The West is caught up with trivial concerns while minorities abroad are driven to extinction

This is the text of a speech given by Lord Alton of Liverpool at a Vigil for Syria held at Farm Street Jesuit Church on Tuesday, just a day after the murder of Fr van der Lugt in Homs. 

In a talk at the beginning of Lent at Brentwood Cathedral I cited the heroic and faithful work of a 75-ear-old Dutch Jesuit, Fr.Franz van der Lugt who, in the face of extraordinary danger and acute suffering, refused to desert the suffering people of Homs.

Father Frans van der Lugt was born on April 10, 1938 in the Netherlands and entered the Society of Jesus in 1959.

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During 50 years he has been active in Syria, working in education and in a project for disabled people. Since the beginning of the civil war he wanted to stay with the local population (Christians and Muslims) in the Centre of Homs as a man of peace, even when some weeks ago part of the enclosed population had been allowed to be rescued.

Our British Jesuit provincial, Fr Dermot Preston SJ, is currently traveling back from Guyana and in a message to me last night he said: “In amongst the mayhem of Homs, it is perhaps characteristic of Fr Frans that the only personal thing that he had been feeling the lack of in the last couple of years were new batteries for his hearing-aid. May he rest in the Peace of Christ.”

Fr Franz had worked in Syria since 1967 and had been looking after 89 Christians trapped in the Old City who were sheltering in an old monastery. In February the number fell to about 20 or 25, after a three-day truce between warring sides allowed people to leave the Old City, but a fellow Jesuit, Fr Ziad Hillal reported that his confrere had remained to take care of those who could not leave.

Fr Hillal said: “For me, [Fr van der Lugt] represents Christ in the world who is willing to lay down his life for his friends, who always gives us hope. He always asks how I am and does not talk much about himself.”

He added: “He was a ray of joy and hope to all those trapped in the Old City of Homs, waiting for yet another UN permission to evacuate. “God have mercy on us, who could not save him from sniper fire.”

Fr van der Lugt personified all the best qualities and ideals, which the Society of Jesus stands for.

He joins a long list of Jesuit martyrs – some martyred a stones throw from where we are gathered – and who have sacrificed their lives truly believing that a man has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.

Fr Franz’s death in Syria is a stark reminder of the systematic campaign by jihadists intent on the destruction of the region’s ancient churches and the contemporary Passion and suffering being inflicted on the Middle East’s Christians. It is also a moment to reflect on the outstanding work of Aid to The Church In need, who had provided more than £2 million of support to the humanitarian work in Homs.

Tonight we have a moment to honour a great man but also to raise our voices and prayers.

Tonight I want to highlight the systematic killing and outright persecution of Christians, which takes place without hardly a murmur of protest – and also challenge the mistaken belief that somehow this has little or nothing to do with us.

Unless we lay bare the ideology which lies behind radical Islamist thinking – and which too often reduces God to the status of a faction leader or tribal chief – and challenge the conspiracy of silence which surrounds the question of religious persecution, at the hands of radical Islamists and atheists alike, we will sleep-walk into a tragedy which has implications well beyond the ancient biblical lands.

Yet religious illiteracy amongst policy makers in Western nations means that the way we view these conflicts has led to serious mistakes being made and unless we are very careful those same mistakes will come to have consequences in our own back yard.

Policy makers, intelligence services and the media need to have a much more considered understanding of religious radicalisation and intolerance.

The first thing we must do is ensure that we examine events through the lens of the frequently overlooked and neglected Article 18 of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 18, “the orphaned right”, was fashioned in the aftermath of the annihilation of millions of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. It boldly states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Yet, for millions of people this right to believe, or not to believe, is not worth the paper on which it is written – and like the United Nations’ much celebrated doctrine of “a duty to protect” creates the fiction that something promulgated will be championed and upheld.

And what does a society lose when it fails to uphold the right to religious belief and fails to promote toleration and diversity?

In 1965 the Second Vatican Council, in Dignitatis Humanae, put it succinctly: “A society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched; one that doesn’t will decay”.

And, speaking at Westminster Pope Benedict Emeritus said: “Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, and creates favourable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.”

