This morning’s Gospel passage is taken from Saint John’s account of the Last Supper—just a few hours before our Lord was taken prisoner by the Jewish authorities; less than a day before he was crucified by the Roman authorities.[ii] Catholics ought to read the entire account every once in a while—it is a bit long for us to read in church, but will take no more than a half hour, at most, if you read it from your own Bible—John 13 through 17. In that account our Lord describes not only what will happen to Him in those next few hours, but also predicts that the same things will happen to those who are His loyal disciples, whether they be of the first century or the twenty-first century.
“They will expel you from the synagogues ... everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God.” He describes, primarily, a religious persecution—but one that is articulated by both religious and secular leaders. Just as it took a cooperative effort between Caiphas the high priest, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, to put Christ to death, the next twenty centuries of history would play out in a similar manner, with a number of variations. As we read in the Acts of the Apostles, the Jews persecuted the early Christian with at least the tacit approval of the Roman governors.[iii] But years of rebellion turned the Romans against the Jews. The next few centuries saw the persecution of both Jews and Christians by the pagans of the Roman Empire—Rome felt threatened by all those who would not follow its ways and worship its gods and its emperor. Only for a brief period did the Empire accept the Christianity of Constantine.
Arianism—the denial that Christ is truly God—spread with the political rule of the barbarian kingdoms that invaded Christendom from the north. The Holy Land was taken away from Christians, first by the Persians, and then by Moslem Arabs who invaded from the south. Islam would, indeed, be spread by military conquest—a constant pressure on the southern borders of Europe and Christian Asia from Gibraltar to the Black Sea. Spain was lost to the Faith for eight-hundred years; the lands of the Christian Middle East are still largely among the missing.
It helped not at all that, with the rise of Protestantism, governments made war on one another and on their own citizens over this new found religious rivalry. Christians killed Christians, sometimes even forming alliances with Moslem countries to weaken the other Christians. In great degree these religious wars served much more to advance the greed of men in political power than they did to preserve the doctrine of the true faith. Gone was that “constant mutual charity” spoken of by Saint Peter this morning;[iv] gone was that imperative to “do good to all men”; gone even to do good to those who were “of the household of the faith.”
About two years ago I spoke to you about the frightening decrease in the numbers of Christians in the Holy Land and the surrounding Middle Eastern countries.[v] Somewhat mathematically, I projected that Jerusalem would be devoid of Christians by the year 2020, and lamented the decrease of Christianity just about everywhere throughout the region. It is beginning to look as though I was being optimistic!
In just those past two years Israel has been building miles and miles of a thirty foot high wall of segregation to contain the Arab Christians and Moslems of Palestine. (When you leave here today, look back at the building, which is only about twenty feet high, and imagine adding ten more feet to that.) The wall builders have outright stolen the more valuable pieces of land owned by Palestinians, made it impossible for them to get to and from work, disrupted commerce and access to emergency services like fire protection and hospitals, and cut off access to the holy places of Jerusalem. Schools are being blocked from teachers’ convents. Pilgrims simply cannot get from “here to there” because of the wall—the Palm Sunday procession can no longer follow Jesus’ steps.[vi] Priests and religious staffing the shrines and charitable institutions are now routinely denied visas if they must leave and re-enter the country.[vii]
Two years ago I lamented the decline of the Christian population in Iraq to about five percent—it had been about nine percent just a few years before that—and now it looks as though—by design—there will be no place at all for Christians in the postwar Iraqi government.[viii]
Understand, please, that nothing is really new here—this is not something that has come to pass only under George Bush, or Bill Clinton, or the elder George Bush before him. The modern persecution of Christians in the Holy Land—often with American dollars and British Pounds—goes back sixty years and more. The modern Church, afraid offend anyone at all, has been very little help.
The crux of the problem is that most Westerners think of Christianity as an exclusively Western phenomenon. They recognize European Protestants as Christians, and Roman Rite Catholics; but very few others—Greeks, Syrians, Lebanese, and Arabs just don’t enter into the “western Christian equation.” People who celebrate the very same Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as we do are written off because their liturgy, their language, and their ethnicity are little different (and not much, by the way). Here in the West, we think of everyone in the Middle East who is not Jewish as an “Arab”—and we assume that all Arabs are Moslems—and that even law abiding Arabs have no rights in dealing with Western Civilization. Remember that we are to “do good to all men” even if they are not “of the household of the faith.” Let me read you a little from a recent article on the subject (I’ve linked it to the Parish Website, and I’ll put my copy on the bulletin board for anyone who is interested):
These are our people. They are “of the household of the faith,” and do not deserve to die or be displaced for the “sin” of having been born in the land of Jesus Christ. And we certainly shouldn’t be paying for them to do so.
So I would urge you to be very critical in the months and years ahead. When you read the newspapers or watch the TV—and particularly when it is time to vote, or you are asked to support a political candidate. Ask questions and demand logical answers grounded in unemotional facts. There will always be persecution of those who follow Jesus Christ rather than following the ways of the world—our Lord promised that at the Last Supper—but we have that obligation to “work good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” We must have that “constant mutual charity among ourselves, for charity covers a multitude of sins.”
We must not allow the coming of a time when there will be no Christians in the Land of Christ.
[i] Galatians vi: 7, 10.
[ii] Gospel: John xv: 26,27; xvi: 1-4.
[iii] Cf. Acts iv, xiii, ix, xii, etc.
[iv] Epistle: 1 Peter iv: 7-11.
[viii] Declaration of the Chaldean Bishops on the Role of Chaldeans in the New Iraq, 3 September 2003 to Mr. Paul Bremer, Civil Administrator of Iraq www.fides.org/eng/vita_chiesa/vescovi_iraq160903.html