Persecution: Solidarity in Suffering

Persecution of Christians and other religious minorities is not a abstract concern for me. It is deeply personal.

Two years ago in Erbil, Iraq, I looked out the window of my hotel to see tents packed together on the grounds of a chapel.  Christian families, displaced from Mosul, now lived in tents.  I remember strolling through the narrow, mud-caked paths among the tents.  Families, many with young children, shyly peered out from their tents. In one tent there were 2 families and 11 persons.

In a “deluxe” camp for displaced Christians, families lived in “caravans” (small trailer homes).  I remember seeing blankets and mattresses neatly stacked in a corner, a silent testimony to the family members who shared one room.  A mother broke down in tears as she described their night flight from Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS).  They fled with only the clothes on their backs.

In Dohuk, north of Erbil, I met a 34-year-old Yezidi policeman.  His family of 8 fled on foot to Mount Sinjar where they spent 12 days with little food in scorching summer conditions, hiding from ISIS.  Kurdish fighters rescued them.  They now lived in one room in a nearby village; 5 other families were in the same house.  He hoped to return to his ancestral village when security allows. He was in Dohuk for a Catholic Relief Services distribution of kerosene heaters, kitchen kettles, carpets, and blankets to get them through the cold winter.

A year ago in Jordan, I met an Iraqi Christian family, mother, father, and three young adult daughters.  They too had fled ISIS in the middle of the night.  On the road to safety they saw young women being kidnapped and thanked God that they were able to flee safely with their daughters to Erbil and later Jordan.

A young male student from the University of Mosul wanted to continue his studies, but he needs to leave Jordan because he cannot work.  I wonder if any country accepted him as a refugee.  I worry that our nation is closing its doors to many such fine young men.

It is important that we pray and work for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, have designated Sunday, November 26, as A Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians that initiates “Solidarity in Suffering,” a Week of Awareness and Education.

USCCB is collaborating with the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services, CNEWA and Aid to the Church in Need on this project.  There are resources available to assist parishes, schools and campus ministries in observing this Day of Prayer and Week of Awareness at  www.usccb.org/middle-east-Christians.  There you will find homily notes, intercessions, recommended aid agencies, prayer cards (in English and Spanish), logos for local use (in English and Spanish) and much more.  For social media, we are using the hashtag: #SolidarityInSuffering.  I hope you will join us in this effort.

As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has said, “To focus attention on the plight of Christians and other minorities is not to ignore the suffering of others. Rather, by focusing on the most vulnerable members of society, we strengthen the entire fabric of society to protect the rights of all.”  Persons of all faiths suffer persecution.  In the Middle East, Christians, Yezidis and Shia Muslims suffer from ISIS.  We must express solidarity in suffering with our brothers and sisters.

Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Now is the time for peace!

Pic 1 posterA poster with the message, “Now is the time for Peace,” greeted bishops from Europe, South Africa, Canada and the United States when they arrived in Jordan for a solidarity visit. The “peace now” theme permeated meetings with Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces represented the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the meetings in Jordan. Then the Bishop and I went on to Lebanon to meet with the local Church and more refugees.  The situation in both Jordan and Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions.

In Jordan, we learned that they are hosting about 1 million Syrian refugees and 60,000 Iraqi refugees. This is a heavy burden for relatively small country of modest means with about 7 million people.

In Lebanon, the statistics are even more startling. With a native population of only 4.5 million, Lebanon is hosting about 2 million refugees, mostly Syrians, but also some Iraqis.  That would be the equivalent of the United States taking in some 140 million refugees over five years!  We are scheduled to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, not exactly our fair share.

pic 2 mass for migrants refugees

Maronite Patriarch Béchara Boutros Cardinal Raï distributes Communion at Mass for Migrants and Refugees at the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Beirut.

But statistics only tell part of the story of the suffering that war, violence and persecution have brought to the region. Caritas Jordan and Caritas Lebanon are doing amazing work assisting both refugees and local people.  With the support of Catholic Relief Services and others, they serve Muslims and Christians.  It makes you proud to be Catholic.  They enabled us to meet with refugees, to hear their stories.