In country after country, all of this has been ignored. And what has happened to the duty to protect, or Article 18, in a country like Syria, where Christians, some of whom fled from the persecution in neighbouring Iraq, have been caught in the unremitting cross fire and targeted by radical Islamist groups?

In October 2010, 58 Christians were killed during evening mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, a country where 1.4 million Christians have been reduced to 150,000.

Little wonder that Pope Benedict on his visit to the Holy Land remarked: “Churches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence.”

Or consider the daily bombardment by the Sudanese Government of mainly Christian populations in Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

Or, there is the plight of Egypt’s Copts. Think of the murder of two little girls at a recent Coptic wedding and the orgy of violence, which I have described as Egypt’s Kristallnacht.

Take Nigeria where, as February ended, Boko Haram – which means eradicate western education and influence – murdered, in cold blood, twenty nine students of the Federal Government College in Buni Yadi, Yobe State, while they slept in their student hostels. Days later Boko Haram began the month of March with two explosions in Maiduguri leaving at least 50 people dead. The north-south conflict in Nigeria is reminiscent of Sudan – when 2 million, mainly Christian people, were killed, Christian pastors have been beheaded by Boko Haram who openly say their interim goal is “to eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country.”

When their depredations are reported at all, Boko Haram are simply described as a terrorist group. What analysis is made of what motivates them to drive a jeep laden with explosives into a packed Catholic church in Kaduna or to kill students whose crime is to embrace Christianity?

Turn the tables for a moment and ask yourself what reaction there would be in the Islamic world if, heaven forbid, Christian gun men stormed a student dormitory and murdered dozens of sleeping teenagers; or if mosques in Bradford, Marseilles or Dusseldorf were burnt to the ground and believers praying there were car-bombed by suicide bombers.

Or imagine the consequences if your daughter, on her way to study at school, was abducted and decapitated; or if your Christian family or friends who could trace their antecedents across two millennia, joined the exodus, now of biblical proportions.

Although religious persecution can affect people of all faiths and none (a young atheist has just been released in Indonesia after serving two years in prison for stating on Facebook that he did not believe in God), in every single country where there are infringements of Article 18 Christians face persecution.

For instance, Rohinga Muslims face persecution in Burma, Bahais face persecution in Iran, Tibetan Buddhists face persecution in China, but in every single country where persecution occurs because of religious belief Christians are in the front line.

Giving evidence to Congress in February, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, permanent observer of the Holy See Mission at the United Nations described “flagrant and widespread persecution of Christians rages in the Middle East even as we meet.”

Think of men like Shahbaz Bhatti: March 2 marked the third anniversary of the assassination of Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, murdered in cold blood and in broad daylight in Pakistan’s capital, and still no one has been brought to justice.

Bhatti was the only Christian cabinet member and although a suspect has now been brought to trial that trial has been jeopardized by death threats to the lawyers and witnesses. Aged 42, the life of Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, was cut short by self-described Taliban assassins. His murderers scattered pamphlets describing him as a “Christian infidel”. The leaflets were signed “Taliban al-Qaida Punjab.”

A devout Catholic, Shahbaz Bhatti stands in a long tradition – from Thomas Beckett to Thomas More, Maximilian Kolbe to Oscar Romero – of men willing to lay down their lives for their friends and their faith.

Bhatti knew his outspokenness against appalling discrimination would make him a target. He insisted his stand would “send a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair” adding that his life was dedicated to “the oppressed, the down-trodden and the marginalised” and to “the struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom and the empowerment of religious minorities’ communities.”

Bhatti knew his stand could cost him his life.

Yet, it did not deter him from insisting on justice for religious minorities in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim nation. He did not run away or recoil from his calling, even sacrificing his personal life, by never marrying, which is explained was to spare a young family his anticipated fate.

I genuinely am staggered at our indifference to the deaths of men like Shahbaz Bhatti or Iraq’s Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave – one of an estimated 600 Iraqi Christians murdered as their churches have been bombed and desecrated. Hundreds of thousands fled – many to Syria – where the horror is being played out all over again. And where, on Monday, we learnt of the murder of Fr Frans van der Lugt, shot twice in the head while he tended his small garden.

Syria.

