By Bishop James Conley
The Church was born at Pentecost, in the upper room of the building in Jerusalem where Jesus Christ and the apostles celebrated the Last Supper.
Faith in the Gospel spread from that room in Jerusalem to every corner of the globe. The Holy Spirit was poured out upon the apostles; they were given the grace and gifts to make disciples of all nations. They proclaimed Christ and his Church with joy and fervor.
Each of the apostles, save one, died a martyr’s death. But their successors, and the disciples they formed, continued to proclaim the Gospel across the world. It grew deep roots in some places, and became the foundation for new cultures and nations. In other places, the ground seemed to be rocky, and the Church struggled to form more than a faithful remnant. But the Holy Spirit formed the Church in Jerusalem, to go out to all nations, and the Church in Jerusalem did just that.
In fact, on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 people in Jerusalem itself were baptized. More continued to be added to their number. But today, only about 14,000 Christians live in Jerusalem; less than two percent of the population. In fact, Christians are only about two percent of the population in all of Israel, and in almost all of the Middle East. For 2,000 years, Christianity has struggled in the region where it was born.
In many parts of the Middle East, Christians face very serious persecution, even the regular and pressing threat of martyrdom. In Iraq and Syria, Christians have been forced from their homes and suffered unspeakable crimes at the hands of ISIS. Christians face very grave persecution in many Middle Eastern countries today—Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen most especially. In other countries, including Israel, their situation is complex, but Christians still face serious threats and real persecution.
In Israel, the birthplace of the Church, Christian churches are defaced and vandalized with regularity, and in some parts of Israel, Arab Christians face difficulty finding work and housing.
Middle Eastern Christians carry the memory of the first Christians, those baptized into the Church by the apostles themselves. They represent our eldest brothers and sisters in the faith. And today, Middle Eastern Christians need the help of the Church in the United States and other western countries. They need our support, through organizations like the Equestrian Order of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and In Defense of Christians. They need us to encourage the federal government to work for the end of religious persecution in the Middle East. And most especially, they need our prayers.
This week, I am traveling to the Middle East with several families from the Diocese of Lincoln. I will have the opportunity to meet with Christians in Jerusalem, born in the shadow of the Church’s own birthplace. I will promise them the prayers and support of the Diocese of Lincoln. And I pray that you will join me in praying for the Christians of the Middle East, descendants of the first disciples of Jesus, and our eldest brothers and sisters in the faith of Christ.