Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) doesn’t tell us about horrific acts committed by Muslims against Christians in order to make us reject Muslims. They do it to demonstrate how much Christians in Muslim countries, where there is sometimes uncontrolled hatred by the majority Muslim population of the Christians in their midst, need our help and our support and our prayers.
I know that most of the actual violence is either incited or carried out by Islamist extremists who don’t represent the moderate Muslim majority. I know, at least, that that’s what I ought to think; and I wish I always did. But when I hear of the story of a fifteen year-old boy, hung upside down for weeks by Islamist “radicals” to encourage his family to collect a huge ransom, which made it necessary to sell everything they possessed including their house, who by the time they had handed over the ransom was in a coma and died in hospital shortly afterwards; when I consider that this family is now not only traumatised but destitute: I’m sorry, but when I hear such stories, it inspires me with feelings of total rejection of Muslims, tout court. I ask myself at such times how many “moderate” Muslims there really are: are they a huge majority? A small majority? Or actually a minority?
What ACN wants us to concentrate on, quite rightly, is the bravery of the Christians who cling to their faith despite the sometimes extreme persecution they are currently suffering. Consider the case of Fr Aysar Kesco. On Sunday 31 October 2010, 45 Mass-goers and two young priests were massacred in one of the worst anti-Christian atrocities in Iraq in recent years.
The victims died during a four-hour siege when Baghdad’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation was attacked by nine armed men who had suicide bombs attached to their belts.
Arriving in the parish a few days later, Fr Aysar discovered that some of his faithful had left the city for safety, but that others had stayed and were bravely continuing to attend Mass at the cathedral every Sunday.
“People asked me to pray for a miracle,” he told ACN when they visited Baghdad two years after the attack, last November.
“But for me”, he said, “a miracle has already taken place – our church did not close and people are coming back.”
There is now a double perimeter of security walls running around the entire parish site. Armed guards and security vehicles provide constant surveillance of the cathedral and its environs. The existence of frequent security checkpoints in the city does prevent some parishioners getting to Mass especially as most do not have cars and cannot afford expensive taxis. ACN has therefore provided a minibus for Fr Aysar, which he uses to collect the faithful for Mass, as well as bringing youngsters to catechesis classes and parishioners to prayer groups.
There are two conclusions I find myself arriving at. Firstly, that in an age in which we need to be very careful which charities we support (so many of them, even Catholic ones — no names, no pack drill— are implicated in providing funds for distinctly unCatholic objectives), one charity that Catholics can always unreservedly support is Aid to the Church in Need.
The second conclusion I have come to is that I need to find a way of coping with my growing tendency to Islamophobia. Strictly speaking, that word means, of course, fear of Muslims, not hatred of them. We would be fools, it seems to me, not to fear the consequences for the future, for instance, of the immigration into this country of the large Muslim minority which has already settled here, or of the sudden 20 per cent increase in the Muslim population of the European Union that Turkish accession would immediately effect.
In practice, however, the word means not fear but also rejection of Muslims: and I have to admit that I do find myself overtaken, sometimes quite strongly, by such feelings: and it does not always help that I know them to be wrong and unChristian. But it does seem to help that there are examples of Christians whose hatred of Muslims is so extreme that they make me understand how wrong I am when I give way to it myself. Consider the story on the First Things website of a prominent anti-Islam advocate’s hatred of Islam, which is so extreme that it has now led him to abandon his Catholic faith because the Church has taken too soft a stand against Islam.
Magdi Cristiano Allam, an Egyptian-born Muslim whom Pope Benedict publicly baptised at Easter five years ago in St Peter’s Basilica has announced that he is leaving the Church. “My conversion to Catholicism,” he says, “which came at the hands of Benedict XVI during the Easter Vigil on 22 March 2008, I now consider finished in combination with the end of his pontificate.”
“The thing that drove me away from the Church”, he continues, “more than any other factor was religious relativism, in particular the legitimisation of Islam as a true religion,” he said. Mr Allam said Islam was “an intrinsically violent ideology” that had to be courageously opposed as “incompatible with our civilisation and fundamental human rights.”
He doesn’t as far as I can see say where and when exactly the Church has legitimised Islam as a true religion: and how leaving the Church is going to help him is difficult to see. He says he’s still a Christian; so where will he go now? Matthew Schmitz’s response in First Things is that in seeing Islam as a mere “ideology” centered on violence he has fallen into a grievous error of his own. Like liberalism, says Schmitz, Islam owes no small debt to Christianity. Slander of one can verge into slander of the other. As Robert Louis Wilken warned in Christianity Face to Face with Islam, “Given the experience of centuries, it is tempting for Christians to see Islam as the enemy. Often it has been the enemy. But if that remains our dominant paradigm for looking at the religion, we deny something of ourselves.”
If, Schmitz goes on, we mistake Islam for a mere ideology of violence, we risk mistaking Christianity as merely an ideology that allows us to oppose that violence. “Yet Christ did not come to this earth or found his Church to oppose Islam but to propose the Gospel. Not to eclipse the moon, but to reveal the Son.”
All true, very true; and this reflection is what we need to come back to when overcome by any anti-Islamic thoughts we may harbour. So, as we celebrate Easter, support Aid to the Church in Need: not because we hate the Muslims who bombed Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad and massacred its congregation; but because we want to help fund ACN’s support for their brave priest and for his people, who are holding so courageously to their faith in the risen Christ. Let them, not Magdi Cristiano Allam, be our example and guide.