Dear Friends,Every day we learn more about the atrocities perpetrated against Christians, Yezidis and others in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. It is almost incomprehensible that today, in organized military action, Muslim extremists are torturing and killing innocent unarmed women and children, attempting forced conversions to Islam and inflicting every type of inhumanity on fellow human beings, including crucifixion.
In light of this growing crisis, Pope Francis and agencies of the Holy See, together with other religious leaders, have been increasingly insistent in their calls for peace and for humanitarian response to the new waves of refugees fleeing terror and death. Yesterday, our Holy Father wrote to Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, saying that the situation “cannot but awaken the consciences of all men and women of goodwill to concrete acts of solidarity by protecting those affected or threatened by violence and assuring the necessary and urgent assistance for the many displaced people as well as their safe return to their cities and their homes.”
Earlier this week, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said that followers of all religions and all men and women of goodwill could only “unambiguously denounce and condemn these practices which bring shame on humanity.” As reported by the world media, the long list of atrocities includes: the despicable practice of beheading and hanging bodies in public places; the choice imposed on Christians and Yezidis of conversion to Islam, the payment of a “jizya” tax, forced exile or death; the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of people, including children, elderly, pregnant women and the sick; the abduction of girls and women belonging to the Yezidi and Christian communities as spoils of war; and the list goes on. No cause, and certainly no religion, can justify such barbarity.
Pope Francis has spoken out often to demonstrate his closeness to the Iraqi population, especially those who have been severely affected by the continuing conflict and are in dire need of help and encouragement. Recently he also met with Cardinal Fernando Filoni, his personal envoy to Iraq, and gave him a significant sum of money to be used for urgent assistance to the people who have been most severely affected. This is a concrete sign of the Pope’s concern in responding to this dramatic situation.
Members of the Christian community, including the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, are taking a strong stand in defense of the Iraqi Christians and their right to survive and to live in peace in their own homes, where for the last 2,000 years they have been active and contributing to the development of the region. In the face of this systematic, organized and well-funded push by extremists to drive Christians and others from their homes, none of us can remain idle bystanders, whatever one’s religious beliefs.
People of faith turn to God in prayer on behalf of all of those who are suffering so much in this present crisis. The Archdiocese of Washington will hold a special Mass for peace tomorrow, August 15, at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, and host aninterfaith service later that day at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine. At the request of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, local Catholics will join in a national day of prayer for peace in Iraq this Sunday.
In addition to prayer, we can support the work of groups like Catholic Relief Servicesand the Knights of Columbus to provide humanitarian relief to displaced Iraqi families, including emergency food, water and bedding, and planning in the longer term for resettlement needs.
We all need to raise our voices in an expression of human solidarity, calling on allpeople of goodwill to recognize this overwhelming human tragedy, to speak out against it. We urge the international community to stir itself to find ways to protect the innocent. And we implore the changing of hearts so that in that troubled part of the world toleration and religious freedom become accepted characteristics of whatever political order is established.
Peace can only come when there is mutual toleration among and between differing religious and political groups, and when there is the recognition of religious freedom, religious liberty. The branding of people, their religious heritage and ethnic backgrounds as “enemies” only fosters the intolerance that leads to hatred and that breeds violence.
Christians realize that true peace can only come out of hearts possessed of God’s grace and love, even while, as disciples of Christ, we also clearly recognize the right and sometimes the obligation to defend ourselves and others from unjust aggression, especially the weak and innocent. In working for genuine peace, our hearts must be touched with compassion and courage. We mustnever allow violence, extremism, intolerance and hatred to infect us and our response to it.
Our prayers, material assistance and united voices are a sign of our communion with all those in Iraq who suffer so cruelly at the hands of these extremists. Today let us join together in making another impassioned appeal that the whole world raise up with one voice a cry for peace, religious liberty, toleration and security in Iraq and throughout the region. Those who are being assailed are no strangers, they are our brothers and sisters, children of God, and they need our help.
With every good wish, I am
Faithfully in Christ,
Donald Cardinal Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington