Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona writes an open letter from Iraq to Christians in the West.
How can we live our faith in a time of great difficulty? What can we do for those who are persecuted because of their faith? To ask these questions means above all questioning ourselves about the meaning of our faith. In order to be able to speak about the time of persecution, Christians must really know their own faith.
In 2010, when I was appointed Chaldean bishop of Mosul, I knew that I would be coming to a city facing an extremely critical situation with regard to security. Many Christians had already been killed, and many had been forced to leave the diocese. Brutal violence took the life of a priest, as well as that of a bishop, my predecessor: Both were murdered in extremely gruesome fashion.
I came to Mosul on January 16, 2010. The very next day, a series of reprisal murders of Christians began, starting with the killing of the father of a young man who was praying with me in church. For more than ten days, extremists continued to kill, one or two people each day. The faithful left the city to seek refuge in the small towns and villages nearby, or in the monasteries.
Since then almost half of the faithful have returned. What can we do for these people? What can one do for those who are living the difficult life of persecution?
These questions tormented me, forcing me to reflect on the right path to follow so I could fulfill my mission of service. I found the answer in the motto of my episcopate — namely, hope. I came to this conclusion: During a time of crisis and persecution, we must remain full of hope. And so I remained in the city, strengthened in hope, in order to give hope to the many persecuted faithful who likewise continued to live here.
Is this enough? No. To remain with the faithful in hope is a crucial start, but it is not enough — there has to be something more. Saint Paul reminds us that hope is linked to love, and love to faith. To remain with those who are persecuted is to give them a hope founded in love and faith. What can we do to build up this faith? I began to ask myself how our faithful were living out their faith, how they were practicing it in the difficult circumstances of their lives every day. I realized that, above all — in the face of suffering and persecution — a true knowledge of our own faith and the cause of our persecution is of fundamental importance.
By deepening our sense of what it means to be Christians, we discover ways to give meaning to this life of persecution and find the necessary strength to endure it. To know that we may be killed at any moment, at home, in the street, at work, and yet despite all this to retain a living and active faith — this is the true challenge.
From the moment when we are waiting for death, under threat from someone who may shoot us at any time, we need to know how to live well. The greatest challenge in facing death because of our faith is to continue to know this faith in such a way as to live it constantly and fully — even in that very brief moment that separates us from death.
My goal in all this is to reinforce the fact that the Christian faith is not an abstract, rational theory, remote from actual, everyday life but a means of discovering its deepest meaning, its highest expression as revealed by the Incarnation. When the individual discovers this possibility, he or she will be willing to endure absolutely anything and will do everything to safeguard this discovery — even if this means having to die in its cause.
Many people living in freedom from persecution, in countries without problems like ours, ask me what they can do for us, how they can help us in our situation. First of all, anyone who wants to do something for us should make an effort to live out his or her own faith in a more profound manner, embracing the life of faith in daily practice. For us the greatest gift is to know that our situation is helping others to live out their own faith with greater strength, joy, and fidelity.
Strength in daily life; joy in everything we encounter along the path of life; confidence that the Christian faith holds the answer to all the fundamental questions of life, as well as helping us cope with all the relatively minor incidents we confront along our way. This must be the overriding objective for all of us. And to know that there are people in this world who are persecuted because of their faith should be a warning — to you who live in freedom — to become better, stronger Christians, and a spur to demonstrating your own faith as you confront the difficulties of your own society, as well as to the recognition that you too are confronted with a certain degree of persecution because of your faith, even in the West.
Anyone who wishes to respond to this emergency can help those who are persecuted both materially and spiritually. Help bring our situation to the notice of the world — you are our voice. Spiritually, you can help us by making our life and our suffering the stimulus for the promotion of unity among all Christians. The most powerful thing you can do in response to our situation is to rediscover and forge unity — personally and as a community — and to work for the good of your own societies. They are in great need of the witness of Christians who live out their faith with a strength and joy that can give others the courage of faith.
We are victims, and we suffer at the hands of fundamentalists coming from distant countries to fight against those whom they consider to be the infidels (us Christians), using as an excuse that their brothers are being persecuted in various countries. Their reaction is to kill others. Our reaction to persecution must be that of becoming more loving, more united, ever stronger in showing the world the true image of life, as taught us by Jesus Christ.
The Christian world defends its persecuted faithful through the revelation, the realization, and the strength of the love that is the foundation of faith and that embraces everyone — even our persecutors. There is a great temptation to which persecuted Christians can fall victim, and which I myself never tire of warning against: namely, that because of being persecuted, we can, with the passing of time, end up becoming persecutors ourselves — turning to violence in our way of thinking, in treating our neighbor, in our way of living.
This temptation is very powerful: The sentiments that we develop in a climate of persecution can change our way of living — rejecting the Christian way, which is imbued with love — to a manner similar to that of those who demand and speak of justice only, but never of love. Let us be very careful not to live out our faith feebly, because other Christians are suffering. The difficulties of Christians should be a prompting to demonstrate true faith.
When Christians are persecuted, we should take on more firmly the responsibility of our own faith to joyfully give expression to love, fidelity, and justice. If there are Christians in trouble, I should love my neighbor still more; I should be more positive in my way of looking at the business of life, in order to show those suffering the strength of my own faith.
You in the West are living in a way that persecuted Christians cannot. Since they do not have freedom, you must live out the true meaning of freedom; since they cannot publicly celebrate their faith, you must give public witness of your faith in your own societies; since the women in our countries do not have the possibility of freely choosing to go outside their houses, women in the West should become witnesses to true Christian freedom.
Still, we are happy, because we have the opportunity to reflect on our choice to be Christians. We are happy because we have the opportunity to make our freedom concrete — by defending with love the one who attacks us with rancor and hatred. Ultimately, persecution cannot make us sad or despairing, because we believe that human life deserves to be always embraced in a perfect manner, as Jesus showed us — even if death stares us in the face and we have no more than a minute left in this world.
Saint Paul says that “where sin abounded, grace did still more abound” (Rom. 5:20). With him, we may also say that wherever there is persecution, there too will be the grace of a strong faith — and therein lies our salvation.
Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona heads the Chaldean Catholic eparchy of Mosul, Iraq. His diocese is a beneficiary of Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.