In Syria, where sarin gas has been used against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus; barrel bombs have rained down on Aleppo; and citizens have been under siege in Homs and elsewhere, are being starved to death. I was particularly struck by the death of an unborn child killed by a sniper’s bullet, shown on a scan, lodged in its brain.

Vast numbers of people are suffering – and no-one more so than the ancient Christian community caught in the cross-fire. It’s reminiscent of earlier “never again” moments of history – but the chaos has also given some of the radical opposition groups never again happens too often all over again. For some, this has also provided a pretext, a convenient cover for opening a new chapter of religious persecution.

I first went to Syria in 1980. I arrived in Damascus on the day war broke out between Iran and Iraq. It lasted for eight years and claimed more than one million lives.

My visit was three months after the Muslim Brotherhood had made an assassination attempt on Hafez al-Assad (the current President’s father). His response was then to align Syria with Iran. King Hussein declared Jordan’s support for Iraq. One week after we met in Damascus, Assad was in Moscow signing a mutual friendship treaty. Depressingly, the lines in today’s conflict are not newly drawn.
In 1980, I wrote about the repressive nature of the region’s regimes—repressive then and repressive now. Iran’s human rights record remains appalling. Saudi Arabia, referred to in endlessly as our strategic ally in the region, also commits egregious violations of human rights, including the persecution of Christians, and remains one of the deadliest exporters of global terror.

But, the “Afghanisation” of Syria, with vast tracts falling under the control of dangerous jihadist groups, would hardly represent progress.

These various factions – all reducing God to the status of a faction leader or tribal chief – are largely at war with one another.

Describing them as the opposition conjures up images of a coherent and united group akin to opposition groups in parliamentary democracies. We should be very wary of using such descriptions. Take ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – which uses suicide bombers; now controls territory in north-eastern Iraq and uses radicalised recruits (like Anil Khalil Raoufi, a British Afghan who was studying engineering at the University of Liverpool and was recently killed in Syria in fighting between rebel groups). We should reflect for a moment on their ideology and worldview. There will be no room in their brave new world for anyone of dissenting opinion or belief. For Muslims, too, a word devoid of minorities will be a less tolerant place, a monochrome world lacking in diversity or pluralism.

In appealing to hatred, many jihadists cite a seventh-century directive, which requires Christians to convert to Islam and pay tribute to Muslim rulers or leave. It is being increasingly enforced by extreme Islamist groups, the sort of groups who have claimed the life of Fr Frans van der Lugt.

Their edict states that Christians are required “to pay Jizya tax on every adult male to the value of four golden dinars for the wealthy, half of that for middle-income citizens and half of that for the poor… They must not hide their status, and can pay in two instalments per year.” They are forbidden to renovate or build churches or to display the cross.

Aymenn al-Tamimi, an academic based at the University of Oxford University and an expert on Iraqi and Syrian jihadists, said the imposition of the jizya was derived from a verse in the Quran, which demanded submission by the “people of the Book” – Jews and Christians – who did not follow Islam. On the Syria Comment website, he went on to say: “In case ISIS’s ambitions to a global caliphate were still not apparent to anyone, ISIS’s official Twitter account for Raqqa province had this to say on the imposition of the dhimmi pact: ‘Today in Raqqa and tomorrow in Rome.’”

It was the late King Hussein who offered the wise advice to pray for God’s protection against, “those who believe that they are the sole possessors of truth.”

These sole possessors of truth represent the biggest stumbling block in finding a peaceful way forward out of this confessional morass and in Syria they also represent the biggest danger to Alawites, Druze, Muslims from other traditions than their own, and Christians, and also the rights of women.

Almost 1,500 years ago a wandering monk called John Moschos described the eastern Mediterranean as a flowering meadow of Christianity.

That meadow is today a battlefield. Before the war the Christians of Syria accounted for between 4.5% and 10% of the population. What will it be after the war? Forty-seven churches have been closed; two priests and a nun have been murdered; two bishops, three priests and 12 nuns have been abducted.

The city of Homs, the third largest in Syria, has now seen almost its entire Christian population of 50,000 to 60,000 flee for safety as fighting continues in that stricken country.

The number of Christians left in the city has reportedly fallen to below 1,000.

