Fr. Georges Massouh on the Christian Martyrs in Iraq
The Arabic original, published in an-Nahar is available here. Fr. Georges Massouh is professor of Islamic Studies at Balamand University.
The Christians whom the Church numbers among the holy martyrs usually suffered martyrdom with complete freedom, not by compulsion. They submitted to interrogations and torments in an attempt to force them to deny their faith in Jesus Christ and to reject any connection with Christianity. Those who held fast to their faith and did not give themselves over to their tormenters’ desires were finally beheaded or burned alive or killed by some other terrible means. Those who rejected their faith, however, returned to their family and their everyday life safe and sound.
The victims of the massacre in Karrada are not lesser than the martyrs. We are not able to know what went on while they were taken hostage. Did the lawless men ask them to deny their faith? Did some stay firm and others deny it? Perhaps the answer is only known to God. However, even regardless of what happened to those praying at the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance, they are martyrs. It is enough that they did not leave the hell of Iraq, staying in their home and going to church and practicing their religion. It is enough that they remained in hell without losing hope in life for them to be considered martyrs.
It is true of these martyrs what the Psalmist said: “Those rely upon chariots, and those upon horses, but as for us, we call upon the name of the Lord our God. They stumbled and fell, but we rose and stood upright.” Indeed, they rose and stood upright in the presence of God. But why did they have to go to their final destination in such an heinous way, when they could have stood in the presence of God “here and now” in Iraq in the company of their brothers of the different religions and sects? Why, when God is present in this world and we seek His face with every step we take and in everything we do?
We Christians of the lands between the Tigress and the Nile are more in need of the living than we are of martyrs who join those who preceded them in the way of the best jihad. The Church does not remain solely through the blood of martyrs, but through every living soul who enters her to pray, to contemplate, to bow and do prostrations, to kiss the icons and light candles and lamps. Without those worshipers, the Church becomes an arid desert, a pile of cold stones, a place without holiness. It is not places which make people holy but rather people gathered to pray who make the place where they gather holy in the truest sense of the word. God is a God of people, not a god of stones. This is why He prefers to live in human hearts, rather than in structures built by humans.
In early Christianity, it was said of the monks who sought isolated solitude in order to worship God that they turned the desert into a city. That is, that they brought it to life through their presence there. It was empty, but it became a garden brought to life by the spirit of those who chose it as the place where they would reach the Living God, Master of the Heavens and the Earth. Those first monks were able to make the desert into a place where God made Himself manifest. Christ preceded them in this and gave them an example. If you want to see God, go to the desert. Flee the city and its clamor, tie your sandals and your belt, and go seek Him there.
Middle Eastern Christians do not need to leave their cities for the deserts. They are in the heart of the desert because they have no city now. We would be adding heavy weights to the burden that the Christians bear if we called on them to stay in this desert and to plant roses and flowers. Our presence in this land is not by chance. We do not believe in luck or chance or fate. Rather, we believe that behind everything that happens to us, the will of God does not prevent us from going against it if we do not wish to fulfill it, because God created us free and rational.
“Like a lamb he was led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before his shearers he did not open his mouth.” Christian tradition agrees that this prophecy was fulfilled on the day Jesus Christ was crucified, as He is the sacrificial lamb who redeemed the whole world through His blood. However, Christ said to His disciples that their fate would not be better than His fate: “They will put you out of the synagogues and indeed, the time will come when whoever kills you thinks that he is offering a sacrifice to God.” The vortex of violence will remain as long as the powerful of this world desire for it to remain. Blessed are those who remain to the end and take hope as their shield.