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.

Disarmament Week: Disarming Our Fears and Our World

Nuclear war protesters demonstrate outside the White House in Washington (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Each year on the anniversary of its founding (October 24), the United Nations observes Disarmament Week. This seems particularly fitting since the United Nations was founded “to maintain international peace and security.”

Whenever I think of disarmament, I am reminded of these haunting passages from the Second Vatican Council: “[T]he arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree.” “Rather than being eliminated thereby, the causes of war are in danger of being gradually aggravated. While extravagant sums are being spent for the furnishing of ever new weapons, an adequate remedy cannot be provided for the multiple miseries afflicting the whole modern world” (Gaudium et spes, 81).

It is no secret that our nation and world are caught in this vicious trap. Congress and the Administration have proposed dramatic increases in military spending at the same time that they have propose dramatic cuts to resources for diplomacy and human development/poverty reduction. Our nation already spends about one-third of all military spending worldwide. The United States spends as much as the next eight nations combined, many of them are our allies.

I believe this overemphasis on armaments is driven by deep-seated fears and a lack of hope. If we want to move our world to resist the arms race, we must first resist the fears that drive it. It is possible to overcome fears and to reverse the arms race. And this doesn’t require optimism or blind trust. It just demands that we consider other options in dialogue with other nations.

For example, our nation could embrace the Arms Trade Treaty. This Treaty regulates international trade in conventional arms, making such trade more transparent and accountable. It entered into force on December 24, 2014. Ninety-two states have ratified the treaty, and 41 states have signed, but not ratified it, including the United States. The failure of our nation to ratify that Treaty is particularly damaging since our nation is the world’s largest arms exporter.

In addressing the vexing issue of nuclear disarmament, Pope Francis wrote: “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations. … When these resources are squandered, the poor and the weak living on the margins of society pay the price.” The Holy Father went on to say, “The desire for peace, security and stability is one of the deepest longings of the human heart. … This desire can never be satisfied by military means alone, much less the possession of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction” (December 7, 2014).

Our hearts long for peace. We must disarm our fears in order to disarm our world.

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


Going Deeper

The Catholic Study Guide for Use with Nuclear Tipping Point can help small groups reflect on Catholic social teaching on nuclear weapons while watching the Nuclear Tipping Point film.

Church Sounds Warning on Nuclear Weapons (Once Again)

Demonstrators in Washington protest nuclear weapons April 1. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Demonstrators in Washington protest nuclear weapons April 1. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

It will not surprise anyone that Pope Francis has warned of nuclear catastrophe. In connection with the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in December 2014, Pope Francis declared plainly, “The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are predictable and planetary.” He went on to call for nuclear weapons to be “banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home.”

What may surprise casual observers is that the Pope’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons is not new. In 1963, Saint John XXIII wrote in his encyclical, Pacem in Terris: “Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control.”

The Church’s profound concern for nuclear armaments was reinforced by Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI. In his 2006 World Day of Peace Message, Pope Emeritus Benedict had a particularly poignant passage: “What can be said, too, about those governments which count on nuclear arms as a means of ensuring the security of their countries? Along with countless persons of good will, one can state that this point of view is not only baneful but also completely fallacious. In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.”

What motivates the Church’s engagement in the nuclear question? The answer is at once simple and profound. The Gospel requires the Church’s teachers to defend human life and dignity. In an April 2010 letter to President Barack Obama, the late Cardinal Francis George, OMI, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote: “The horribly destructive capacity of nuclear arms makes them disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons that endanger human life and dignity like no other armaments. Their use as a weapon of war is rejected in Church teaching based on just war norms.”

The Church is careful to stay in its own lane in public debates over nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Church teachers do not possess military and technological expertise, but they can provide moral guidance. In that same April 2010 letter Cardinal George admitted, “We are pastors and teachers, not technical experts. We cannot map out the precise route to the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, but we can offer moral direction and encouragement…Although we cannot anticipate every step on the path humanity must walk, we can point with moral clarity to a destination that moves beyond deterrence to a world free of the nuclear threat.”

Despite the fact that the Catholic Church has a longstanding goal of pursuing a world without nuclear weapons, this is not to say that there has been no development in the Church’s moral analysis. It is fair to say that the 1983 judgment of the U.S. Bishops in The Challenge of Peace on nuclear deterrence, a judgment they made citing Saint John Paul II, is undergoing development in light of current circumstances.

Even in 1983, the “strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence” was not considered “adequate as a long-term basis for peace.” Such deterrence was morally acceptable only as “a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.” At the time, the bishops called for ongoing evaluation of deterrence policy in light of the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

In more recent years, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, has articulated a shift in the moral evaluation of nuclear deterrence: “Today there is no more argument, not even the argument of deterrence used during the Cold War, that could ‘minimally morally justify’ the possession of nuclear weapons. The ‘peace of a sort’ that is supposed to justify nuclear deterrence is specious and illusory” (April 2015).

Nuclear deterrence is increasingly seen as an excuse for the permanent possession of nuclear arsenals that threaten humanity’s future. Most of the nuclear powers have embarked on incredibly expensive programs of “modernization” of their nuclear arsenals, hardly an encouraging sign of moving toward disarmament. The dire specter of miscalculation or human error could lead to a nuclear calamity.

Pope Francis in characteristically direct language said, “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nation. … When these resources are squandered, the poor and the weak living on the margins of society pay the price.” This is another reason why he sounds the alarm, “Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states.”

