The Courtier in Aleteia: A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Check out my latest for Aleteia today, reviewing Diana von Glahn’s new series, “A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land”, which begins airing on Catholic television networks tomorrow. In this three-part travel documentary, Diana chronicles Pope Francis’ historic visit to the Holy Land, and in her own well-informed, enthusiastic way she introduces us to the people and places of this sacred but troubled part of the world, where Christians in particular have suffered so much in recent years. Follow the link in the article for air dates and times in your area, or visit TheFaithfulTraveler.com

My special thanks to the always gracious Elizabeth Scalia and her team at Aleteia for letting me share my thoughts with their readers once again!

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Those Inconvenient Christians

An upcoming Holy Land festival this weekend, and a documentary on Iraqi Christians I caught on TV last night, have given rise to a somewhat chastising post this morning, for which I hope the reader will forgive me – even though, as we say on Twitter, I apologize for nothing.

The presence of Christians in the Middle East is a fact which much of the mainstream media in this country, and even certain supposedly humanitarian groups, often chooses to ignore.  Their mere existence muddles the narrative.  It is much easier to assume that everyone who speaks Arabic is a Muslim, and that all Muslims are potential terrorists, than it is to recognize that not only are people individuals, but that there are Catholics and other Christians in places like Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, many of whom have been suffering greatly in recent years.

This situation has so deteriorated, even at this moment with the recent actions of ISIS or whatever they decide to call themselves this week, that hundreds of thousands of Christians have left their homelands in the Middle East to seek safety in other countries.  Yet when they arrive at their destinations, they are often scorned and ostracized by the very people they were hoping would welcome them.  This is unworthy of the West, particularly among those of us who happen to call ourselves Christians.

When I was in college, one of my closest friends was a Kurdish-American, a young lady whose family had fled the regime of Saddam Hussein and immigrated to the U.S.  Back then the problem everyone was discussing with regard to Iraq was the fallout from what we refer to as “The” Gulf War in 1990, in which Iraq had invaded and occupied Kuwait.  Although the issues surrounding Iraq were certainly considered at the time, to a large extent they were overshadowed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ensuing aftermath. Thus the suffering of the Kurdish people under the rule of Saddam Hussein was not as widely covered in the press back then, so that much of what I learnt about them at the time came from what my Kurdish friend told me, and the people she brought to campus for discussions and debates.

So it was interesting, given the non-stop coverage of the rapid takeover of Iraq in recent weeks by the latest brand of radicalized Islamic militants, to come across a program last evening which highlighted not only the suffering of Christians in Iraq in recent years, but also how so many of them have found a new home in Kurdish territory.  Even as church bells fell silent in the city of Mosul for the first Sunday in over 1600 years, Christians in the Kurdish-controlled north of the country were comparatively free to go about their business, knowing that the Kurds would protect them.  This is no small development, in the history of the region.

The Catholic diocese in the largest Kurdish city of Erbil for example, has grown from around 1,500 families before the invasion of Iraq, or roughly the size of a suburban parish in many parts of the U.S., to over 25,000 families today.  More and more Christians have left Baghdad and other cities, moving north in search of a haven where they can practice their faith without emigrating to other countries.  I was stunned to see footage not only of brand-new Christian primary schools being built, and discussions about a new high school, but churches filled with worshippers.  There was even a sit-down reception and dinner between the local Catholic and Orthodox prelates and their Muslim and Yazidi counterparts, where everyone seemed to be getting along just fine, and enjoying one another’s company.

All that being said, I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by pretending to be an expert on the complexities of religion, history, and politics in the region.  For example, I’m sure that there are still many issues faced by Iraqi Christians even amidst the relative safety of the Kurdish people, which could be shared anecdotally; certainly that debate could be carried out in the comment section of this post.  And given my own limited grasp of the subject, if you are looking for more informed analysis about issues faced by Christians in the Middle East, you should be following people like my friends researcher Phillip Smyth, or filmmaker Jordan Allott over at In Altium Productions, who are far more knowledgeable about such things.

What the Christian crisis in Iraq and elsewhere in the region does however, is spotlight something rather ugly, and often ignored by the mainstream media.  Caught in the middle of much of the sectarian fighting in the region are Christian minorities who are too poor to get much press.  Our ignorance of them is particularly unworthy of Christians in this country, many of whom are the descendants of those who also had to flee their ancestral homes because of religious persecution.  Shouldn’t we be doing more to embrace and welcome our fellow Christians from the lands of Christ, the Apostles, and the Early Church, rather than just lumping them all into a politically convenient category of “other”?  If we (rightly) blame the mainstream media for a dearth of reporting on this issue, what are we doing to aid these people once they arrive on these shores?

