One important theme of the pontificate of Pope Francis has been a message of hope to Christians in the Middle East and Africa that they are not forgotten. He has also extended his message to all of Abraham’s children and has impressed upon all the world the importance of coexistence in this part of the world that has experienced the Good Friday of genocide, terrorism, and war.
A few weeks ago, Pope Francis went to Mosul, the former capital of the ISIS caliphate, and, in place of a message of hate, spread a message of peace and fraternal love. He stood in “Church Square,” where four historic churches lie in ruins, and proclaimed that “we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”
For a Christian community that suffered genocide and is rapidly emigrating out of the Middle East, this visit offered much-needed hope. The pope inspired local Christians there who are deeply rooted in Christian experience: that there is always hope in Eastern Sunday.
Persecuted Christians know the power of Easter in ways that many of us have yet to understand. The obstacles that they face seem insurmountable. This Easter, we should stand with the Holy Father, who shares a message of reconciliation and hope and stands in solidarity with the persecuted. We can do the same through our advocacy on their behalf.
On April 24, President Joe Biden will have the opportunity to stand with persecuted Christians in a way that no American president since Ronald Reagan has: he can officially recognize the Ottoman Empire’s genocide against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans, and Maronites. Pope Francis himself visited Armenia in 2016 and reminded the world that this genocide must never be forgotten. President Biden campaigned on commemorating the genocide, and early reports suggest he may be preparing to do so. We strongly encourage him to live up to this commitment.
Recognizing genocide is vital, but it is only the first step; we must do more. How we respond to genocide is a different challenge entirely. Presently, USAID has provided over $389 million in assistance to Christians, Yazidis, and other communities who survived the ISIS genocide in Iraq and Syria. President Biden should work with USAID Administrator Samantha Power to now institutionalize the US government’s support for these communities for the long term.
There are other genocides and mass atrocities to which the US must respond as well. Last November, Eritrean troops massacred over 800 people in Ethiopian Orthodoxy’s holiest city of Aksum. President Biden did the right thing in dispatching Senator Chris Coons to Ethiopia to raise concerns about the humanitarian and human rights crisis in the Tigray region. The Senate should also pass S.Res.97 to respond to the crisis in Tigray.
There is also an ongoing genocide of Christians in Nigeria that continues to receive almost no attention in Western media. Christians are being uniquely targeted by Boko Haram and Fulani militants. Clergy and students are being kidnapped and executed. Leah Sharibu, one of the 276 kidnapped by Boko Haram (highlighted in the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign), has yet to be released because she has uniquely refused to renounce her Christian faith. Open Doors reports that more Christians are martyred for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. President Biden should appoint a special envoy to monitor religious freedom violations in Nigeria.
At this point, we have to ask ourselves, Do the Middle East and Africa have a model or an example native to the region that other countries can aspire to? It certainly cannot be all doom and gloom.
The answer is, Yes. Saint Pope John Paul II, upon visiting Lebanon, referred to this small country as a message of coexistence between East and West. Christians and Muslims there have worked together to build a one-of-a-kind pluralistic democracy in a region often at odds with both religious diversity and democracy.
However, Lebanon is on the brink of collapsing. It may soon implode and become a failed state. Factors ranging from widespread political corruption, the multiplicity of arms in the country, the chokehold that Hezbollah has on Lebanon, and a perilous humanitarian crisis all afflict the Lebanese people.
Maronite Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who speaks not only on behalf of Lebanon’s Christians but who also gives voice to all the Lebanese, has been calling for Lebanon to adopt a model of active neutrality as it relates to its foreign policy, so that Lebanon will not be torn apart by regional conflicts. The Patriarch has praised the role the US has played to support stability in the country. President Biden and Congress should increase this support. The patriarch has also called for an international conference to catalyze governmental reform in the country that is stuck in political gridlock. The US and France should lead such a conference at the United Nations.
The crisis in Lebanon is so severe that Pope Francis actually announced, on his return from Iraq, that he hopes to make his next apostolic visit to the Land of the Cedars. His visits to the Holy Land, Iraq, Morocco, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have all been historic. He also realizes that the message of Lebanon must be preserved if there is any hope for Muslim-Christian conviviality elsewhere in the world.
We are all called to advocate, support, and stand with the persecuted. Recognizing genocide, preserving religious diversity, and supporting Muslim-Christian conviviality in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East and Africa are all challenges we should undertake. The nightmares these regions have experienced, ranging from genocide to terrorism, remind us of the crucifixion on Good Friday. However, as Pope Francis reminded us when he went to the heart of the former ISIS caliphate, when we face Good Friday, we can also hope for Eastern Sunday.