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.

Pray for Religious Freedom

Aaron Weldon,  Religious Liberty Program Specialist, USCCB

We come to enjoy true freedom when our restless hearts find rest in the truth. The great twentieth century philosopher, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – or, Edith Stein – discovered truth in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, and sought freedom by entering the Discalced Carmelites.  The convent didn’t stop her from reaching out.  During the rise of Nazism, Stein spoke up. She wrote to Pope Pius XI asking the Church to speak up on behalf of persecuted Jews, and she wrote her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, “as a way to combat racial hatred.”  She was captured in 1942 and taken to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chamber shortly after arrival.  Stein was executed primarily because she was Jewish, and the Catholic Church considers her a Christian martyr, because she bore witness to her faith in Jesus before her executioners.

Having spent much of my life in the university, I admire Edith Stein. Her intellectual vocation led her to faith, her relationship with God led her to prayer, and her life of prayer was bound up with her outreach to others.  She enjoyed an interior freedom that opened out to service.

We can grow in both interior freedom and solidarity with others through prayer. In prayer, we express our dependence on God, and we take on the burdens of those for whom we pray.  During this Fortnight, here is how I will be praying:

  • For Bishops and all Catholic leaders. Many Christians may not realize religious liberty is an issue, because they don’t experience an infringement on their own freedom. But the issue is real for medical professionals like Cathy Decarlo, a nurse who was forced to participate in an abortion, or for ministries that serve immigrants in states prohibiting the “harboring” of undocumented persons. Pastors and leaders face serious challenges, and they need the wisdom and courage of the Holy Spirit. We can pray for them.
  • For Christians facing violent persecution. In the West, we are dealing with what Pope Francis calls “polite persecution.” Polite persecution is real, but it pales in comparison to the struggles of Christians in Pakistan, Syria, and other places. In the face of this suffering, it can be difficult for most of us to know what we can do. Certainly, we can support organizations, like Aid to the Church in Need, that work to assist Christians under extreme duress in places like Iraq. We can also pray for our brothers and sisters, as well as for the conversion of the persecutors.
  • For non-Christian fellow Americans. Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom, rooted in the nature of the human person. So all people must be immune from coercion, free to pursue the truth and live the truth as best as they understand it. Many Americans are impeded in their search. For example, Muslims have faced challenges in recent years. Several states have passed anti-Sharia laws, local governments have tried to use zoning laws to prevent the construction of houses of worship, and the White House has imposed a travel ban that courts have found is aimed at preventing Muslims from entering the country. These actions give rise to a culture in which Muslims are treated as second-class citizens. As Catholics, we should be aware of these challenges, as we ourselves have been the target anti-Catholic bigotry. That bigotry gave us Blaine Amendments that we are still fighting today. Religious freedom for all does not mean we are resigned to relativism; it simply means that governments do not get to coerce people in matters of faith. It means that the state recognizes a space for non-state institutions, and this is the same space we Christians enjoy to propose the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Please join me in praying for our neighbors, co-workers, and fellow Americans, that we all will be free to seek and live out religious truth.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is Religious Liberty Program Specialist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bishop Blaire of Stockton Issues Strong Statement on Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

The journey of life is difficult at this time for Hispanics in the United States.  Many have friends and family members who are without papers; many are without papers themselves; children in school are being bullied; and young immigrants who signed up for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are anxious that they might lose their opportunity to work and their protection from deportation; racism has raised its ugly head in many communities; and so many of our neighborhoods and homes are plagued with violence. Many who have jobs often find themselves having to work two or three jobs in order to make ends meet.

To all of you this day I remind you that OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE COMES TO MEET YOU TO LEAD YOU TO JESUS.  She says to each of you what she said to St. Juan Diego: “Do not be disturbed in your heart; do not be afraid.  Am I not with you, I who am your mother?” We need to hear these words of comfort and strength when there is so much hostility in the public conversation about immigration and immigrants.

I wish to say loudly and clearly to all of you that as your bishop I am with you.  You are the Church.  I will walk with you no matter how hard it gets. Please God, things will go better than our worst fears about what might happen.  Regardless, the Church is with you.  I am here to accompany you.  I also wish to announce to our immigrants, to our refugees, to our migrants, from wherever you come, that we will do everything we can to help you through our Catholic Charities and the community organizations of which we are a part. As Catholics we embrace our American traditions of welcome, of unity in diversity, and our care for all.

