Catholic Charity Sometimes Gets it Right About Jihadism

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a charitable organization founded by the Vatican in 1926, sometimes broadcasts stories of Israeli villainy to generate support for its work in the Holy Land. CNEWA did this recently by publishing an article in One, its quarterly magazine about Christians in the Gaza Strip written by a Palestinian Christian who broadcasts Hamas talking points to CNEWA supporters.

Nevertheless, there are times when the organization does a decent job of informing its readers about Muslim violence against Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.

It did this in a cover story to its Winter 2016 issue of One, which promoted the work of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary serving Iraqi refugees in Jordan. The article begins by telling the story of a family helped by the nuns, whose work is supported by CNEWA:

In June 2014, ISIS stormed Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, routing its security forces. Once in command, militants began canvassing neighborhoods. Coming upon houses whose occupants were Christian, they painted the Arabic letter N (ä) on its door, for “Nasrani,” or Nazarene — a term for Christians.
For the Fattah family, this mark inaugurated the greatest hardship of their lives.
“Ten men, 15 to 20 years old, came to our house in Mosul in many cars with guns and swords,” says Rakan Fattah, 45, a tall man with deep-set brown eyes. “They wore fatigues, had long beards and carried the black and white flag of ISIS,” he says.
The unit’s leader, who was maybe 30, entered and gave the family a message: Convert to Islam, pay a tax or be killed.
“They came in and took everything, kicked us out and would not allow us to take anything,” Mr. Fattah says. Conversion was out of the question, and “even if we did pay the tax, we knew we would be killed.”

The appearance of a modern-day “convert-or-die” narrative in One is not entirely without precedent. It has published similar stories in the past.

In its Autumn 2014 issue, One published an article by Don Duncan who spoke in unflinching and direct terms about ISIS, describing it as a “jihadist Islamic terrorist movement seeking to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.” Duncan reports:

The sixth day of August promises to be a date that will be seared into the Iraqi Christian psyche for quite some time: That is the day Iraqi Christendom finally — and maybe definitively — succumbed to extremists and much of the population was sent fleeing.
The exodus was rapid and frantic, beginning in the evening of 6 August. Families recount how they had 15 minutes to half an hour to grab what they could and leave, ahead of the rapid arrival of ISIS. The roads were choked with families in cars and on foot — Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Copts and Armenians, but also Yazidis and Shiite Muslims from all over Nineveh — all fleeing the particular brand of ISIS fundamentalism. They headed east, to Iraqi Kurdistan and the protection of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces there. By the next morning, the heartland of Christian Iraq was firmly in the hands of ISIS.
“My father sold his own mother’s gold and took a loan from the government so he could build our house, and then everything was gone in 15 minutes,” says Wissam Abdul Hadi. “He worked for years and lost everything in a few minutes.”

In a 2007 article by Michael J.L. La Civita, the magazine’s executive editor, One reported about the violence against Christians in Iraq, which he compared to the deaths of two million Armenian, Assyrian and Syriac Christians in what is now Turkey during the early 20th century.

La Civita did not pull any punches when describing what happened to these Christians at the hands of the Young Turks and their Kurdish helpers: “Hundreds of thousands were murdered; others died of starvation, disease and exposure to the elements as entire villages were uprooted and deported.” After reporting that the refugees of these massacres found refuge in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, he reported that they were on the move again because of renewed violence in Iraq.

“History is repeating itself,” said ‘Aunt’ Shimuni, a centerian who as a child survived the slaughter of Christians and now lives in Amman. “What is happening in today’s Iraq is the same as what happened to us 90 years ago. And again, the world has shut its eyes.”

La Civita’s effort to place the violence against Christians in the Middle East in a longer historical context stands in contrast with a competing tendency that has manifested itself in the pages of the magazine: a tendency to write in conciliatory and submissive terms about Islam and its treatment of non-Muslims in the Middle East. This is particularly true of some of the older articles in One‘s archive, written prior to the Arab Spring, when anti-Christian violence became a huge problem.

For example, in 1979, Fr. Thomas P. Donlan, O.P., wrote an article that speaks in mostly laudatory and conciliatory terms about Islam, which in light of the Catholic Church’s desire to behave in a peaceful manner and promote interfaith dialogue, seems pretty reasonable.

But Donlan’s article, titled “Islam: A Way of Life,” goes a bit too far. It talks abo
ut the history of warfare between Christians in Europe and Muslims in the Middle East, but makes no reference to the history of oppression endured by Christians in Muslim-majority countries. The article reads in part, as follows:

Islam gives the faithful a creed, a code and a cult to live by and, if need be, to die for. The Jihad or “Holy War” was practiced by Muhammad, who spread the message by the sword and became the most powerful military leader in the Arabia of his time. Among his notable followers were military giants, like Saladin, who planted the Crescent of Islam by means of force and defeated the Crusaders.
Yet the idea of Jihad is not restricted to military combat. It extends to any struggle for righteousness, whether in the individual striving against his faults and passions or in the community working for a more perfect realization of Shari’a – the legal code which is a composite of the Koran, the explanations of Muhammad and the traditional interpretations of Islamic wisdom.

The article closes with a conciliatory quotation from a passage from Nostra Aetate, a document published in 1965 as part of the Second Vatican Council. It declares that the Catholic church holds Islam in esteem, and that “Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding.”

The take away message of this article, published the same year as the Iran hostage crisis, is that conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, Christians especially, is a thing of the past. Subsequent events in the Middle East (and more recently, the rest of the world), indicate that this was not to be true. Uttering words of peace and reconciliation was simply not enough to stem the tide of violence that was to come.

