To say that the Middle East is in crisis is an understatement. Christians in the region are intensely nervous about unfolding events, and one religious leader has begged the West not to encourage the widespread political protests. The head of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church, Patriarch Gregorios III, suggests instead that Western leaders press for democratic structures, freedom and respect for human rights.
Truly enough, the violence that has accompanied the protests has targeted Christians with horrific results. While the New Year's Eve car bomb at a church in Alexandria, Egypt garnered the attention of the world's media, it was only one isolated incident among hundreds before and since that have left thousands of Christians dead and wounded—the latest violent incident taking place at a church in Cairo in early May.
On one level, it's only natural that Christians would fear the growing instability, as numerous concerned clergy and diplomats have publicly agreed that they are the most vulnerable in the current climate. Often they have fewer rights, and they're hemmed in by those who are intensely hostile to their faith. As anarchy grows and natural anxieties are channeled into sectarian attacks, is it conceivable that anyone could remain calm?
With the assassination of Pakistan's Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, we learned of that man's ready embrace of death should it be asked of him. He prayed intensely, stayed close to the sacraments and recorded a message that would stand as his testament of faith should he be killed. In the aftermath of that tragedy, his brother agreed to take his office—knowing that he might well be called to the same end.
At the funeral Mass, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran pointed out, “To be a Christian is always to make a choice: between light and darkness, between faith and law, between life and death, between God revealed by Jesus and the wisdom of men, between serving and ruling.” What an excellent summary of our faith. Moreover, during Eastertide we're hearing once again of the trials of the first apostles—repeatedly ridiculed, rejected, beaten, stoned, and often killed—and yet these same narratives are suffused with joy as those who were persecuted found opportunities to relive the Passion and Resurrection saga in their own flesh, uniting their own wills to that of the Triune God.
Our part in these events is to pray without ceasing, to love all persons who are made in the image and likeness of God, and to provide our own witness of faith. Countless converts from Islam have said that this very witness is what led them to Christianity—where they saw kindness towards all regardless of religion, fellowship and joy among believers, and mutual respect between men and women. Furthermore, once they read our Scriptures, they were astonished at the power of the words and the loving God revealed therein.
The word martyr means “witness,” which implies that there is one who sees the action. Now that a growing number of witnesses may be needed, let us be aware of the dry martyrdom that is being asked of us—even here far from the strife. Prayer, steadfastness in virtue, and fidelity to that God of love will be demanded of each of us in our turn, so that others may see that the Christian truth is worth defending at every opportunity. We trust that God will provide the graces needed to sustain those who are in harm's way around the world, but we must also trust that our prayerful collaboration is vitally important, for our particular witness is to keep vigil in the privileged calm we enjoy for now.
[Published May, 2011]