During Christmas, our thoughts naturally turn to the Holy Land and the Middle East. That is where the mystery of the incarnation occurred. That is where Jesus was born. That is where Jesus grew up with Mary and Joseph and, later, walked and taught with his disciples.
It’s a land that has a long history. But its recent history is a tale of tragedy. This was outlined at a Dec. 5 interfaith forum in New York. Panelists also made suggestions on how to improve the situation.
Christians in the Middle East face extinction because of genocide, wars and international indifference to their plight, according to the panelists. A concerted multilateral effort to establish a safe haven for Christians while rebuilding their devastated homelands is preferable to massive permanent resettlement to other countries, including the United States, they said.
Twelve speakers at the Sheen Centre for Thought & Culture event explored “The Crisis for Christians in the Middle East,” with a particular focus on vulnerable Christian minorities in Syria and Iraq. Christians formed the majority in the Middle East until the Crusades in the 12th - 14th centuries, but “the past thousand years haven’t been good in many ways,” said Jack Tannous, assistant professor of history at Princeton University.
Tremendous violence perpetrated against Christians led to widespread conversion, he said, and long periods of stasis have been punctuated by large-scale persecution and followed by immigration.
As a result, many Christians were effectively exterminated from the lands where they lived for centuries, said Michael Reynolds, associate professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University.
Genocide is the accurate description for the fate of Christians, especially in areas controlled by the Islamic State, speakers said.
“Today we are witnessing the world’s indifference to the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East and Africa,” said Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and former U.S. ambassador to Austria. Referencing the Holocaust, he said, “Since 1945, genocide has occurred again and again. ‘Never Again!’ has become hollow. You can’t just declare genocide and say the job is done. You have to back it up with action.”
“Jews know what happens when the world is silent to mass slaughter. We learned it the hard way,” Lauder added.
History has not been kind to the land where Jesus was born. It’s ironic that the Prince of Peace was born in a place that has turned into a Land of War and Violence. His key message was to promote justice for all. But he is not finding much “goodwill.”
A group of laypeople in the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio, have started a beautiful custom. It is appropriate to highlight it at this time of the year.
Each year on the Dec. 6 feast day of St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas Parish connects with homebound parishioners through the St. Nicholas Loving Tree. The tree offers corporal works of mercy to parishioners who are homebound. Their names are put onto the tree and volunteers visit the person whose name they have chosen and take along a little gift.
This is “to let the shut-ins know they are loved and not forgotten,” explained parishioner Gerrie Sando, who co-ordinates the project.
Each shut-in also is visited at Easter and given a loaf of pascha, a traditional sweet bread baked for the holiday. The parishioners are also remembered with greeting cards throughout the year.
The number of shut-ins varies each year, but can number as many as 20. “It’s worked out very well; it’s been a blessing to our parish,” Sandor said.
The visits likely have created a bigger impact on the community than a roomful of gifts. It’s an idea that is not expensive and is worthy of promoting. It’s a gift that keep on giving.