Beyond powerlessness over anti-Christian persecution

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by John Allen

Though it seems almost perverse to seek a silver lining in the rise of ISIS, nevertheless there actually is one. It has at least put an end to a longstanding climate of denial that violent anti-Christian persecution around the world is a genuine, and mounting, human rights menace.

The point is not that Christians deserve special privileges, or that they’re the only ones at risk. It’s rather that for a long time, the threats they face couldn’t penetrate Western consciousness, where the typical American or European is more accustomed to thinking of Christians as the authors of religious persecution rather than its victims.

Today, however, two-thirds of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians live in the developing world, where they’re often convenient targets for anti-Western rage – even though their churches have deeper roots in those places than most of their persecutors. Christians are also disproportionately likely to belong to ethnic and linguistic minorities, putting them doubly or triply in jeopardy.

All that has been true for some time, but the religious cleansing campaigns carried out by ISIS and its self-described “caliphate” has made anti-Christian hatred an utterly inescapable fact of life. The question is no longer whether it’s real, but what to do about it.

That’s where outfits such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) step in.

Founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926, CNEWA is an agency of the Vatican sustained primarily by the Church in the United States and Canada. Its first president was a legendary American Jesuit priest named Edmund Walsh, who was also the founder of the prestigious Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

(As a footnote, Walsh was a fervent anti-Communist and confidante of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the architect of the “Red Scare” in the 1950s, proving that no accomplished life is ever without its ambiguities.)

CNEWA’s mandate is to support the Eastern churches in Catholicism, meaning the Catholic communities scattered across the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India, and Eastern Europe that draw on Eastern Orthodox traditions. In recent years, that’s made CNEWA a prime mover in delivering aid to persecuted Christians in some of the world’s leading hot spots.

Today, CNEWA is among the largest providers of aid to Middle Eastern Christians anywhere in the world. Though it’s a Catholic organization, it helps Christians of all sorts.

This week, CNEWA announced the release of grants totaling $686,000 to aid the Christian community in the Middle East, targeted at places that have absorbed the heaviest blows. They include three six-figure projects:

  • $100,000 to rebuild churches and other Christian sites destroyed during anti-Christian riots in Egypt in 2013, the most violent pogrom directed at Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority in at least a century
  • $150,000 to help parishes in Jordan cope with an influx of Christian refugees from Iraq by providing necessities like bedding, clothing, and food
  • $100,000 to provide medical care for impoverished families in Syria, largely administered by religious orders of women and men in the country

Other recipients include a community of Sacred Heart nuns in Iraq that runs a home for the elderly and disabled, a community of St. Catherine of Siena sisters that lost its mother house in Mosul and several other convents, Dominican sisters in Jordan working with expectant mothers and children, and sisters in Lebanon working with poor Lebanese, whose needs often slip through the cracks today amid an influx of Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

Michael La Civita, a spokesman for CNEWA, told me this week that the new disbursements supplement the total of $6.8 million that the organization has committed to spending on aid to Christians in the Middle East this year.

Most of the money, he said, came from a special collection taken up by the US bishops last fall, after an ISIS offensive in July and August drove tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq into exile. That means the $686,000 moving to help persecuted Christians now is money given freely by individual American Catholics.

La Civita offered several assurances that the money will be used properly, including a complex review system to ensure transparency. For most Catholics, however, the real guarantee is another point made by La Civita – in many cases, the people running these projects are nuns.

“They make do with very little money, they’re enormously creative, and they do incredible things,” he said, calling religious women “the foot soldiers of the Church.”

Generations of Catholics around the world who have watched nuns in action know he speaks the truth.

The almost $7 million CNEWA will spend this year meets only a fraction of the need. La Civita points out, for instance, that an entire generation is now growing up in places such as Iraq, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and Egypt suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, and nobody has any idea yet what the price tag of dealing with it will turn out to be.

CNEWA is not the only Catholic organization on the front lines struggling to meet those needs. There’s Aid to the Church in Need, launched by a Dutch priest after World War II; Renovabis, in Germany, and L’Oeuvre d’Orient in France, founded in 1856.

What they all illustrate is that Catholics appalled by what’s happening don’t have to feel powerless. They may not be able to bring peace or resolve political stalemates overnight, but they can at least support committed people doing what they can to support the suffering.

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