Christianity is at a crossroads in the Middle East, and only a dedicated campaign of aid and activism can help Christians survive as a merciful, forgiving leaven in the region, said the head of the Knights of Columbus Wednesday.
“Either Christianity will survive and offer a witness of forgiveness, charity and mercy, or it will disappear, impoverishing the region religiously, ethnically and culturally,” Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight and CEO of the Knights of Columbus, said Oct. 12.
His remarks came at the awards banquet for the Path to Peace Award, a major prize bestowed by a foundation linked to the Vatican.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the apostolic nuncio heading the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the U.N., conferred the award in recognition of the Knights of Columbus’s work in the Middle East and their humanitarian work throughout the world. The award is granted by the Path to Peace Foundation, which supports the Holy See’s U.N. mission.
Among many other activities supported by the Knights, the organization is the primary partner of Crux.
Anderson outlined three steps to aid the Christians of the Middle East.
“The first step on the path to peace in this region has been taken,” he said. “Christians have forgiven their persecutors. The second step must be a level of government funding directed to those communities that have faced genocide, so that they, and their witness, can survive. The third step must be the creation of real equality regardless of religious belief.”
“If we take these steps, we will not only have saved the faith of a people, we will have ensured that their witness of mercy and reconciliation – which is the only authentic path to peace – continues to be a leaven in this region.”
The Knights’ support campaign began in 2014, raising millions of dollars for Christians and other minorities suffering from war or persecution in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria. The organization was a leader in the successful effort to persuade Congress to recognize the persecution of Christians as genocide. This designation triggered additional protections and programs under U.S. law.
Anderson stressed the need to preserve religious pluralism in general and Christianity specifically.
“The Christian witness of mercy and forgiveness is the true path to peace in the Middle East,” Anderson said, noting Christianity’s ancient roots there.
He cited Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Celement Jeanbart of Aleppo’s frequent reminder that St. Paul did not baptize Syrian Christians. Rather, they baptized St. Paul.
“And I would add this. They had to forgive him before they baptized him,” Anderson said. “When asked to visit Paul, (the) Syrian Christian Ananias’s first reaction was to remind the Lord that Paul had persecuted Christians. Ananias had to forgive, then embrace his former persecutor.”
Anderson said Christians have lived “heroically” in the Middle East for 2,000 years.
“This is the history of Christians indigenous to the Middle East. They forgive, and by doing so they open the path to peace,” he continued. “Today, they have given up everything but their faith, for their faith. But even having lost so much, they have given a great gift, to their fellow citizens and to the world. The gift they have given is the example of forgiveness and mercy – the fundamental building blocks of peace.”
He cited the example of a young girl severely burned by members of the Islamic State group in Mosul who was dying of her injuries in a hospital. Before she died, she asked her mother to forgive them.
Another girl told ABC’s 20/20 News she also forgives ISIS.
“Jesus said ‘forgive each other, love each other the way I love you,’ that is what we need to learn. Forgiveness,” she said.
A Chaldean Catholic Iraqi priest, Father Douglas Bazi, was captured by terrorists for nine days. They tortured him, knocked out his teeth, and broke his back with a hammer.
During the torture, the priest prayed the rosary, using the chain links on his shackles as beads. He still tried to minister to his torturers, telling one that if they crossed paths again, “I will buy you a cup of tea.”
“This Christian witness of mercy and forgiveness is having an effect,” Anderson said, citing a Yazidi family who told a Knights of Columbus team that almost all the assistance they have received have come from Christians.
Anderson continued to stress the vital role of Christians in the region.
“A true path to peace in the region requires the presence of Christians within a pluralistic society in which they are full and equal citizens. This means they must survive, and they must be treated equally,” he said.
The Supreme Knight called for direct funding to communities who are victims of genocide. U.S. and U.N. officials in Iraq have said they prioritize aid to individuals in the most need, but do nothing for groups as such, even if the groups have been targeted for genocide.
“Victims and survivors of genocide should be prioritized,” Anderson said, adding that communities facing extinction should not be ignored.
Aid channels have failed and government delivery systems are unreliable, he reported, advocating that financial aid be delivered directly to threatened communities through new channels and new partnerships with religious organizations.
“If it is not done, the genocide begun by ISIS will likely succeed by our own inaction,” Anderson warned.
He suggested that the vast amounts of foreign aid to the region from the U.S. and other countries gives leverage to secure real equality and human rights for threatened minorities.
“We must insist that Christians and other non-majority communities are no longer marginalized,” he said.
Anderson invoked the Knights of Columbus’s long history of humanitarian relief, advocacy and public awareness work.
The Knights aided persecuted Christians in Armenia and the Middle East in the early 20th century and supported persecuted Mexican Catholics around the same time. The organization advocated for Jews in Germany before World War II and for religious freedom in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
Previous recipients of the Path to Peace Award include U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former President Corazon C. Aquino of the Philippines, and former President Lech Walesa of Poland.