One way those of you in the Washington area can learn more about Christianity in the Middle East is by attending this weekend’s first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, this Saturday from 11am to 5pm [Metro: Brookland].  It will highlight the Christian people, places, and customs of our brothers and sisters from this part of the world, something which too few of us are aware of, and too little is done to protect and preserve.  I will be there to enjoy the food, presentations, and finally getting to meet Diana von Glahn in person, and hope to see many of my readers, as well.

Yet even if you cannot make it, I encourage you to take this opportunity to start educating yourself about the issue.  The media will not educate you themselves, for it is not in their interest to do so.  As usual, the buck stops with those of us who claim to be Christians, keeping in mind Christ’s prayer that we might all be one, as He and the Father are one.

Iraqi Catholics outside of their destroyed parish church in Kirkuk

Iraqi Catholics mourn outside of their parish Church of the Holy Family in Kirkuk, bombed by ISIS

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

This Saturday on the Catholic Weekend show over on SQPN, we will be talking with guests Fawaz and Ehab Yasi, a rap duo originally from Iraq and now living in California.  I suspect the twist for many of the listeners will be the fact that these twin brothers just so happen to have been born and raised Catholics, and perform pieces whose lyrics are rooted in Christian spirituality.  If this makes you feel uncomfortable, good.  For it is about time that some of us start to feel more uncomfortable about what we are being told, or rather not being told, about the people who happen to hail from this troubled part of the world.

Over the past year or more of the Arab Spring, many Americans have been somewhat rudely awakened to the fact that the Middle East is not an exclusively Muslim bloc with Israel sandwiched in the middle.  Without question, Islam has been the predominant religion in the region for centuries, but students of history know that this was not always the case.

Even today, there are significant Christian populations in this part of the world which, thanks to the alleged mainstream media, you may have been blissfully unaware of until comparatively recently.  In this case, new media has forced old media to reluctantly shine a light on the fact that Christians are suffering in these places at the hands of radical Islamists.  This is one more reason, among many, why we ought to be grateful for the power that new media has to bring forward stories which might otherwise go untold.

And here is where things get a little messy, as international affairs often do, and much to the chagrin of those whose charge is to report the news to us.  Once we become aware of the existence of Christian populations in places like Syria, Lebanon, or Libya, we have to reconsider some of our fundamental assumptions about those countries.  One imagines that it makes liberals just as uncomfortable to learn that the Muslim Brotherhood is sacking and looting museums in order to destroy art and antiquities, as it does conservatives to learn that some of those Palestinian youths throwing stones at Israeli troops are in fact Christians, not Muslims.

When Pope Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting this coming Saturday on behalf of peace in Syria, he did so not simply to be nice.  Rather he first and foremost recognized the power of prayer, in turning to the Almighty with our pleadings and petitions.  Secondly, he is very much aware that Syrian Christians are particularly in need of help and ministry, but are incapable in many instances of receiving it.  As minorities, even if in some areas substantial minorities, they often do not have the resources which would protect them from reprisals on the part of those who seek to do them harm for simply existing.  By bringing awareness to the fact that there in fact are many Christians in Syria, the Holy Father is challenging many people’s assumptions about what Syria, and indeed the entire Middle East, happens to be.

Our nature being what it is, i.e. fallen and imperfect, we know that human beings have a regrettable tendency to pick on those weaker than themselves.  History is replete with examples of man’s inhumanity to man in this regard.  We can think of the treatment of the early Christians in ancient Rome, the Jews in medieval Granada, Catholics in 1970’s Belfast, or Copts in Cairo today.  Without wallowing in a scab-picking celebration of perpetual victimhood, which of course is the prerogative of the left, we can reasonably acknowledge that we do not always treat each other well.

However when we challenge our assumptions about the “other”, we realize they are actually more like ourselves than we might at first have believed.  Remaining ignorant of history allows the media, and by extension us as their audience, to stuff entire populations of human beings into convenient, one-size-fits-all categories.  This is not only inaccurate but intellectually dishonest.

In the end, by constantly seeking to educate yourself, and questioning what you are being told, you will come to a far greater awareness of the truth behind the broadly-brused headlines, whether in Syria, Egypt, or even in your own community.

OURLADYHOMES

War damage to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace
Homs, Syria