An Iraqi Christian family told us they had good relations with their Muslim neighbors before they fled the Nineveh plains in the wake of so-called Islamic State. They found refuge in Dohuk in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and now Jordan.  They hope to be resettled in a country of refuge.  They cannot contemplate going back to Iraq.

We also met a woman who had fled Mosul. Her family left in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs.  She, a teacher and her husband is a hospital worker, escaped with their three daughters, ages 28 to 24.  It took them ten tense hours at night in constant fear to reach nearby Erbil. Protecting their daughters from being raped or kidnapped was a challenge.  They witnessed killings and saw young women who were taken hostage as they fled.

Another woman reported that her father was kidnapped in Syria because Christians are being persecuted. When her brother reported the kidnapping he was put in jail for two days.

Refugees struggle in Lebanon where everything is expensive. One man said he works long hours but barely makes enough for them to live in Lebanon.  Life was better in Syria.  They want to go to Australia where they have been accepted, but their UN file is not moving.  A mother reported that her children only get milk once a day.  She is willing to go back to Syria if the situation improves because her son needs medical assistance.  Originally, they thought they’d be in Lebanon for two months.  It has been years.

These encounters and many others give a face to the statistics. There are lives and families behind the numbers.  At these and many other encounters, Bishop Cantú assured the refugees that they are not forgotten.  And he affirmed what we heard time and time again, “Now is the time for peace.”  For only peace can alleviate the refugee crisis.  I hope all sides realize that at the peace talks in Geneva.

Colecchi headshot

Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Go deeper:

Read Archbishop Kurtz’s statement regarding refugees fleeing Syria.

Learn about the work of Migration and Refugee Services/USCCB in resettling an supporting refugees in the United States.

Join Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of USCCB and Catholic Relief Services, in advocating to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people worldwide.

 

Remember Israel, Remember Gaza

Image of Rachel Weeping statue and base at the Holocaust Memorial in Richmond, VA

Image of Rachel Weeping statue and base at the Holocaust Memorial in Richmond, VA

Years ago when I served in Richmond, I had a view of a Holocaust Memorial on the grounds of the Cathedral outside my office window. It depicted Rachael weeping for her children amidst flames.  On the base there was a single word carved in Hebrew and English, “Remember.”  It is indeed important for humanity to “remember” this singularly heinous event in human history.  It is important for us to “remember” people wherever and whenever they suffer.

I recently returned from a visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Israel and the Palestinian Territories are tense places these days.  Israelis fear random knife attacks; Palestinians fear the harsh realities of occupation and the lack of freedom of movement. Continue reading

CSMG: The Path of Peace Must Be Taken Up Anew

Bishops gather at the Separation Wall in Jerusalem.

US bishops gather at the Separation Wall in Jerusalem.

Today marks the first day of the 2015 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. Catholic leaders from across the country are spending the day building community, studying Catholic social teaching and preparing to engage legislators on issues important to their faith. One of the international issues these leaders will bring to Congressional lawmakers is their support for a just peace in Palestine and Israel and continued aid for the Palestinian people.

In the past year US led peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel stalled, outbreaks of violence spawned yet another terribly destructive round of fighting between Hamas and the Israeli military and the humanitarian situation throughout the Palestinian Territories deteriorated, especially in Gaza. This was another startling reminder that the status quo is not sustainable, that there is no military solution to this conflict, and that courageous leadership is needed now more than ever. CSMG participants will raise their voices to support US leadership for peace and a two-state solution to the conflict in the Holy Land. They will echo the longstanding position of the Church that lasting peace requires the emergence of a viable and independent Palestinian state living alongside a recognized and secure Israel. A two-state solution will enhance Israeli security, preserve Israel as a Jewish majority democratic state, give Palestinians the dignity of their own state, allow access to the Holy Sites of all three faiths and promote economic development. It will also contribute to stability in the region and undermine extremists who exploit the conflict.

Both parties to the conflict have taken actions the other side and much of the international community deem inflammatory, most notably Israeli settlement expansion and Hamas’ rocket attacks. Most recently, the Palestinian Authority joined the International Criminal Court, a move that upset the Government of Israel and that the United States Government called counterproductive. In an effort to punish the Palestinian Authority for this action, some Members of Congress have sought to terminate the roughly $400 million in annual aid to the Palestinian people. If such legislation were to pass, it would have devastating humanitarian consequences and could undermine the Palestinian Authority’s ability to build capacity for a Palestinian State and continue its security coordination with Israel. Catholic leaders will bring these concerns to Congress during CSMG by advocating to preserve FY 2015 assistance to the Palestinian people in the federal budget, assistance that is in the best interest of Israelis, Palestinians and all who hope for peace in the Holy Land.

