Many colleges and universities open the new academic year with a special assembly or convocation that is generally an upbeat occasion of welcome and new beginnings. The Catholic University of America held such an event several days ago, and it included, appropriately enough, a beautiful mass led by Washington’s Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl. The music was sublime and the liturgy well ordered. Dr. John Garvey, the president of CUA, was presented with an award by the Archdiocese of Washington. It was an altogether appropriate and uplifting event. But just before the dismissal, the tone was changed as Cardinal Wuerl, speaking without notes, delivered this admonition with a sense of urgency:
We hear so much today of the word solidarity. It has become a part of our vocabulary in the past twenty or thirty years. Today our solidarity with brothers and sisters of our faith, and of other faiths, in a part of the world where there is clearly an effort to eliminate them is something that we simply cannot in conscience ignore. Often we are asked: “How was it possible that in human history atrocities occur?” They occur for two reasons: because there are those prepared to commit them, and then there are those who remain silent. And the actions in Iraq and in Syria today are happening to women, children, mentheir displacement not the least. Things happening to them is something that we really are not free to ignore, and sometimes all we have to raise is our voice. . . .
I ask myself: Where are these voices? Where the voices of parliaments and congresses? Where are the voices of campuses? Where are the voices of community leaders? . . . Why a silence?
Until quite recently, there were a fewthough just a fewwho did speak out about the atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Back in July, columnist Kirsten Powers referred to the religicide of Christianity in the Middle East: “Iraq’s Christians are begging the world for help. Is anybody listening?” she asked. And there was the estimable Frank Wolf, a member of the House of Representatives from Virginia, who came to the House floor on seven consecutive legislative days to protest the “convert or be killed” policy of Muslim militants in the Middle East. He called on President Obama to take five steps that could have made a difference in that dire situation, none of them involving additional funding or American “boots on the ground.” The response from the leader of the free world, seemingly oblivious to the problem, was an ungolden silence.
Two events in August prompted a growing number of religious and political leaders to begin to speak. One was the onslaught against the Yazidi people, including the abduction and rape of hundreds of Yazidi women and girls, and the stranding of tens of thousands of others on the craggy heights of Mount Sinjara humanitarian crisis that prompted limited U. S. airstrikes against ISIS. The other event was a 4-minute, 40-second video depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley, a devout Catholic, who was brutally put to death at the hands of a jihadist-export from Great Britain. This gruesome video was flashed around the world on YouTube before it was taken down. Last week the serial beheadings continued with the taped execution of 31-year-old Steven Sotloff, a Jewish journalist from Miami and the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Today, we live with another ISIS threat: This time, the promised murder of a British hostage.
“Crimes against humanity” is a euphemism for the wanton killing and horrendous acts of evil being committed in the name of God in the region of the world that gave birth to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And yet it is not difficult to see why many thoughtful people are reluctant to encourage yet another military occupation in the region. Twenty-five years of the off-and-on Bush-Obama land wars in Asia have not made the streets of Baghdad safe, nor brought peace between Israel and her neighbors, nor eradicated the virulence of religious violence. ISIS itself was spawned in part through America’s ambivalent connivance in the recent (and ongoing) sectarian wars in Syria where some 200,000 people have been killed and more than 6.5 million others internally displaced or exiled. Libya is yet another country where the quick-fix use of force without a sustainable strategy has not alleviated but rather increased human suffering.
And yetand yetthere are times in human history when persons of faith cannot play neutral or simply stand by on the sidelines. There are times when they are compelled by conscience to call evil by name and speak out against it with conviction. And they must do this not merely out of a concern for their own personal or national self-protection but precisely as persons of faithin the name of decency and love and of all that is human and humane. Today is such a time.
The sentiments expressed by Cardinal Wuerl have been taken up in recent days by many of the world’s religious leaders. Pope Francis has offered to undertake a personal peace mission to northern Iraq. Pastor Rick Warren spoke to the crisis from Rwanda, a country where, in the course of just three months in 1994, genocide left one million Rwandans dead and one million children orphanedwhile most of the world looked the other way. Warren said that there were lessons from Rwanda for the crisis in the Middle East. He encouraged African pastors to pray for the persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called radical political Islam the “face of tyranny” today and has compared the suffering of Christians in the Middle East with violence against Jews in the past. “It would indeed be awful to think,” he said, “that the West might remain silent as violence rages purely out of a failure to recognize that Christians can be victimized, or out of a reluctance to cast aspersions on certain brands of Islam. It would make this the first genocide in history to be tolerated out of social awkwardness.” Some Muslim leaders have also felt it their duty to speak out, including Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, the Grand Mufti of Egypt. He has said that ISIS is a danger to Islam and has accused it of violating “all the Islamic values, the higher objectives of Islamic law as well as universal values shared by all mankind.”
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has called for “solidarity of prayer and love” with the Christians in Iraq. “Ever since the war to end all wars ended in 1918, humankind has been saying ‘never again,’ then we wring our hands as genocide unfolds in some distant corner. But what is happening right now in northern Iraq is off the scale of human horror. In a globalized world where even distant nations are our ‘neighbor,’ we cannot allow these atrocities to be unleashed with impunity. . . . We cry to God for peace and justice and security throughout the world, and especially for Christians and other minority groups suffering so deeply in northern Iraq.”
Perhaps no one has done more to alert the world of the atrocities carried out in Iraq and Syria than Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of St. George’s Cathedral in Baghdad. In his 2013 book, Father, Forgive, he wrote:
The sad fact is, religion is very much tied up with violence. As Archbishop William Temple said during the II World War, ‘When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong.’ The apostle John, recording the words of Jesus in his gospel wrote, ‘the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me’ (John 16:2-3). This is what we have witnessed in our time.
In the midst of such distress, Canon White carries on a ministry of reconciliation and hope among the dwindling number of Christians who still remain in the region. “Here our people have nothing, most have lost everything, yet the presence of Jesus is so real. We talk about love all the time and in love we see the beginning of reconciliation.”
Cardinal Wuerl was right: Atrocities happen because there are those who commit them, and those who simply remain silent. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose own life ended on the gallows, knew this very well. “Silence in the face of evil,” he said, “is evil itself. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.