A version of this column was previously published at CatholicVote.org.
Church bells rang in the city of Mosul, Iraq for 2,000 years. St. Thomas the Apostle preached the Gospel in Iraq and Syria soon after Christ ascended from the earth. St. Jude was martyred in Syria in the first century. Since that time, faithful Middle-Eastern Christian communities have lived through wars and persecutions, through famines and oppressions, proclaiming the Gospel despite tremendous obstacles. For 2,000 years, Christ has been present in Iraq and Syria in the mystery of the Eucharist.
In fact, the region of Iraq and Syria had sacred meaning even long before Jesus Christ walked this earth.
More than 4,000 years ago, God made a covenant with Abraham ben Terah. The Lord promised that Abraham would be the father of nations and kings, and patriarch of the land of Israel. Through his covenant with Abraham, the Lord revealed himself: in the law, in the prophets, and in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: God’s own son, and a descendent of Abraham.
Abraham was a native of Ur Kaśdim, an ancient city located on the plains of modern-day Iraq. To reach the Promised Land, Abraham journeyed through modern-day Syria.
God chose to begin the covenant that reached its fulfillment in Jesus Christ with a man from the region that is now Iraq. And across the plains and cities of modern-day Syria, God led Abraham, spoke to him, and formed him. Through Abraham, those places have ancient and sacred meaning.
But today, in the birthplace of Abraham and the resting place of martyrs, the Gospel has nearly been silenced. Since the rise of ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities have been slaughtered, beaten, raped, and exiled from their homes. Across Iraq and Syria, Christian children have been enslaved and tortured.
Christians have been simply decimated in ISIL territory: their long-vibrant communities are no longer. ISIL acts to eliminate non-Muslims in their territory with inhuman brutality, and unimaginable violence. In March, ISIL affiliated terrorists martyred four Missionaries of Charity in Yemen, and kidnapped a priest, Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who remains missing.
In no uncertain terms, ISIL is engaged in the systematic genocide of Christians and other religious minorities in its territory. On March 14, the United States House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution condemning that genocide, and calling the United States government, and the United Nations, to recognize ISIL atrocities as genocide, and to act to stop them.
In our polarized nation, it is rare for the House of Representatives to act unanimously. But on this issue, there was no disagreement. And I am very proud that my congressman, and my dear friend, Representative Jeff Fortenberry, has been Congress’ leading advocate for the defense of Middle Eastern Christians.
On March 17, in response to the leadership of Rep. Fortenberry and the House of Representatives, along with leaders from the Knights of Columbus and other groups, the US State Department officially classified ISIL atrocities against Christians as genocide.
But the State Department has emphasized that the US does not consider itself obliged to intervene in ending the genocide. To do so would require action, commitment, and investment. Certainly, the policies and politics of the Middle East are complicated; acting rashly and without understanding is a mistake. But no just government can stand by as families are slaughtered, and children are tortured. The United States, and all people of good will, must help to find just and fruitful ways to end the genocide, and reign of terror, of ISIS.
During the Easter season, we should be especially conscious of the Christians in the Middle East, and remember our unity with them. I ask that each of you join with me, and with Christians around the world, in praying for the people of an ancient and sacred place: the birthplace of Abraham, and the resting place of holy martyrs.