The assault of ISIS against the crosses atop every church, hospital, school and care facility in Syria and Iraq, is equal only to their shameless violence against “the people of the cross” themselves. This hatred is applied against anyone who opposes them: Muslim, Christian, Jew or non-believer alike.
It was nearly a year ago when ISIS invaded the governate of Nineveh, the Christian center of Iraq from apostolic times. In two overnight waves, on June 10 and August 7, every Nineveh Christian who could, fled. Some 150,000 Christians escaped, many on foot, leaving their homes, businesses, possessions, and identification papers behind in the panic. At checkpoints, some were forced to turn over their money and wedding rings, others were sexually and physically assaulted.
Those who resisted had their daughters taken instead. There are now “markets” set up in Mosul, Nineveh’s capital, where ISIS reportedly sells abducted children and women, attaching price tags to them. The former Badoush prison outside Mosul is now used as a makeshift prison for the sexual enslavement of children. Prisoners are reportedly tortured by ISIS in two historic Mosul churches.
In Syria, the religious cleansing continues. In March, Isis attacked a string of 33 Christian villages along the Khabour River, driving out 3,000 Christians and taking captive at least 200 more. In April, on Easter, ISIS militants entered Aleppo through a Christian neighborhood, to which it promptly laid siege.
The Christians of Syria and Iraq are the ancient descendants of the same culture and language of Jesus.
Faced with our terrible sadness at these atrocities, we may find ourselves either lethargic with apathy, or responding with a visceral hatred. However, there is a third way, more suited to the Christian: a creative, loving, passionate, and ongoing defiance as taught by Jesus Christ himself.
When faced with violence, Jesus did not say, “Turn the other cheek.” That is modern parlance. In fact, according to the Gospel of Matthew, he said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek offer him the left.”
What did that mean? A strike on the right cheek could only be done as a back-handed assault, sending a clear signal that the aggressor is superior and the victim inferior. For Jesus this was not acceptable. He asked us to be defiant in the face of such cruelty, to not accept an inferior status, but rather, if the oppressor strikes us again, to face him as an equal. Jesus stood before Pontius Pilot, as an equal, even though the Roman leader claimed to have “power” over him. Indignity and death followed—they were inescapable—but this is how Christ’s ultimate triumph began.
Are we, like Jesus, willing to stand before the powers of ISIS and do all we can to inform, persuade, build solidarity, oppose, and make it impossible for ISIS to continue its reign of terror? It will take a whole-hearted effort and is not for the faint-hearted.
ISIS and collaborators like Boko Haram, Al Qaida, Al Shabab, Al Nusra and others claim to have a “mission”. Thousands of young men and women from throughout the world join their ranks, all feeling “called”. They destroy and are quick to adopt a mission of hatred, rather than a mission of love. Why?
Pope John Paul II called the answer to this question the “mystery of human sinfulness.” History shows that we are, unfortunately, better at destruction than at building. But history also shows that we are capable of building a civilization of love, based on the inclusion of the “other.”
To embrace a third way we start by building coalitions with like-minded Christians, Jews and Muslims, and reject everything that ISIS and collaborators stand for. We write our President and Congress urging worldwide solidarity against ISIS and ask for an international force to push back ISIS as the Holy See has urged and to defend the defenseless in Iraq and Syria. We support humanitarian efforts to reach out to those in need, such as: Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and others. We befriend Eastern Christian families and parishes in our area whose roots are in those countries.
And last but not least, we can and should, as our Lord said, love our enemy, and “pray for those who persecute us” while not forgetting also to pray for the persecuted.
If this seems hard, we can look for inspiration from a ten-year-old Iraqi girl who has captured the hearts of her fellow Christians in the Middle East. Her name is Myriam and she is from Qaraqosh, in Nineveh.
As with hundreds of thousands of other Iraqi and Syrian Christians, her home, her school, her church, the only life she ever knew--her very dignity-- were ripped from her last June. She has said that she forgives her enemy, and prays for them, but also says clearly that what they did was wrong. She lives in a makeshift shelter in Kurdistan where she and hundreds of thousands like her subsist entirely on international charity.
Are we brave enough to stand with her, and with Christians and non- Christians alike who dare to stare down ISIS? Are we willing to join hands with Muslims, Jews, Christians and non-believers who say that this is wrong? Are we prepared to be fully engaged? For we know all too well that apathy and hatred serve no one. Rather, they excuse us from answering generously this greater calling.
This third way enables, challenges, and strengthens us, so that with the help of God, groups such as ISIS and others will eventually go the way Nazism and atheistic Communism went, to the eternal junk heap of history.
Bishop Mansour is Bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Maron in Brooklyn