Once again, Coptic Christians faced bloody bodies in the sands of Egypt, as terrorists killed seven pilgrims who had just prayed at the Monastery of St. Samuel.
No one was surprised when the Islamic State took credit for that November attack south of Cairo. After all, 28 pilgrims were massacred near the same spot in 2017.
In Syria, Orthodox believers marked the fifth anniversary of the kidnapping of Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who were trying to negotiate the release of priests seized weeks earlier. Today, their followers know less about the identity of the attackers than they did in 2013.
In the Nineveh plains of Iraq, Christians slowly returned to communities in which their ancestors had worshipped since the first century after Christ. Zero Christians remained in Mosul after the Islamic State group demanded that they convert to Islam or pay the jizya head tax, while living with brutal persecution.
But nothing remained of the 1,400-year-old Dair Mar-Elia (Saint Elijah’s Monastery) after invaders blew it up twice and then bulldozed the rubble.
Try to imagine the faith it requires for believers to carry on after all this has taken place, said the Prince of Wales, speaking at a Westminster Abbey service last month celebrating the lives of Christians who endure persecution in the Middle East.
“Time and again, I have been deeply humbled and profoundly moved by the extraordinary grace and capacity for forgiveness that I have seen in those who have suffered so much,” said Prince Charles, who has worked to build contacts in the ancient Christian East.
“Forgiveness, as many of you know far better than I, is not a passive act, or submission. Rather, it is an act of supreme courage, of a refusal to be defined by the sin against you. … It is one thing to believe in God who forgives. It is quite another to take that example to heart and actually to forgive, with the whole heart, ‘those who trespass against you’ so grievously.”
The persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East was not one of 2018’s big news stories. Instead, this parade of horrors became a kind of “old news” that rarely reached the prime headlines offered by elite newsrooms.
The goal at Westminster Abbey was to remember what has happened at the ground level in places like the Nineveh plains in northern Iraq. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby also took part in this unusual event, which was attended by leaders of 13 Middle Eastern church bodies, along with high-ranking British politicos and diplomats.
True persecution, stressed Welby, is “something that isolates. Those outside its experience cannot say, ‘I know how you feel,’ because they don’t. To live in a country or in a society where a government, or an armed group or even a minority of people consider that you should be consigned to oblivion because of your faith in Christ is an experience that is without parallel.”
Prince Charles praised the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, including one sister who literally drove an evacuation van as the Islamic State group advanced on the town of Qaraqosh — part of a wave of 100,000 Christians fleeing Nineveh four years ago. The sisters, he said, described “their despair at the utter destruction they found” when they returned last year.
“They put their faith in God, and today … nearly half of those displaced (have) gone back, to rebuild their homes and their communities,” said Prince Charles. “Churches, schools, orphanages and businesses are rising from the rubble, and the fabric of that society, which had been so cruelly torn apart, is being gradually repaired.”
Those who dared to return wrestled with “all the doubts and fears in our hearts,” said Sister Nazek Matty, one of the Dominicans. There is an urgent need, she stressed, for serious reconciliation efforts — with government support — with local Muslims.
“Truthfully the return of Christians, despite everything, is based upon our determination to live our beliefs and traditions in the place where we belong, and where we feel deeply connected to our roots,” she said. Ultimately, “we believe that the restoration of our community greatly depends on our trust in the risen Lord who promised to be with us always.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.