story. In fact, it raises questions about CONTEMPORARY Islam's ability to coexist with non-Islamic peoples-in Iraq and elsewhere.
A spate of anti-Christian bombings and assassinations in Iraq culminated recently in the siege of a church, Our Lady of Salvation, which resulted in the death of 51 worshipers and two priests. Afterward, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke with force and eloquence about the deaths: "The Christian is an Iraqi. He is the son of Iraq and from the depths of a civilization that we are proud of."
This is an important and accurate description of the Iraqi -past. Some of these Christian minorities have coexisted with Islam in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East since the time of Jesus. Some still speak Aramaic, the ancient language of Christ.
With the rise of RADICAL Islam, this tradition of peaceful and productive coexistence has been displaced by a practice of religious cleansing. It is estimated that of the 100,000 Christians who once lived in Mosul, Iraq, only some 5,000 are still there. In Egypt, Coptic Christians have been brutalized. Assaults on churches increase around Easter or Christmas, as worshipers attempt to observe holy days.
For years, the Vatican has worked to restore what Pope Benedict XVI has called a modus vivendi between modern reason and faith. But for all these good-faith efforts, there has been little progress. The Vatican's Islamic counterparts either cannot sustain initiatives on behalf of moderation and tolerance, or they receive no political support from their own countries.
Living amid an overwhelmingly large majority, the small Christian sects pose no conceivable threat to Islamic hegemony. One can only conclude that they are attacked merely because they exist amid Islamic majorities. The implications of watching a strain of Islam show that it CANNOT COEXIST with others extend well beyond the borders of Iraq.
* * * * *