Until relatively recently, the Iraqi town of Mosul was home to a flourishing Christian community which was one of the most ancient in continuous existence, tracing its origins to the first century A.D. and maintaining the Aramaic language spoken by Our Lord. Since the war in 2003, and especially since the arrival of the Islamic State two years ago, much of the Christian population has been forced to flee and significant numbers have been murdered. Many survivors have apparently preferred to go into hiding rather than enter refugee camps where they face the prospect of further persecution. Any who remain must pay a heavy tax called the Jaziya.
Last month, Islamic State henchmen turned up at a Christian house in Mosul demanding that the inhabitants pay the tax or leave. The mother of the family living there asked for a few seconds to collect the money, but they immediately set fire to the house, where the woman’s twelve year old daughter was trapped in a bathroom. The mother made an attempt to rescue her daughter, who was horrifically burned, but the little girl later died in her arms. The very last words that she said to her mother were: “Forgive them.”
Although that girl was killed, she is the victor in this terrible story. Her response to hatred and appalling cruelty was love and forgiveness. The word martyr means witness, and with those two short words “forgive them” that twelve year old girl gave a clear and resounding witness to our holy Catholic Faith which we should hope will be remembered until the end of time as we know it, and which has surely earned her the crown of sainthood for eternity in Heaven, where she is now in a position to intercede at the Throne of Grace for her mourning family and her tortured homeland.
We should reflect on the heroism and the simplicity of that girl’s witness. Our Lord tells us that those of us who would follow him must take up our crosses daily, but how tempted we are to avoid and evade the Cross in favour of comfort and respectability. We live in a society in which, for the moment at least, we are free to witness to our Catholic Faith. This is not something that we should ever take for granted. When we hear Christianity being bashed and rubbished, do we speak up and say: “Actually, I am Catholic, and my Faith is the most important and beautiful thing in my life?” or do we remain silent, perhaps even preferring not to be exposed as believing and practising Catholics?
Christians living under the Islamic State who refuse to apostatise really have taken up the Cross on a daily basis. Remaining Christian in such circumstances means making huge sacrifices, and often the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. What they suffer for the Gospel is a great witness to us and to the world of the power of grace to sustain us in the Faith.
Please pray for the Christians of the Middle East, whose future looks very uncertain. The recent killing of that little girl is just one example amongst many thousands of such terrible events. The media has largely lost interest, and so these Christians are easily forgotten. As they are dispossessed and their families are killed, they look to us in disbelief as our western leaders concern themselves with more fashionable causes favoured by the secularist press. Heaven forbid that we Catholics should ever forget our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters. As well as praying for them, we can also contribute financially to support them. Thanks to the generosity of our parishioners the Oratory has been supporting the charity Aid to the Church in Need, which works tirelessly to support Christians who have been driven from their own homes, and to bring their plight to the attention of the world.
The name of that little girl who asked her family to forgive her killers in Mosul has not yet been released. Perhaps one day she will be formally canonised, along with other martyrs in the Middle East. Meanwhile, we can be confident that she is a martyr and a saint in Heaven, and in our private devotions we can ask her to pray for us. By her intercession, may we be filled with a love of the Faith which is as great as hers, and the courage to profess it with as much conviction and charity.
Fr Julian Large