.- Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver has said that modern Syrian Catholics killed for their faith offer a “model of courage that we need to emulate.”
“The natural consequence of their belief in Jesus and his Church was for them to give public witness to it, even if it meant death,” Archbishop Aquila said Sept. 21 in an address to the knights and ladies of the northern lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
A Catholic lay institution that assists the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and supports Christians in the Holy Land, the order was holding its annual meeting in Des Moines.
The Syrian civil war, which has been ongoing for more than two years, is a source of particular concern for Christians in the Holy Land.
It is being fought by rebels including both secularists and Islamists, who are trying to topple the government of Bashar al-Assad. More than 100,000 people have died in the war, and there are an estimated two million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
Additionally, more than four million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
Archbishop Aquila explained that Christians recently martyred in Syria were willing to die for their faith “because it was not just something they felt was right at the moment; it was integral to their identity and they believed it was the Truth.”
The archbishop recounted the Sept. 7 attack on the Syrian town of Ma'loula, when Islamist rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda and al Nusra Front entered houses in the town and reportedly began to deface any sacred images they discovered in homes.
In one house of three Greek Catholic men and one woman, the rebels “demanded that everyone present convert to Islam or face death.”
“Sarkis el Zakhm, the grandson, responded: ‘I am a Christian and if you want to kill me because I am a Christian, do it.’ Sarkis, together with the two other men in the house, was killed in cold blood,” Archbishop Aquila said. “Somehow, the woman was only injured and miraculously survived.”
The archbishop said that Benedict XVI had called for the current Year of Faith because faith is no longer a guaranteed part of society.
He wondered whether society can understand the “sacrifice” Sarkis made.
“Does our culture honor courageous faith like his?” he asked. “Western society finds any faith-rooted sacrifice like his almost incomprehensible because our culture is so focused on self-promotion and self-satisfaction.”
Murdered Catholics, he said, “offer their lives as Jesus offered his on the Cross – all for love of Jesus and in faithful witness to him and the Church.”
Archbishop Aquila noted that Benedict XVI had stressed the importance of evangelization in the Year of Faith.
Faith “makes us fruitful, because it expands our hearts in hope and enables us to bear life-giving witness,” the former Pope had said in his apostolic letter “Porta Fidei.”
Pope Francis has also emphasized that faith is “a gift not reserved for a few but offered with generosity.”
“It is a gift that one cannot keep to oneself, but it is to be shared. If we want to keep it only to ourselves, we will become isolated, sterile and sick Christians,” he said in his message for 2013 World Mission Sunday.
Denver's archbishop said the Year of Faith is a time of “grace and renewal” that must lead Catholics to “courageously” share their joy and faith. He said Catholics should take inspiration from “the example of our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted and giving their lives for the faith.”