During previous Catholic Social Ministry Gatherings, leaders brought a similar message to Congress: work for peace in the Holy Land. While some may be discouraged by the deterioration of the negotiations in the past year, as Catholics we are people of hope. Peace is possible. During his pilgrimage to the Holy Land this past summer, Pope Francis reminded us, “The path of dialogue, reconciliation and peace must constantly be taken up anew, courageously and tirelessly.” Through their advocacy, CSMG participants will demonstrate that our Church remains committed to the important message of peace and is ready to be a peacemaker in our world.

To learn more about the situation in the Holy Land and the work of USCCB to promote peace, check out this backgrounder.
Julie Bodnar

Julie Bodnar is an intern at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

The Double Tragedy of Gaza

View from the beach in Gaza

View from the beach in Gaza.

I have visited Gaza several times in the last decade, twice in the past year, before and after the latest war between Hamas and Israel. I think of it as a beautiful spot with beautiful people, but it is also a place that suffers from a double tragedy—a tragedy for Palestinians trapped there and for nearby Israelis who seek security.

Gaza sits on a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea. Standing on the beach and looking out on the expansive blue waters of the Sea you can forget that you are in a place that for years has been locked off from the rest of the world, blockaded by sea and surrounded by walls. It was once a thriving commercial center, but now has been hollowed out by isolation and poverty. The recent war left over 2,000 dead, mostly civilians, and more than 100,000 without housing.

Palestinian children climb in rubble.

Palestinian children climb in rubble.

According to the World Food Program: “Restrictions by Israeli authorities on freedom of movement, access to natural resources, the right to pursue gainful employment, and on international trade and investment has left 27 percent of households, or 1.3 million Palestinians, unable to meet their basic food and households expenses, with a further 14 percent of households at risk of food insecurity.” (wfp.org, October 22, 2014)

Half of the double tragedy of Gaza is that the desperate situation there destroys lives, livelihoods and even hope. In January of this year, before the most recent war, I accompanied a group of Catholic bishops visiting from Europe, North America and South Africa. Amidst the hopelessness of Gaza, we found hope. There are Church institutions educating, training and providing employment, including the great work of Catholic Relief Services. We were welcomed enthusiastically by proud scouts to the local Catholic parish where we celebrated mass. But when we visited the local Orthodox bishop, he welcomed us to the “prison of Gaza.” In January, the bishops concluded that Gaza was a “man-made disaster.”  Returning last month with the Bishops’ Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace, it was worse.

Bishops view devastation in Gaza.

Bishops view devastation in Gaza.

The devastation was widespread and in some places whole neighborhoods were turned to rubble. I saw young boys climbing in the ruins and wondered about their futures. This situation is obviously terrible for the people of Gaza, but it also harms their much more prosperous neighbors–the Israelis. Desperate people do desperate things. As the Pilgrimage bishops said, “Violence always sows seeds of further violence and fear.” This is the second half of the double tragedy of Gaza.

Colecchi headshotDr. Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice & Peace.

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s advocacy for peace in Palestine and Israel.

A Pilgrimage for Peace (2 of 2)

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Bishops discuss peace with former President Peres of Israel.

Led by Bishop Richard Pates, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice & Peace, 18 bishops from the United States recently returned from a “Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in the Holy Land.”  In their own words, here’s what they hope:

As U.S. bishops, we humbly acknowledge that we do not understand all the complexities of the situation, but in faith we do understand some things clearly. We reaffirm the longstanding position of the U.S. bishops and the Holy See and support a two-state solution: a secure and recognized Israel living in peace with a viable and independent Palestinian state. The broad outlines of this solution are well known; but there has not been, nor does there appear to be, the determined political will to achieve it.

