My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
The back window on the north wall of our cathedral in Springfield depicts John Sobieski III, King of Poland, kneeling on the battlefield giving thanks to God for his victory over the Turks after the siege of Vienna. By the late 17th century the Turkish army was penetrating deep into Europe. In the summer of 1683, 140,000 Turkish troops surrounded Vienna. Sobieski, leading an army of about 75,000, defeated the Turks at Kahlenburg, effectively ending Turkish military expansion into Europe.
In our times, the Christian people of Iraq are not so fortunate. There is no one riding to their rescue. After our troops were summarily withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, a jihadist group known as the Islamic State or ISIS has moved into the void. Violence there has escalated as the Islamic State has taken control of large sections of Iraq, destroying, burning and looting churches, homes and businesses. The Islamist terrorists are ruthlessly slaughtering Christians and others who chose not to convert to Islam. Tens of thousands have fled their homes since the extremist militant group Islamic State overran large swathes of northern Iraq in June and gave Christian residents an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be killed. Faced with such a dire situation, most Christians have fled for their lives. The Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk said that the latest advance has nearly purged northwestern Iraq of its Christian population. “There is not a Christian town left standing,” the archbishop said.
We should not dismiss the situation in Iraq as a far-away matter of no concern to us. U.S. intelligence officials said last month that the gains made in recent months by the Islamic State have bolstered its long-term ambitions in the West, including the United States. Indeed, in a chilling video message aired last week, an ISIS soldier proclaims that their goal is to “raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”
In light of this situation, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has called for all people to pray for peace in Iraq. Catholics are also encouraged to let their elected representatives know of their concern for Christians and other religious minorities who are in dire straits in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other countries. As Pope Francis said on Aug. 9, “I ask the international community to protect all those suffering violence in Iraq.”
Pope Francis recently wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. In his letter the Holy Father decried how “Christians and other religious minorities have been forced to flee from their homes and witness the destruction of their places of worship and religious patrimony.” Pope Francis placed before the Secretary General “the tears, the suffering and the heartfelt cries of despair of Christians and other religious minorities of the beloved land of Iraq.”
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter last month to President Barack Obama, saying, “More must be done.” Noting that Pope Francis had called upon the international community “to do all that it can to stop and to prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities,” Archbishop Kurtz pleaded with President Obama for “the United States to answer this call in concert with the international community.”
The jihadist genocide in Iraq calls to mind the speech given by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in 2006, in which he quoted the 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The pope was harshly criticized for quoting this statement. Yet in light of the violence of the jihadist terrorists seeking forced conversions to Islam, it is good to recall the point that Pope Benedict was making by repeating this quote, namely, that “spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”
In 2007 Pope Benedict published a book entitled Jesus of Nazareth that provides the proper approach to spreading the faith, that is, through reason and persuasion, not violence. In the book the Holy Father asks the question, “What did Jesus bring to the world?” The answer is very simple, Pope Benedict says. Jesus has brought God to the world. He has told us about God, whom he calls “the Father.” He has shown us that in looking upon Jesus we are looking upon God in human form. As he said to the apostle Philip, “To have seen me is to have seen the Father.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.