Iraq and Syria are in turmoil. In Iraq, Islamic radicals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are threatening to plunge the country back into civil war. In Syria, a ruthless regime is fighting a variety of opposition groups in a civil war that already has left more than 160,000 dead, most of them civilians.
Caught in a brutal fight between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Iraqi and Syrian Christians increasingly face persecution at the hand of Jihadists who have submitted to them to kidnappings, gruesome violence, outright killings and the imposition of protection ‘tax.’
As a result, thousands of Christians in both nations have become homeless in their own countries and many have fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey—with few prospects of returning home anytime soon, if at all. Maronite, Chaldean and Melkite Church leaders are agonizing over the prospect of the disappearance of their flock, their lands are robbed of an ancient heritage.
These prelates plead with Western Churches and governments for help, but they make once thing crystal clear: they are firmly opposed to policies that fast track the emigration of displaced Christians to Western countries. That, they know, is a sure recipe for these refugees never to return home and face the inevitable hardship of rebuilding their lives, quite literally, from the rubble of destroyed homes and livelihoods.
Yet, the Christian patrimony of the Middle East must be protected at all costs. “We are strong in our faith, rooted in our history. We have been here for 2000 years. We refuse to go!” That is the message proclaimed by Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman, who heads the Eparchy of Latakia, Syria. He is on a mission to get the support of Catholics in the US and Europe to help provide his people with the means to return home, make a new start, or simply stay put.
Though he acknowledges that “radical Islamists are hunting down everything that belongs to the cross,” he refuses to leave and urges his flock to stay with him and make the most of remaining pockets of relative peace in Syria. “In this land we lack everything today, but we have the one thing that matters, the treasure hidden in the field: our faith,” he says
The bishop desperately needs the funds that will provide his people with means of livelihood. “Help us to sanctify our land, this earth, with the work of our hands,” the bishop says. Staying home is these Christians’ birthright and their presence is a blessing for all the people of Syria: “We cannot allow the land to be without Christians, because the Christian presence helps Muslims to be moderate,“ says the bishop, adding that “the environment of Islam benefits from the engagement of the Christian faith, which ensures, of course, also our own openness with regard to the Muslim world.“
Christians are peacemakers.“Help us stay,“ Bishop Sleman cries out.
With photograph of Bishop Elias Sleman (© ACN)