I also wish to say to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and to our Jewish elder brothers and sisters, and to all our inter-faith friends that the hate which destroys the unity and solidarity of the human family cannot be tolerated in any way. The way of God is the way of love.

As you know so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East have been slaughtered by ISIS or lost their homes in war torn areas and have suffered as refugees from their ancient lands.  I ask you to join with our Holy Father Pope Francis, in doing whatever you can in any way to support the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Christian and Muslim refugees at this time, and to bring calm to their homelands.

The causes of war and cruelty cannot be ignored.  The injustices that give rise to radical evils must be alleviated. The forces of evil must be stopped. Ultimately, evil will only be overcome by good, by the hard work of good people working together to bring about peace.  And there will be no peace if there is no justice which respects the dignity and worth of every human being.  As long as the gods of money and power and unrestrained impulses found in the idols of greed and corruption rule on the face of the earth there will be no lasting peace.  Sad to say, an even greater threat to peace that looms over our heads would be the unrestrained advance in nuclear weapons which could destroy all creation.

I sincerely believe that unless God is accepted as sovereign Lord over the earth and over our lives, communities will continue to deteriorate, the earth will be devastated, and family coherence will be diminished.  Your devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe keeps us close to her as our Mother.  She leads us to Christ Who is the all just One; the all merciful One; the Hope for the world when all seems hopeless.

The world does not need any more walls.  It needs bridges of compassion and mutual understanding.  Yes, proper respect for borders or boundaries, but not barriers of hostility and division.  Let there be peace at our borders.

The world cannot continue to endure more violence.  It needs restraint, words of peace and perseverance in the hard efforts to create the just structures that are the foundation for peace.  In our community the answer to gang violence is good education and decent jobs.

The world must not tolerate racism.   It needs to honor the diversity of God’s human family by building a unity which embraces and respects all races on the face of the earth.  Unity in diversity!

bishop-blaire-5x7Today we venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe who comes to meet us as our mother.  Nuestra Señora will show us the way to peace and goodness and justice.  Mary is the mother of all peoples.  She will give us the courage not to be afraid.  She will lead us to Jesus, the Lord of peace and justice.   Viva Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe!  Viva Cristo Rey!

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 

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

On Thanksgiving, let us remember our history as refugees

A family displays a sign they created to welcome a refugee family, as they await their arrival at the airport. (Photo credit: Sarah Williamson in Jacksonville, Florida)

A woman holds a sign her for a family of refugees arriving to the United States. (Photo credit: Sarah Williamson of Jacksonville, Florida)

The foundation of our nation is the fundamental belief that the United States is a land of freedom, opportunity, and compassion. Indeed this week we celebrate Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday that enshrines this storied tradition.

That foundation has been challenged in the past couple weeks, since the tragic terrorist attacks in places like Paris, Beirut, and Mali. Many public officials are calling for Syrian refugees to be turned away, fearing that they present a terror threat to Americans.

As Catholics and Americans, we must remember our core values of compassion and justice. Indeed these values are the very reason the U.S. refugee program exists – to help people in need and continue to be a beacon of hope in the world.

The refugee program is thorough in ensuring that the people entering the United States have no ties to terrorist organizations. Refugees go through the most extensive security checks of any people arriving to the United States. That’s why the process that can take up to two years, to make sure that we are resettling the right people. The United States deliberately resettles the most vulnerable people: most are women and children, and only two percent are single men. All are fleeing violence like what the world witnessed in Paris, but on a more frequent basis. Since the terrorist attacks in September 2001, more than 784,000 refugees have been accepted into the United States, with no terrorist attacks occurring in the United States.

The refugee program is an expression of our solidarity with refugees, as well as with our important allies around the world. Since 2011, when the Syrian conflict began, the United States has resettled a little over 2,000 Syrians; this is but a fraction of the four million Syrian refugees who have fled their country in search of safety. Next year, the United States has indicated its willingness to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees to show solidarity with Middle Eastern and European countries who are hosting millions.   By accepting refugees into the United States, we stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies around the world, helping people who have nowhere to go and yet have so many skills and talents to offer our nation.

