Illuminated by haunting red light, evocative of the blood of the martyrs, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington hosted on November 28 the first annual “Night of Witness: Vespers for Today’s Christian Martyrs.” Organized by Aid to the Church in Need, the “Night of Witness” coincided with the group’s “Courage in Red” campaign, which invites church and civic institutions worldwide to call attention to the scourge of Christian persecution by lighting up their buildings in red. The “Night of Witness” included three testimonies by eyewitnesses to Christian persecution in various parts of the world, followed by a solemn celebration of vespers presided over by Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services. The event was televised live by ETWN, CatholicTV, and NET-TV.
After introductory remarks by Msgr. Vito Buonanno, vice-rector of the Shrine, and George Marlin, chairman of Aid to the Church in Need USA, the three testimonies were given: the first by the Most Reverend Bahsar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil in Iraq; the second by the Most Reverend Oliver Dashe Doeme, bishop of Maiduguri in Nigeria; and the third by Sr. Annie Demerjian, a member of the Religious of Jesus and Mary in Syria. Most Americans would have heard general descriptions of the conflicts affecting Christians in the speakers’ lands, like the spread of ISIS in Iraq and the civil war in Syria, but rarely does American media communicate the harrowing details that the three included in their presentations.
In his testimony, Archbishop Warda recounted how in the summer of 2014, Erbil welcomed over 125,000 Iraqi Christians fleeing the advance of ISIS troops on the plains of Nineveh, a biblical land where Christians have lived since ancient times. Priests, religious, and thousands of families fled quickly, leaving everything behind, in order to maintain the free practice of their Christian faith. While the generosity of Christians in Erbil, aided by groups like Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus, staved off a humanitarian crisis in that city, four years later many of the refugee families continue to struggle from the massive devastation left after the defeat of ISIS: their homes, their local economies, their local cultures were destroyed. Archbishop Warda assured his audience, however, that the faith sustains these families with the courage and hope promised by Christ. As these families share intimately in the Passion of Christ, theirs is a tangible witness to the real power of grace.
Bishop Doeme spoke of the ravages inflicted on his diocese by Boko Haram, ISIS’s African counterpart. At the height of its power, Boko Haram militants controlled over three-fourths of the bishop’s diocesan territory. They destroyed Christian homes and villages, driving thousands of men, women, and children into neighboring regions. Scores were killed. Bishop Doeme noted that his church is currently caring for 5,000 widows and 15,000 orphans. Despite their suffering, the bishop said, the faith of the persecuted grows ever stronger. When those without homes or families celebrate Mass under trees or in tents, the joy of the Gospel becomes manifest, filling the persecuted faithful with the courage and hope necessary to face an uncertain future.
Sr. Annie Demerjian detailed how the eight-year civil war in Syria has devastated Christian communities there, especially in and around the city of Aleppo, which has seen the worst of the war’s fighting. Although Christians are not targeted specifically in this conflict, they are left with few allies as Muslim factions fight each other for control of the country. Caught in the crosshairs, Christians remain particularly vulnerable to the political, economic, and cultural blight caused by the war. Sr. Annie is worried especially for the children—nearly 3,000,000 of them—born since the war began. They have known nothing of life except war. Sr. Annie recalled the experience of one of her nieces, who after the shelling of her neighborhood emerged from a shelter only to see a neighbor tearfully carrying the headless body of his daughter. The young imaginations shaped by scenes like these are in desperate need of the healing that only grace can give.
After the three testimonies, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the United States, thanked the three eyewitnesses, assured them of the Holy Father’s solidarity with their suffering, and urged Christians in the United States, who enjoy great freedom to exercise the faith, not to remain indifferent to the sufferings of their brothers and sisters. Recalling a recent speech by Pope Francis, Archbishop Pierre said that indifference is the absolute worst response to suffering. To ignore the suffering of another is in some way to participate in its infliction, the archbishop argued. Compassion, followed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, is the only Christian response to suffering.
In between the three testimonies, the names of Christians who have been martyred or kidnapped in recent years were recited aloud. The faces of many were flashed on video screens as their names were read. The effect was to convey the truth that at the center of every story of suffering there is a name, a face—a soul—who suffers it.
Aid to the Church in Need hopes to make the “Night of Witness” an annual event. Donations can be made to the group here. The Knights of Columbus are also continuing to collect funds for persecuted Christians. Information regarding their efforts can be found here.