Jerusalem Notebook: An Easter Remembrance of Persecuted ChristiansWednesday, April 6, 2016
I left Israel just two days after Easter. But though I’d been busy preparing to be abroad for a few weeks, the beauty of that holiday’s timeless miracle hadn’t left me. It’s a unique privilege to live in Jerusalem, where Christians believe the resurrection of Jesus took place more than 2,000 years ago. Taking a deep breath this past Easter morning, I had a sense that the holy city’s air still somehow carries a trace of glory.
But something else was also on my mind as my flight taxied and soared across the Mediterranean: the enormous terror attack that had taken place in Lahore, Pakistan on Easter Sunday. A suicide bomber killed at least 73 people – many of them children – targeting Christians who were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus in a crowded public park.
More than 300 people were injured; many were viciously assaulted by shrapnel – losing eyes or limbs – or were otherwise gravely wounded. The death toll will surely continue to rise.
The besieged park was packed; it was intentionally chosen because poverty-stricken Christian families traditionally gather there to enjoy the Easter holiday. Although it’s all they can afford to do, they commemorate the occasion with great joy.
At first glance, the attack appeared to be an Islamic State operation, and in fact, the Afghanistan-based Taliban terrorist group that carried it out – Jamaat-ul-Ahrar – has applauded ISIS in the past. Meanwhile, the group’s spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, told NBC news that the group “plans more ‘devastating’ attacks that will target Christians and other religious minorities as well as government installations.”
[Ehsan] denied that Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has any affiliation with the Islamic State, even though it has in the past expressed support for the Syria-based terror group.
Last week, NBC News reported that U.S. intelligence officials didn’t see any ISIS links to the Lahore attack, but that both Washington and Islamabad are concerned that the group has fostered informal and often clandestine ties with Pakistani militants that may be tied to unprecedented levels of violence against religious minorities and other civilian targets.
That same Sunday – a gorgeous, sunlit day in Jerusalem – also brought other troubling news. A Catholic priest, Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was abducted during a brutal ISIS raid on a home for the elderly in Aden, Yemen, was initially reported to have been crucified on Good Friday. Today, there is some vague evidence that he is still alive. We can only pray that is so, and that God will spare him the cruelties he may well be facing.
But four nuns and numerous others who served with Uzhunnalil at that old folks’ home were not so fortunate. On March 4, they were hauled out of the building one by one and murdered in cold blood. The brutal attack on the Sisters of Charity is described in detail in a harrowing eyewitness account handwritten by a nun who was in hiding. I received a PDF of this horrifying document from a colleague and will quote only selectively from it. Its full details are almost too much to bear.
At 8:30 a.m., ISIS dressed in blue came in, killed guard and driver. Five young Ethiopian men (Christian) began running to tell the sisters ISIS was here to kill them. They were killed one by one. They tied them to trees, shot them in the head and smashed their heads …
They caught Sr. Judit and Sr. Reginet first, tied them up, shot them in the head and smashed their heads. They caught Sr. Anslem and Sr. Marguarite, tied them, shot them in the head and smashed their head in the sand…
A neighbor saw them put Fr. Tom in their car. They did not find a trace of Father anywhere…
International Business Times reported, “Rev. Thomas Uzhunnalil, a Salesian priest, was kidnapped in Yemen this month during a raid on a Catholic nursing home run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Fighters with the militant group also known as ISIL or ISIS claimed they killed him just as the Romans killed Jesus, the event that Christians remember on Good Friday each year.”
Our prayers continue for Uzhunnalil, that he may be spared. The story of his work in Yemen was barely reported; only a few random accounts about his possible crucifixion made the news. The fate of the nuns and other workers in the home were virtually unmentioned in major media outlets.
Just a couple of weeks after the attack on the Yemen Christian home for the aged, the Jewish Agency secretly airlifted approximately 20 Yemenite Jews to Israel. Islamist terrorists particularly target Jews and Christians, and the sooner these “People of the Book” can be removed from the path of ISIS, al-Qaida and radical groups, the better their chances of survival.
Islamist attacks on Jews and Christians is, in fact, one theme in my book “Saturday People, Sunday People.” Because of that publication, I was invited to participate in the Nexus Conference, which was hosted in New Haven, Conn. by Christian Union, a fellowship of believing students at Ivy League schools. I was on my way there when I left Israel on March 29.
At this impressive conference, which welcomed some 500 bright, young Christians from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell, Penn and Columbia, I also enjoyed a reunion with my friend Baroness Cox, a member of Britain’s House of Lords and an indefatigable warrior for the rights of Christians who are persecuted for their faith.
My role at the Nexus Conference was to discuss with a group of students interested in media and journalism what it is like to be a Christian truth-teller in a not-so-Christian field.
Cox was a plenary speaker who highlighted the persecution of Christians in places that are rarely – if ever – mentioned in major media reports. She spoke about the small, Christian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh (where she and I met in 2003), which is once again under assault by Azerbaijan’s Turks.
She described the plight of Christians in Burma, where multiplied thousands have literally fled for their lives to squalid refugee camps in Thailand.
She talked about Nigeria, where Boko Haram has murdered hundreds of Christians.
And she reminded us of South Sudan, where the Islamist regime in Khartoum continues to target and murder Christians who refuse to convert to Islam.
Many of us have written at length about the savage abuses suffered by Christians in Iraq and Syria at the hands of ISIS, and about the tens of thousands of refugees who remain behind.
And we have tried to find words to describe the beheading of 20 Coptic Christians (19 of them Egyptian) in Libya. Those beheadings probably provided the best-reported persecution story in recent years.
Unfortunately, less sensational stories rarely reach the West.
As I write this, I am in touch with a friend who is working to provide food and encouragement to Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Turkey. At one point, my friend and her colleagues were taken into a private room by local authorities in a Muslim village and read to from the Quran; it was “suggested” that these Christians convert to Islam. Their refusal to do so was received with cold stares and a palpable sense of danger.
Of course, Islam isn’t the only threat. Some Hindu sects abuse Christians in India. Buddhists do likewise in Sri Lanka.
And those who follow persecution issues closely know that the world’s worst persecutor of Christians is North Korea. Open Doors International once again named North Korea’s Stalinist-style dictatorship as the No. 1 persecutor of Christians in its recently released 2016 World Watch List.
Far away from the brutalities of persecution’s front lines, I was inspired and encouraged to be among the vibrant young Christians at the Nexus Conference. The students were bright, energetic and sophisticated. But most of them were not really aware of Christian persecution’s scope and intensity. That troublesome fact reflects far more on the U.S. media’s indifference to the subject matter than on the very evident interest of those young believers.
And, like most Christians in today’s troubled world, once they heard what is happening, they were unsure about what today’s catastrophic carnage might mean to them. What should they do? What difference might they be able to make?
I usually suggest that people share the stories they hear on social media to their churches, social groups and wherever else they can pass the word, as well as write to their political representatives and financially help support trustworthy organizations.
But I suppose the most compelling answer I’ve heard in awhile was offered during Cox’s presentation. She put it this way: “You may not be able to do everything, but you can’t not do something! So pray for these suffering people, and as you pray, ask God what he wants you to do to make a difference.”
Once that becomes clear, as the Bible says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”
What better gift of gratitude can we offer, rejoicing in that glorious Easter miracle in Jerusalem? And how better can we remember those who suffer so greatly for believing in it?