A young girl waits at the airport to greet an arriving refugee familiy. She is participating with her family in the local POWR program at Catholic Charities in Jacksonville, Fla. (Photo by , Sarah Williamson in Jacksonville, Florida)

A young girl waits at the airport to greet an arriving refugee family. She is participating with her family in the local POWR program at Catholic Charities in Florida. (Photo credit: Sarah Williamson of Jacksonville, Florida)

Migration and Refugee Services at USCCB has been resettling refugees for fifty years. We know how to do this in a way that facilitates their integration into American society. For example, the Parishes Organized to Welcome Refugees (POWR) program matches arriving refugees with community and parish volunteers who assist the refugees in navigating their new lives in the United States. This program also offers an opportunity for Americans to live their faith in a concrete way, for the benefit of all in their community.

In his visit to Lampedusa and in his calls to Catholics to help, Pope Francis has defended the rights of all Syrian refugees. In his message to Congress, Pope Francis urged us to treat others as we wish to be treated: “The yardstick by which we measure others is the yardstick by which time will measure us.”  This is the Golden Rule, which applies to all.

The debate on Syrian refugees is a teaching moment for all Americans, and an opportunity for us to call to mind our deepest held values. The Catholic Church not only resettles the largest number of refugees in the United States through the Catholic Charities network nationwide, but does so in accordance with Christ’s teaching of welcoming the stranger, “the least of these.”

Let us remind ourselves and our fellow Americans that we, like generations before us, came to this country to find safety and freedom, just as Syrians and others around the world seek now. Let us not forget what we stand for as a nation and as a people of faith.

As the Holy Father told Congress, “In a word, if we want security, let us give security, if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunity, let us give opportunity.”


Kevin ApplebyKevin Appleby is the Director of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at Migration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

How to address the Syrian refugee crisis in a humane way

Found lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish beach, the three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, was another victim of the violence in Syria that had caused his family to flee their home in pursuit of a better life elsewhere. Photos of his drowned, crumpled body quickly went viral, and the scales from people’s eyes seemed ready to fall away as the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it helped produce suddenly became personal. As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, his case was not an isolated event. More than four million refugees have fled the region since 2010, with most taking shelter in surrounding countries. Many thousands have died in the process; countless others struggle with the daily ritual of just trying to survive.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia's public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia’s public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

As many as one in three people living in Lebanon today is a refugee from the Syrian crisis. Turkey hosts nearly two million, and Jordan 600,000 more. Syrians have begun to face increasing challenges to find safety and protection in neighboring countries, which, faced with overwhelming refugee numbers, insufficient international support, and security concerns, have taken measures this year to stem the flow of refugees – including restricting access or closer management of borders and introducing complex requirements for refugees to extend their stay.

As a consequence, tens of thousands of refugees have begun the difficult trek west, with the hope of finding a new home in countries throughout Europe. Despite initial efforts to provide a humanitarian response to these refugee populations, signs of strain are clearly beginning to set in as leaders of countries throughout the region have begun to tighten their borders and restrict further access.

Reflecting on this expanding and deepening problem, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, KY and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged “all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.”

Elsewhere Pope Francis has highlighted the moral obligations of the international community toward migrants, emphasized the need to establish institutional structures that can more effectively respond to crises of this sort, and called on “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe” to take in one refugee family.

Recognizing that inaction will only have dire consequences for the many vulnerable refugees who are seeking a place of safety, the Catholic bishops of the United States have made a number of recommendations related to this problem. These include

  • Ending the conflict in the region and establishing a workable peace is of paramount importance.
  • Building an inclusive and lasting peace to allow Syrian refugees—also including those who are ethnic and religious minorities– to return home, rebuild their communities, and share in the governance of their country.
  • Providing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring refugee countries.
  • Providing development aid to refugee host countries near Syria so they are able to properly welcome and care for the refugees.
  • Authorizing the admission and resettlement of 200,000 refugees into the U.S. from refugee countries across the world, including 100,000 resettlement slots designated for the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the Syria conflict.

Please, take a moment to learn what steps you can take to help Syrian and other refugees in their moment of need.

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB.


Take action now! Support for Syrian Refugees is Needed Now More Than Ever – Action alert from Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.