Twelve years later, in 1991, One published an article titled “The World of Islam,” written by Brother Austin David, Carroll, F.S.C. The article describes the five pillars of Islam and also reports that the Koran and the hadiths, which are accurately described as the “sayings and customs of Mohammed,” form the basis of shari’a which is described as a “comprehensive guide for personal and social ethics as well as an instruction on how God is to be worshipped.”

Brother Carroll then goes on to describe Islam as having a “positive appeal to peoples struggling against colonial oppression, which in the present has led to confrontations and tensions between many Muslims and the technologically advanced West. Certainly Muslims find great dissatisfaction with the materialism in the West, as well as communism.” Carroll also reports that in the U.S., Islam has served as “an ideological framework for resistance against white racism.”

Nowhere does Carroll address two important facts that racism and oppression of non-Arabs is a prominent feature of Arab countries in the Middle East and that Islam has a history of supremacism and oppression of its own — a fact that can be attested to by Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East such as the Armenians, Assyrians, the Copts and the Greek Christians who were murdered in the Anatolian Peninsula in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One published a remarkable article in its Winter 2014 issue titled “Islamophobia, ISIS and the Examination of Conscience” by Elias D. Mallon, S.A. The title of the article might suggest to readers that it is trying to stifle discussion about the impact of Islamism on religious minorities in the Middle East (and the prospects for peace elsewhere in the world), but that’s not what the article does.

The article, which is worth reading in its entirety, acknowledges reasonably enough that xenophobia is a problem in the United States and that fear of Islam is on the rise throughout America and Europe. It also declares quite forthrightly that “it is simply not true that Muslims are being persecuted in Western Europe or North America.” The author continues:

While Christians must oppose all forms of discrimination, Christians simply cannot overlook the atrocities that are being perpetrated in the name of Islam in many places in the world against fellow Christians. There is simply no moral equivalent, for example, between the admitted and lamentable discrimination against Muslims in the West and the sufferings of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Veterans of Christian-Muslim dialogue — Christians who have a high regard and affection for Islam — are sensing a tension, if not emerging crisis, in the dialogue.
To be honest, the statement that “Islam is a religion of peace” is seen by many as less and less credible. This is not simply due to prejudices in the West, but to the actions of some Muslims themselves. While the West has played a devastating and regrettable role in destabilizing Iraq, in the past 10 years more than a million Christians have suffered; Christians have been killed, their assets have been plundered, and survivors have been forced into exile as refugees by Islamic movements in northwestern Iraq. ISIS’s aim to spread the caliphate around the world characterizes it as a religio-political ideology. Talk of the black flag of ISIS flying over the White House and other Western capitals does nothing to calm xenophobia in Europe and the West. Even paranoids can have real enemies.
Atrocities such as the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by the Boko Haram in Nigeria and the recent slaughter of more than a 120 students in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Taliban all have one thing in common: their actions are done in the name of Islam, using the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad as justification and support. ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban are not small, isolated, fanatical splinter groups. They are not connected to Hinduism, Buddhism or any indigenous traditions. Rather, they are large and powerful Islamic movements. Their symbols are taken from Islam as is their supposed legal system. Often enough, their reading of the Quran and the Sunna is not weird or idiosyncratic, but straightforward and literal.
CNEWA’s Founding Rooted in Muslim Violence Against Christians
track record on these issues is not perfect, but its willingness to address issues of Muslim supremacism (even if its writers do not refer to this issue by name) is remarkable when compared to other Christian charities such as World Vision and Embrace the Middle East.

One explanation as to why this is the case is that CNEWA was founded in response to great acts of violence against Christians in the Middle East during the early 20th century.

Msgr. Richard Barry-Doyle who, in 1924, founded The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (which was later merged into what is now CNEWA in 1926) used the story of the atrocities in Smyrna to raise funds for his work with orphans in the Middle East. A newspaper story about a talk Barry-Doyle (who is described as a hero by CNEWA) gave in Australia in 1927 recounts how the clergyman described the burning of Smyrna

… which he vehemently declared was the most blinding holocaust that the world has ever witnessed. The mental pictures which he drew of Turkish barbarity towards Christians, not only thrilled but moved many men and women in the audience to tears. Describing the quay of Smyrna after the titanic holocaust, filled with surging humanity, he said that all were so closely packed together that the living held up the dead, all were terror-stricken when suddenly in the beam of a great searchlight the mass of terrified humanity saw a steam launch filled with Turks landing. They believed that their doom had come now as well as the city, and it was the intention of the Turks who were landing in the steam launch to cover them with kerosene oil and burn them alive.
But no. The eight Turks who landed from the steam launch on to the quay landed also twelve rams. They slit the throats of the twelve rams and whilst the blood was still pouring out in torrents, praised Allah and thanked him for the magnificent victory he had given them over the Christian dogs.
Monsignor Barry-Doyle said that while the ruins of Smyrna stood there would be no need to erect any other monument to Turkish barbarity. He then went on to describe the exodus of 1,600,000 from Asia Minor, and here again gave the picture from his own personal experiences, which brought a shiver through his audience. These two events, he said, the burning of Smyrna and the deportation of the Christian people of Anatolia, constituted what was known to-day as the Near East problem.

It was atrocities like those described by one of its founders, Monsignor Barry-Doyle, that helped give birth to CNEWA. It took a while, but eventually, the organization’s institutional memory kicked in and it started to tell some truths about life in the Middle East that many Christians would rather ignore.

Hopefully, as events proceed, the officials at CNEWA will recognize (and state publicly) an important fact about the Middle East — that Christians are safer in Israel, the Jewish state — than they are anywhere else in the region.

That’s asking a lot, but miracles do happen.

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