If there is hell on earth, it is found these days in the Middle East where aggression and violence are rampant. Political and religious extremism are leading to fear, disempowerment, dispossession, trauma, injury, and death, in addition to the destruction of property and infrastructure. Major areas of the Gaza Strip, Iraq, and Syria are up in flames and in ruins.
In Gaza, Palestinian civilians—both Muslim and Christian—are caught in the bloody fight between Hamas and Israel. More than 1,229 have been killed and 7,000 have been injured, as of July 29. In the midst of this tragedy, over 180,000 have sought "refuge" away from the explosions, but nowhere is really safe.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) for Palestine, religious organizations, and others have been providing much needed assistance. An example is the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, which has opened its doors to around 1,000 Muslims. Archbishop Alexios welcomed all. His kindness and religious duty brought to mind memories of Father Theodosius of the Greek Orthodox Monastery in Al-Azarieh (or Bethany) who gave my brother Michael and I temporary shelter as we escaped the battle for Jerusalem during the June 1967 War.
Similar acts of generosity are taking place in war-torn Syria. In Allepo, for instance, where water is scarce, monasteries—with wells—have been distributing water to Christians and Muslims alike. But there has been a series of displacement of people as well as destruction of life and property. On September 7, 2013, in the ancient town of Maaloula, jihadists beheaded a few Christians and forced the conversion of others. The fighters opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad drove some 80,000 Christians from Homs. Christians from there and elsewhere have become internally or externally displaced, along with Muslims. Recently, in Yacubiyah, a village located near the Turkish border in the Orontes Valley in north-west Syria, an air-launched missile severely damaged the Franciscan monastery.
Worse conditions exist in Iraq where the spirit of compassion is missing. The Islamic State jihadists and their allies, who control or claim to control large areas of Iraq and Syria, are imposing discriminatory rules and practices against anyone different from them, including the Christian communities. Their ultimatum to the Christians of Mosul speaks volumes: "convert to Islam, pay a poll tax (or jizyah), leave, or be killed."
Lately, the cross atop St. Ephrem's Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Mosul, was removed and replaced by the black flag of the Islamic State. The jihadists also took possession of the ancient monastery of Mar Behnam, located near the city of Qaraqosh. Pope Louis Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, expressed deep concern about the immense catastrophe that Christians are experiencing in Iraq. He urged them to pray, persevere, and remain close to the church. The number of Christians has dropped from 1.5 million in 2003 to around 300,000 today.
For the record, Christianity predated Islam by 622 years. In 628 AD, the Prophet Muhammad granted Christians, near and far, rights to property, religion, work, and security. This is contained in a document still preserved at St. Catherine's Monastery, situated at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Christians in the Middle East and North Africa made major contributions to the advancement of Arab civilization and they have been partners in nation- and state-building.
Aggression, kidnapping, occupation, the injuring and killing of noncombatants, discrimination, forced conversion, involuntary deportation, and displacement—all run counter to religious values, human rights, and international law. Several religious and secular leaders have made this known to the world but much more needs to be done.
On July 23 and 24, in meetings organized by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Counselor to the President John Podesta, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal discussed the dire situation of the Christians in the Holy Land, specifically in the context of the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza. He stated, "There is no winner in this war. There is only loss, pain, and death at the end of this road…. The only solution is to reach an agreement whereby Palestinian rights are recognized, and peace is built on justice."
On July 24, Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan issued an appeal against acts of violence in Mosul and across the Middle East. Titled, "Stop Violence in the Name of Religion," it was co-signed by members of the Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue and others, representing the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faith traditions. "In these troubling times," the appeal reads, "when we bear witness to a moral crisis of unparalleled dimensions, we should recall the Islamic concept of 'haq el hurriya' and 'haq el karama,' the rights to freedom and to human dignity that are to be enjoyed by people of all faiths."
Socialization, education, and actions—religious and secular—must promote tolerance, understanding, and communal coexistence. Laws and political governance must ensure safety, rights, and proper representation. Empathy and compassion are important traits of good leadership and societal maturity. Humane politics must take precedence over power politics. Socioeconomic development will enhance self-actualization, political stability, and peace.
The international community has a moral obligation to become more concerned about the plight of Christians and others in the Middle East. It must condemn and help stop the acts of violence and terrorism perpetrated against innocents.
What Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah has often asked rings true today as it did yesterday, "How can a believer of whatever religion come to think that he/she is supposed to proclaim the name of God and to make God known by killing the children of God?" Let us hope our answer is and will always be "never."