There is no military solution to the conflict, but tragically violence on both sides undermines the trust needed to achieve peace. Violence always sows seeds of further violence and fear. We witnessed the horrific devastation of whole neighborhoods in Gaza and heard about tragic deaths on both sides, especially a disproportionate number of Palestinian noncombatants, women, and children. The local Christian community in Gaza described the nightly terror they suffered during the war. Israelis in Sderot and elsewhere described their dread of Hamas rocket fire.

The route of the barrier wall, the confiscation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, especially now in the Bethlehem area and the Cremisan Valley, and any expansion of settlements threaten to undermine the two-state solution. Many reported that the window of opportunity for peace was narrowing dangerously. If it closes, the futures of both Palestinians and Israelis will be harmed.

Bishops discuss peace with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.

Bishops discuss peace with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.

Many persons with whom we met joined us in commending the recent initiative of Secretary of State John Kerry, but said renewed U.S. leadership is required for peace. For the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, the United States must mobilize the international community to support both parties by adopting parameters for a lasting solution, including borders, an open and shared Jerusalem, and a timeline.

Pope Francis, in word and gesture, inspired hope on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May. After another Gaza war, hope is now in short supply. One person on our journey told us that the Holy Land is the land of miracles. The miracle we need is the transformation of human hearts so each side is less deaf to the concerns of the other. In solidarity with our brother bishops and all people in the region, we urge alternatives to the cycle of hatred and violence. Peace is possible.

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s advocacy for peace in Palestine and Israel.

A Pilgrimage for Peace (1 of 2)

Led by Bishop Richard Pates, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice & Peace, 18 bishops from the United States recently returned from a “Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in the Holy Land.”  In their own words, here’s what they saw:

Bishop Malone inspects the devastation in Gaza.

Bishop Malone inspects the devastation in Gaza.

We went to the Holy Land as men of faith on a Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace. Motivated by the love of Christ and deep concern for both Israelis and Palestinians, we went to pray for peace, and to work for a two-state solution and an open and shared Jerusalem. Arriving in the wake of the recent Gaza war, though, we encountered pain, intransigence and cynicism. Even the young people are discouraged. But we also saw signs of inspiration and hope.

Prayer was the central element of our pilgrimage. Through daily liturgies at holy sites and local parishes, we experienced our communion in Christ with local Christian communities. We are grateful to those at home who supported our pilgrimage with prayers and interest. We also prayed alongside Jews, Muslims and other Christians. Prayer is powerful. We know peace is possible because God is our hope.

We met with people of goodwill, Palestinian and Israeli alike, who yearn for peace. We were inspired by the commitment of the staff and partners of Catholic Relief Services, The Pontifical Mission, and the local Christian community, who are providing relief to the people of Gaza; by the efforts of Christians, Muslims, and Jews who are building bridges of understanding; and by the mission of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre. We were moved profoundly by our visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and were encouraged by Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution that is building bridges between Christians and Muslims as they study together to create the future of Palestine, and by the Church’s schools that are open to all.

We are compelled by the Gospel of Peace to share the fruits of our prayers and encounters with Israelis and Palestinians. Two peoples and three faiths have ancient ties to this Land. Sadly, Jerusalem, the City of Peace, is a sign of contradiction. We were told more than once that the city could erupt in violence as it has on far too many occasions.

Bishops gather at the Separation Wall in Jerusalem.

Bishops gather at the Separation Wall in Jerusalem.

The towering wall that divides Israelis and Palestinians is another sign of contradiction. For Israelis, it is a sign of security; for Palestinians, a sign of occupation and exclusion. The contrast between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is also a sign of contradiction. In crossing the border one moves from freedom and prosperity to the intimidation of military checkpoints, humiliation, and deeper poverty.

The situation of Christian Palestinians is an added sign of contradiction. The Christian community is emigrating at alarming rates. As we learned from Patriarch Fouad Twal, the unresolved conflict and occupation undermine human dignity and the ability of Christians to raise their families. Israeli policies in East Jerusalem prohibit Christians who marry someone from outside the City to remain there with their spouse, and security policies restrict movement and confiscate lands, undermining the ability of many Christian families to survive economically. The harsh realities of occupation force them to leave. Muslims also suffer similarly, but have fewer opportunities to emigrate…

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s advocacy for peace in Palestine and Israel.