Joseph, a young Syrian man from the mountain village of Maaloula, was very proud of his hometown, one of the most important historical and religious sites in Syria. Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ, is still spoken today in this predominantly Christian town of 5,000 souls. Maaloula also hosts two ancient shrines dedicated to saints that are much revered by Syrians across the country and in the diaspora — the fourth century Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius) and Mar Takla (Saint Thecla) monasteries. Both Saint Sergius and Saint Thecla were killed by the Romans when they refused to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. Throughout the centuries, pilgrims and visitors — Christian and Muslim alike — have flocked to this beautiful town 400 miles from Damascus, dramatically situated at 1,500 meters at the entrance of a unique rocky gorge. Maaloula is a sacred place and an important part of the Syrian identity.
In 2013 terrorists from the al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al Qaeda, overran the town. The so-called “rebel” fighters not only desecrated the tomb of St. Thecla and burned precious crosses and icons in the town’s churches, but they also reverted to the now-daily occurring ritual of beheading Christians.
Joseph was one of them. He and other young Christian men were seized by a group of fighters and given a choice: convert to Islam or have your head cut off. Joseph lived by the principle that all Christians live by in the Middle East: “they can take everything from us, even our lives, but they cannot take away Jesus from us.” Joseph, like the great saints Sarkis and Thecla of his town, was put to death by the sword for refusing to renounce his faith in Christ.
The story of Joseph is but one of far too many that cry out to us, especially in the West. The scandalous silence of political leaders and the mainstream media in the face of a well-planned and generously funded genocide against the Christians demonstrates a fatal lack of moral leadership combined with misplaced geopolitical and economic interests. And it occurs exactly 100 years after the Turkish genocide against the Armenians was met by indifference and inaction from world powers, including the United States. The only difference between the genocide then and now is the weapons being used. The ideology, location and methods of destruction of lives and culture are all the same. The American politicians and media who spent weeks this summer discussing and condemning the killing of a lion in Zimbabwe seem largely oblivious to the suffering of innocent people.
A courageous moral leadership of the United States and its allies is called for today to stop the unspeakable horrors that are daily being perpetrated against the Christians and other minorities in the Middle East before Christianity and its rich 2,000-year culture is completely wiped out from that region. If Christianity indeed disappears from the Middle East, any prospect for peace in this ever-volatile region — where Christians have traditionally played a balancing role between the different tribes and Muslim denominations — will be forever lost, meaning that the prospects for world peace will have suffered a fatal blow as well. It is still not too late, but we need to wake up and realize our responsibility for our fellow human beings, whether they be Christian or Muslim.
The Holy Father, when coming to the United States this week, knowing so well the deep suffering of his flock, will likely be wearing a cross that once belonged to another Christian beheaded for his faith, Father Ragheed Ganni, who was slain in 2007 in Mosul. As Pope Francis has been begging world leaders, he will repeat to Americans this week not to “turn a blind eye” to persecuted Christians and “sit by mute and inactive in the face of this intolerable crime.” Will we finally heed his call?
• Dr. Christiaan Alting von Geusau is president of the International Catholic Legislators Network, which engages in initiatives to support persecuted Christians worldwide.