Another Jesuit priest, Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, who has spent most of his life championing reconciliation, was kidnapped in July 2013 after entering rebel-held territory. Opposition sources from Raqqah said that Paolo Dall’Oglio had been executed by extremist groups. Do we seriously want to see these groups replacing one repressive regime with another?

Aid To the Church In Need has provided me with some first-hand accounts from Syrian Christians. Typical is this note from Basman Kassouha, a refugee now in the Bekaa Valley area of Lebanon. He says that the militias,

“stormed my house, giving me one hour to evacuate or else they will kill me … I’m heartbroken. I’ve lost everything”.

The Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman of Laodicea says Christians have been specifically targeted in a number of places. I hope, as we collect evidence of the atrocities and crimes against humanity that none of the evidence will ever be lost to history but will one day be used to bring those responsible to justice.

Bishop Sleman says: “There are many events that show that Christians are targeted, such as those of Maaloula, Sadad, Hafar, Deir Atiyeh, Carah, Nabk, Kseir, Rablé, Dmaineh, Michtayeh, Hassaniyeh, Knaïeh, and some villages of the Valley of Christians, Yabroud, Aafrd, the Jazirah region such as Hassaké, Ras El-Ain Kamechleh, and many other areas. Christians are increasingly targeted in horrible and unspeakable massacres”.

The mostly Christian town of Saidnaya has experienced repeated attacks by extremists. The fourth attack on the city occurred on 19 January.

The ancient site of the Convent of Our Lady on Mount Qalamoun has been frequently targeted by mortars. In Homs, Father Van der Lugt, trapped in the old city, described how residents cut off for more than a year developed chronic mental health problems following the breakdown of social order. He said, “Our city has become a lawless jungle”.

In the largely Syrian Orthodox town of Sadad mass graves have been uncovered. A total of 45 Christians were killed and 1,500 families were held hostage when Sadad was stormed by the Al-Nusra Front and an organisation called the Grandsons of the Prophet on October 21 2013. It was taken by government forces a week later.

Among those killed by rebels were two teenage boys, their mother and three of their grandparents. The bodies of university student Ranim, 18, and her 16-year-old brother, Fadi were discovered at the bottom of a well, close to their home.

Also brought to the surface were the remains of the youngsters’ mother, Njala, 45, and their grandparents: Mariam, a 90-year-old widow, as well as Matanios El Sheikh, 85, and his wife, Habsah, 75. Church sources say 30 bodies were also found in two separate mass graves.

At the end of last year Damascus-based Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch remarked: “How can somebody do such inhumane and bestial things to an elderly couple and their family?”

The Patriarch explained that thousands fled Sadad and initially were too afraid to return in case of further atrocities. Reports from the town described how vulnerable people unable to escape—including the elderly, disabled, women and children—were subjected to torture and some were strangled to death. Churches have been damaged and desecrated, while schools, and government and municipal buildings have also been destroyed.

The imposition of Sharia Law in Syria and in vast tracts of the world represents a challenge to Western democracies and human rights.

So does the nature of Global Jihad and militant Islam. Our secular society in which we have in the last two centuries, enjoyed religious toleration and increasing religious co-existence is under significant threat but we seem to be sleepwalking into this danger.

While we overlook and fail to understand the religious dimension to these terrible atrocities, and the imperative of harnessing thoughtful and moderate religious leaders from all traditions, we will utterly fail to end the persecution and the unspeakable violence.

We in the West, who enjoy so many freedoms and liberties, need to ask ourselves some tough questions about the disproportionate nature of the causes which we so readily embrace whilst ignoring the systematic violent ideology of an Islamist “Final Solution” directed at the Christian minorities.

Hundreds of parliamentary hours can be spent asserting the rights of foxes or on discussing rights associated with our life- styles but when it comes to the killing of children and students, or the torching of their homes and places of worship, or the destruction of centuries old culture, our political classes have taken Trappist vows. This stems from a misplaced belief that their silence about radical Islamist groups represents “tolerance”. In reality it stems from fear and indifference.

Ultimately, parliamentarians are only as good as the people who elect them – so their electorates are also partly to blame for not organising themselves in the way in which pressure groups do. If political leaders have been indifferent, where here are the western churches?

