A few Fridays back, President Munib A. Younan of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) spoke to the LWF’s Council in Geneva about rising persecution of Christians in the Middle East, urging Christians there to remain as a witness to others.
“We are seeing a global rise in extremism,” he said. “Most often, extremism is supporting a political agenda even if it identifies with a religion.” He added, “Nevertheless, many Christians are being harmed on a daily basis.”
He ought to know. President Younan is Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. In his speech, he focused on a number of recent examples of persecution, including the abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, the imprisonment and mistreatment of an Iranian pastor, and the increasing difficulties of Egyptian Christians.
Unsurprisingly, he also mentioned Syria. “Christians in Syria continue to look at the destruction of their sister communities in Iraq and wonder if they will be able to remain in their country, the place where disciples of Jesus were first called Christians.”
Syrian Christians gained another reason for doubt with the murder of Fr. François Mourad this past Sunday. Fr. Mourad was a monk with the Monastery of St. Anthony of Padua in al-Ghassaniyah.
According to Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa (Major Superior of Franciscans in the Middle East, and Custos of all Catholic sites in the Holy Land), the Monastery was attacked by Islamic insurgents after weeks of rebel attacks on the community. The Monastery had previously been a “safe haven,” Fr. Pizzaballa told Asia News, “but on Sunday, rebels part of a fringe extremist Islamic group, stormed that place too.” Fr. Mourad was shot while trying to defend the sisters and others gathered in the monastery. While many in the predominantly Christian village had fled over the past few weeks, Fr. Mourad as well as a number of sisters and Franciscan friars had remained.
“Fr. Mourad was just one of the many men and women religious putting their faith on the front line in Syria, refusing to abandon the communities they serve, Christian and Muslim” Vatican Radio said. “They stay because they want to be a sign of hope, light and comfort to people in the midst of destruction.”
The trend seems to be the other way though. As of late April, 300,000 Syrian Christians were estimated to have fled the country. The reasoning is clear: Christians in Syria have no guarantee to safety anymore. With two Syrian archbishops still missing after being kidnapped in April (and presumed dead by some), this latest event is just more confirmation of the same. President Younan of the LWF and other church leaders may be encouraging Christians in the Middle East to stay, but it’s understandably difficult to do so in the face of such persecution.