holy cross sermon for the sixteenth sunday after pentecost, year c, september 8, 2013

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am sure all of you have noticed the situation in Syria, into which our nation seems to be inexorably drawn. The situation is a very complicated one, and quite often in situations like this there seems to be only a range of bad foreign policy options to choose from. This dimension of the current situation has been noticed by not a few open-minded commentators. Nevertheless, another dimension of the Syria conflict that gets little notice in the media is the precarious situation of Christian communities in Syria, where Christians constitute about ten percent of the population and have lived in relative peace among the Muslim majority, largely protected by law from persecution. A fear of many observers is that large proportion of Muslim extremists among the Syrian rebels would bring an end to the protection Christians have enjoyed, and potentially bring an end to the Christian communities of Syria altogether.

In this respect, there is cause for considerable concern based on recent precedents. The ancient Christian communities of Egypt have suffered enormously – even before the recent turmoil in that country – very often forced to live as second-class citizens even under the autocratic stability of the Mubarak regime. Since his overthrow, the situation for Christians has gotten even worse, with reports of sustained and widespread violence a daily occurrence. Christians have been kidnapped, raped, forced to convert to Islam, and murdered. Christian homes and businesses have been ransacked and burned, as have churches and monasteries, some of which have been in continuous use since the fourth or fifth century. Just yesterday I read that the Egyptian junta has forced the closure of the historic monastery of St. Catherine’s in the Sinai Peninsula, established by Emperor Justinian in the year 548. The forced closure, for real or imagined “security concerns,” effectively ended the agricultural work of the monks, and their work in playing host to the many Christian pilgrims who visit St. Catherine’s, and likewise depriving hundreds of Bedouin families who live around the monastery of their livelihood.

And Egypt is not the only recent precedent that inclines the observant to worry about Syria. After the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, where Christians had enjoyed protection under the law similar to that afforded by the Syrian regime, violence against Christians broke out and has continued unabated. In 2006, an Orthodox priest was beheaded and mutilated even after his church paid a ransom to his Islamist kidnappers. In 2008, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was abducted and murdered. In 2010 the BBC reported that residents of Mosul were being stopped on the streets, asked to show their identity cards, and shot if they had Christian surnames. In October of 2010, 58 Christians were killed, including two priests, during Sunday services at the Baghdad Syriac Catholic Cathedral, after it was stormed by Islamists. In consequence of all this (and much more) violence against Iraqi Christians, observers estimate that half of the Christian population of Iraq has fled since the 2003 American invasion.

A depressing litany of similar atrocities committed against Syrian Christians in the midst of that country’s ongoing war is now taking shape. At the beginning of this Summer a Jesuit priest, Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio was kidnapped form the city of Raqqa and murdered. Eleven Christians, including two women, were gunned down by Syrian rebel fighters in the village of Yacobiyeh just two weeks ago. In May of this year Rebels abducted two bishops, one Greek Orthodox and the other Syriac Orthodox, from Aleppo. They have not been heard from since and are feared murdered. In May the Christian village of al-Duvair was ransacked and destroyed by Syrian rebels, who massacred most of the populace, including women and children.

This limited account of the suffering of Christians is not meant to diminish the very real and very great suffering of many, if not most, non-Christian Syrians as a result of the conflict. I merely mean to highlight the fact that systematic violence against Christians, perpetrated by the rebel groups that America is assisting, is a very real dimension of the Syrian war, and a dimension that is largely ignored by our government – and one that is certainly very far removed from the calculus of our nation’s foreign policy establishment. Thomas Farr, former director of our State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, established by act of Congress in 1998, pointed to this lacuna in recent testimony before Congress:

“our diplomats are not being trained to know what religious freedom is and why it is important, let alone how to advance it. This stunning deficiency reflects a continuing, deep-seated skepticism in our foreign policy establishment that religious freedom is in fact important for individuals or societies, or that it should be considered real foreign policy.”

There are several reasons to work for peace in Syria, and an equitable US foreign policy that is motivated not merely by self-interest but also seeks to promote the dignity and freedom of all people – including, and perhaps especially, the beleaguered Christian communities and other religious minorities in Muslim nations. And for our own part, as American Christians, I would hope that the teachings of the Gospel would inform our personal politics, that we might move beyond the novel and UNCHRISTIAN assumption that the two spheres must be kept hermetically sealed-off from one another. Christianity is a form of life that is meant to be all-encompassing. And indeed only so is it even properly called Christianity.

Nor ought we to forget that any effort to promote democracy while ignoring or minimizing the necessity of religious liberty is like trying to build a house beginning with the roof and working toward the foundation. For the originators of the ideas that we seek to promote – men like Thomas Jefferson, Charles Montesquieu, John Locke, and William Blackstone – worked and wrote within an intellectual context framed entirely by Christianity. And the self-evident equality our nation claims to see in all men we explicitly acknowledge to be the gift of God.

Yesterday, at the invitation of Pope Francis, after our morning mass, we prayed the Rosary in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, asking the Lord to guide our nation and our president into the pathway of justice and peace. Let me read to you the Pope Francis’ words from one week ago. He asks:

“What can we do to make peace in the world? As Pope John [XXIII] said, it pertains to each individual to establish new relationships in human society under the mastery and guidance of justice and love (cf. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, [11 April 1963]: AAS 55, [1963], 301-302).

“All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace. I make a forceful and urgent call to the entire Catholic Church, and also to [all] Christian[s] of other confessions, as well as to followers of every religion and to those brothers and sisters who do not believe: peace is a good which overcomes every barrier, because it belongs all of humanity!

“I repeat forcefully: it is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace.

“May the plea for peace rise up and touch the heart of everyone so that they may lay down their weapons and be let themselves be led by the desire for peace.”

Today is the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mindful of the fact that, as Saint Paul said, Jesus is our peace, the One who breaks down the dividing walls of hostility (Ephesians 2.14), and that Mary is therefore the Mother all authentic peace, as we sing the Salve Regina at the end of this mass, as we did after the feast of Mary’s Assumption, let us do so with a particular intention for peace among all people, and especially the people of Syria, and asking that Mary might look with a particularly powerful solicitude on the suffering disciples of her Son in that “martyred nation.”

As Pope Francis said:

“Let us ask Mary to help us to respond to violence, to conflict and to war, with the power of dialogue, reconciliation and love. She is our mother: may she help us to find peace; all of us are her children! Help us, Mary, to overcome this most difficult moment and to dedicate ourselves each day to building in every situation an authentic culture of encounter and peace.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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