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

This article first appeared on the Berkley Forum, November 17, 2016.


Going Deeper

The Catholic Study Guide for Use with the movie, Nuclear Tipping Point, can help small groups reflect on Catholic social teaching and nuclear weapons while watching the film. Use this guide along with the 2017 World Day of Peace message resources.

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

Ukraine’s Struggle for Dignity

HeavenlyHundredinMaidan20150623_153523Maidan is the busy, central square of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.  It is also a place of solemn remembrance.

On a sunny day recently, I walked the length of Maidan.  The day was bright, but shadows of loss were also evident.  Small personal shrines honoring the “Heavenly Hundred” lined the square.  They had died in the Maidan protests of early 2014.  The shrines included pictures, flowers, candles and often rosaries or crosses.

Maidan was not just a political protest; it was a prayerful event in which people of faith sought human dignity.  More than 100 protestors were killed in connection with the Maidan demonstrations.  Most of them were young.  The Church and people of Ukraine continue to honor their sacrifice, especially as they face conflict fomented by Russia in the eastern part of their nation.HeavenlyHundredinMaidan20150623_152937

Archbishop Malchuk, Bishop of Kyiv-Zhytomyr, told our U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) delegation that half of his Cathedral was turned into a hospital during the Maidan demonstrations.  He noted that prayers were regularly offered from the central Maidan stage and participation was multi-confessional.  Maidan’s quest for freedom and dignity brought people of diverse religions and ethnicities together as people, as Ukrainians.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and Archbishop Blase Cupich, the leaders of our USCCB delegation, consistently reminded the leaders and people of the Church in Ukraine that we are in solidarity with them.  Having just celebrated our own Independence Day on the Fourth of July, I am reminded the Maidan is literally Ukraine’s “Independence Square.”

We visited a military hospital where Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests, many expelled from Crimea and the occupied areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, minister to the wounded and their families.  One man had lost an arm and thanks to the intervention of our Archbishops with the U.S. Embassy is now headed to Chicago for medical treatment and an advanced prosthetic.

DisplacedFamilies20150621_154440The experience of Ukraine was too rich to be captured in a short blog, so let me summarize what I learned.

  • The Church in Ukraine is a vibrant witness of faith and a tremendous resource to Ukrainian society as the nation seeks to defend human dignity and freedom and to build a transparent and accountable democracy. It deserves encouragement and support, especially for education and humanitarian outreach.  The Church faces challenges to religious freedom in the occupied territories of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.
  • Church, civil society and government officials view the crisis in eastern Ukraine as a Russian incursion and occupation, not a civil war.
  • The conflict in Ukraine has displaced over 1.2 million people and there are tremendous unmet humanitarian needs that require additional aid. We visited displaced families who need help. The Church through Caritas (with the support of Catholic Relief Services) is providing assistance.  More is needed.
  • Ukraine also needs additional international assistance to improve its economy, reduce high unemployment and meet social needs. Current assistance does not even equal debt payments.  Russia hopes Ukraine becomes a failed state; this must not happen.
  • Ukraine’s debt needs to be restructured. Over half of the debt was incurred under the three-year rule of Ex-President Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in the wake of the Maidan protests.
  • Aid should be provided to Ukraine in ways that reduce corruption, strengthen transparency and accountability to the people, and simultaneously build up governmental and civil society capacity. Ukrainians yearn for a government respectful of human dignity.  Don’t we all?

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

Pope Francis Hears Cries of Poor, Earth

Colecchi headshotWhen Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, he chose the name Francis for a reason. He wanted to take his inspiration from St. Francis, the man who loved peace, the poor and God’s creation. His encyclical, Laudato Si’, embodies those commitments.

Pope Francis says in a prayer, “The poor and the earth are crying out.” The question is: Will we hear and respond to their cry?

The world’s poor are already suffering ecological devastation. Extractive industries in Latin America often violate environmental standards, poisoning the health of children, women and men, and destroying aquifers and agriculture. Conflict in Africa is frequently driven by shifts in climate. It is no secret that the violence between Arab Muslim herders and African Muslim farmers in Darfur was driven in large part by competition for land as desertification robbed communities of pastures. In Asia, the devastation of the Philippines in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan attests to how storms have intensified and poorer countries with fewer resources and less resilience are in great danger.

Pope Francis argues powerfully: “In the present state of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (no. 158).

He goes on to describe the kind of support developed nations, like our own, ought to provide to developing countries: “For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. … They are likewise bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet” (no. 172).

Pope Francis reminds us that population is not the problem, waste and a throw-away society are: “To blame population growth instead of an extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues” (no. 50).

What does all this mean? It means we need to act, to act as both individuals and a nation.

As individuals, we need to resist the allure of consumerism: “Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction” (no. 204). “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume” (no. 204).

The Holy Father is calling us to live more simply and more fully! “It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full” (no. 223).

As a nation, we need to pursue international policies that save the poor and the planet. Pope Francis calls for a “global consensus” to confront “the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries” (no. 164). In response, our nation needs to support “enforceable international agreements” and “global regulatory norms” (no. 173). The United States will have an opportunity to do just that at the Global Climate Summit in Paris in December. One thing we should put on the table is a robust financial commitment to the Green Climate Fund, a fund to help poor nations develop in sustainable, “green” ways, unlike us, and to be more resilient in the face of more frequent droughts, stronger storms and sea level rise.

When we act in these ways as individuals and a nation, we will have truly heard the cries of the poor and the earth.

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