Secular society has got its priorities wrong but so have western churches which too easily become intoxicated with their own introspective navel-gazing.

If I was sitting in the rubble of a Syrian or Egyptian church, or in a gulag in North Korea, or had just seen my home destroyed or, even worse, my loved ones killed, I would think that our endless self absorbed debates, which often mirror the rights-driven agenda of the secular world, are self indulgence of a high order.

If, in the face of evil deeds, secularists and Christians need to weigh up their silence and priorities, so do our Muslim brothers.

Muslims, who have often settled in our democracies, need to be much braver in breaking the conspiracy of silence and in identifying with those who suffer – among whom are many Muslim victims of visceral hatred motivated by persecution for being the wrong kind of Muslims.

Never forget that many of these families came to Europe to escape the intolerance of countries like Pakistan – where a young Muslim girl can be shot for wanting an education or its Catholic Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, can be assassinated for preaching co-existence.

Many of our European Muslims are good, law-abiding people, who want the same things for themselves and for their families as the rest of us. They are not, as some foolishly and wrongly caricature them, an enemy within. But if they remain silent it will increasingly be seen as acquiescence. It will, however, require real courage to speak out against forces which have no respect for difference or diversity, or for life itself.

As he began the slaughter of Jews, Polish Catholics, gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities and many others, Adolf Hitler famously remarked “who now remembers the Armenians?”. Will our generation similarly ask the question “who now remembers the Christian minorities of the Middle East and North Africa?” Or will we ask the other famous question associated with the failure to speak out for the victims of the Reich “who will be left to speak for me?”.

And finally, let us who enjoy the freedom to speak and to act not forget that these freedoms have been purchased by those who have gone before us.

From the crucifixion of Christ Himself, to the stoning to death of Stephen; from the execution of Peter, Paul and the early disciples, to the deaths of maybe as many as 100,000 people at the hands of emperors such as Nero and Diocletian; to the executions of Penal times and the mass murders of the bloodied twentieth century – when more people lost their lives for their faith than in all the previous centuries combined – we have a precious narrative entrusted to us and which must be passed to those who follow.

Near here, at London’s Tyburn between 1535 until 1681, 105 Catholic men and women gave their lives for their faith – a sacrifice which paved the way for the religious freedoms and liberties which we enjoy today.

The story of Tyburn is not a story calling for revenge or to be used for the stoking of old hatreds but it is an instructive story which the elders fail to tell their children at their peril.
As another Jesuit, Edmund Campion stood on the Tyburn scaffold, he famously prayed that the day would come when he and those who were sending him to his death would meet in heaven: “I recommend your case, and mine, to Almighty God, the Searcher of hearts, to the end that we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.”

Our faith teaches us to forgive but until we meet in heaven we are not commanded to forget. The moment a nation slips into collective amnesia it risks repeating the old mistakes. Never again happens all over again.

Tyburn’s is an instructive and inspiring story that must be told because of the courage, heroism and virtue that it represents. It must be told because of the high price that was paid. We all know that when a faith is worth dying for, it is worth living for – and just as the stories of our English martyrs inspired my generation let us ensure that the sacrifices which others are making for their faith today are widely known so that their blood will not be shed in vain.

As Campion stood on the scaffold facing his executioner his blood splattered onto the young Henry Walpole, a graduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Walpole was sufficiently inspired to give up his law practice, to become a Catholic, a Jesuit, and in 1595, like Campion, to be hanged drawn and quartered – in his case at York.

But unlike Campion, Walpole, Margaret Clitherow, Anne Line, More or Fisher, or Fr Frans van der Lugt – so often we hide behind our own weakness or inadequacies as an excuse for not speaking up or taking actions.

So often we are like Tolkien’s Frodo who said : “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

And Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked that “We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds.” and that “What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.”

In our own times we must better comprehend the price which is paid for belief and allow the courage and heroism of those who suffer so greatly to shake us out of our apathy and our indifference. Fr Frans van der Lugt gave his life that others might live; what are we prepared to give on their behalf?

News story: Dutch Jesuit priest killed in Homs
Catholic Herald view: One of the great Christian witnesses of our age

 

 

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