In the city of Mosul, northern Iraq, the greatest abuse of freedom of religion has been conducted. A ‘cleansing’ of around 3,000 Christians has been conducted by the Islamist extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Broadcasted from the loudspeakers on the city’s mosques, Christians in the city were given three choices that were to determine whether they would live in the city or not. The announcement said:
“We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizyah; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.”
The rules were simple: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax known as a jizyah, a historical practice which would protect non-Muslims in a Muslim land, or die by the sword, decrees which are found in the Qur’ān.
Families were forced to leave their own homes with barely anything but the clothes that they wore and a few belongings. Houses were marked in red spray paint with the Arabic letter ‘N’ for Nasara (Christian), identifying the residence as a Christian home. For the first time in 1,600 years, Mass was not said in this ancient city were Christians have lived for centuries. Churches of new and old are now void and abandoned, left to the destruction of the intolerant and violent. Statues of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary are destroyed and smashed, a sombre reminder of the iconoclast movement of the past.
Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, a Syriac Catholic patriarch has recently said in an interview:
“There is no more room for Christians in Mosul. What happened, it’s really a kind of ‘cleansing’ based on religion… It’s tragic because that city, second largest city in Iraq, was the nucleus of Christian presence for many centuries. We have at least 25 churches in that city. All are abandoned. No more prayers, service, no more Masses on Sundays in Mosul.”
In another similar story of Christian persecution, a Christian woman was thrown into prison on charges of ‘apostasy’, after the court declared her guilty for renouncing her Muslim faith and marrying a Christian man. According to the law, Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, but a Muslim man can enter an inter-faith marriage. It is however obligatory for his future children to follow the doctrines and teachings of Islam.
Meriam Ibrahim stated that she was never a Muslim in the first place, so the charges put against her were unfounded. She was kept in prison while heavily pregnant, and gave birth with her feet chained, which meant that she could not give birth comfortably. After the birth of her child, what awaited her was the gibbet.
Fortunately, Sudan’s Supreme Court released Meriam, and after being detained for three days in Sudan on accusations that she falsified her travel documents, she has now arrived in Rome with her husband and children after a secretly organised flight took her away from any further imprisonment. She even met Pope Francis who praised her for the strength of her faith, and expressed his concern for persecuted Christians like her.
Whenever I read these stories, my thoughts immediately go to the Maltese people who identify themselves as ‘Catholic’ yet take their faith lightly and keep it on the shelf for the rest of the week. They bring it out only for Sunday Mass or the village feast, where people’s attitudes are more pagan than Christian. What you hear in the streets are not prayers but shouts and vulgar oaths and swears with God’s name or the patron saint’s used ever so lovingly.
In almost every Sunday Mass in my parish, the parish priest’s homily is centred on the importance of living a genuine faith. Meanwhile, the majority of the congregation either stares blankly or fiddles with their mobile phone behind the pew. The women in front of me would be enjoying a lively conversation in hushed tones, with more passing comments in other parts of the congregation. The parish priest ends up looking to me more like a school teacher with ungrateful children in front of him, completely disinterested in what he has to say.
As a Maltese population we greatly take for granted our religious freedom, and many others have a slack and lazy attitude with their faith, with little knowledge about its principles and teachings. Bibles are left on the bookshelves to accumulate dust and have silverfish eat away at the pages. At least they get some nourishment from the Bible.
To be clear, I am not priding myself as an exemplary Catholic or saint. I have my own sins to take care of and believe myself to be far from the ideals that adorn saints like Francis of Assisi or Thérèse of Lisieux. What I find disheartening is that most Maltese people do not even try to practice their faith more genuinely, or learn about what they believe and why. The priest’s homily is of no good if it falls upon deaf ears. It’s the same with school. The teacher must do his part, but so must the student.
We should thank our lucky stars that we have the liberty to go to a church and worship without worrying about being blasted by a car bomb. Christians in these persecuted areas risk their lives to try and attend Mass every Sunday, and because of their faith they now have no home or place of worship. Meriam Ibrahim, in my opinion, is a great role-model for the perseverance of faith.
Let us look at what is happening in the East and remember our persecuted brothers and sisters in prayer. Ultimately, we should be deeply grateful for our religious freedom and hopefully, with stories like these, we would try to live a more honest and real faith.