For Catholics around the world, this week is Holy Week: that time where we commemorate Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem, marked by betrayal, false accusations, ignominious suffering, and ultimately death. It is a time for prayer, personal reflection, and penance, that we might spiritually commune with our Lord Jesus Christ in His Passion.
For those of us in the West, pampered by comfort and entertainment, that can be a bit challenging. Yet for other Catholics, their entire lives often seem like one unending Passion Week. I speak in particular of persecuted Catholics living (and suffering) in Muslim-majority nations.
I know something about their plight. For about seven years I have advocated on behalf of the persecuted church, especially those with whom I developed a personal relationship while living abroad. The stories of these courageous Christians, who have endured harassment, threats, kidnapping, exile, and violence at the hands of Muslim extremists, is cataloged in my recent book, The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands. Alexandre Goodarzy, author of Kidnapped in Iraq: A Christian Humanitarian Tells His Story, which will be available next month, knows of these things as well.
Goodarzy, a French Catholic relief worker who traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, was kidnapped by Muslim extremists shortly after he arrived in Iraq in January 2020. The abductors threatened him and his companions, stole their possessions (including his wedding ring), and verbally and physically abused them. Having already spent extensive time in Syria during its years-long civil war, Goodarzy feared that torture, and potentially death, might soon follow. “In a place where decades of war and horror have hardened people to brutality and normalized every kind of violence, lives can be thrown away without a second thought,” he writes.
The kidnapping was not his first encounter with Muslim extremism. He knew of stories from his time in Syria. He describes how al-Qaida, in 2012 in Syria, dragged women naked through the snow and beheaded them. Islamist forces kidnapped thirteen nuns and killed priests. They placed a bomb under a bishop’s pulpit in a Greek Melkite Church, killing several people. The Islamic State systematically murdered thousands of Christians across Syria and Iraq and displaced many tens of thousands more, disrupting, if not destroying, ancient communities. Christian women (and those of other religious minorities) were forced into sex slavery by Muslim militants.
At one point prior to his kidnapping, Goodarzy also traveled to Pakistan to witness (and combat) modern-day slavery there. He visited the village of Pansara, near the city of Faisalabad, where Christian slaves worked in a brick-making factory. A local Pakistani priest told him that what he saw there was replicated in thousands of brick factories across the country, amounting to about two million Christian and non-Christian slaves across the country.
Thankfully, after about ten weeks in captivity as a hostage, Goodarzy was released and allowed to return to France, in large part because of extremists’ concerns regarding the then-just-beginning global pandemic. “It was like a purgatory on earth,” he writes of his time in confinement, where he regularly endured mistreatment by Muslim militants, whom he feared might at any moment kill him. In other words, he experienced much of what Christians in places like Iraq and Pakistan endure every day.
From North Africa, across the Middle East and South Asia and into Southeast Asia in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, Christians suffer, often silently. They face poverty, restrictions on the practice of their faith, and constant pressures to convert. In other places, such as Pakistan, where Taliban- and al-Qaida-influenced brands of Islam are common, the risks are much higher. One of my friends was shot at and almost killed. Another friend was beaten several times, almost to death. Female relatives were publicly assaulted and set on fire. Christian family members were abducted and married off to Muslim men, never to be heard from again.
One of those families is headed by my dear friend Michael D’Souza. His suffering at the hands of Muslim extremists in Pakistan and immigration authorities in Thailand, where he sought asylum, has gone on for more than fifteen years. Just a few weeks ago, he and his family procured visas to Sri Lanka. They traveled there hoping to once again attempt a new life. Sri Lankan immigration authorities, wise to such common tactics by human traffickers and those they exploit, turned them back. Now Michael and his wife and three children are trying to flee to Azerbaijan, which, though Muslim, is less hostile to Christians than Michael’s native Pakistan.
Yet the story of the D’Souza’s is just one of millions of similar ones that persecuted Christians across the Muslim world have experienced. Quite literally hundreds of millions of Christians the world over, mostly in Muslim countries, are dealing with various levels of severe persecution and discrimination. It’s difficult to fathom the enormity and ubiquity of this problem, though Westerners, particularly in places like Goodarzy’s native France, where Muslim extremists have killed Catholic parishioners and even priests, are getting a foretaste.
Why am I sharing these terrible stories during this holiest of weeks in the Church calendar? For one, because part of what it means to enter into Christ’s Passion is considering those whose lives are testimonies to the love and sacrifice of our Lord and Savior. In their suffering, we are catechized in how to unite our sufferings to that of Christ. Secondly, we need to be reminded that it is not only Christ and long-dead martyrs who endure great evil for the sake of love and truth—we ourselves are called to witness and even suffer on His behalf. The Gospel reading on Monday, which described the Jewish religious leadership plotting to kill Lazarus simply because of his miraculous connection to Jesus, is a good example of this (John 12:1-11).
Third, and finally, we need to wake up to the threat of Islamic extremism. For such evil ideologies arise when men and women no longer find meaning in their own society. Writing of his native France, Goodarzy observers:
We no longer believed in anything, especially not in ourselves. There was not a day without repentance: public and widespread apologies for being who and what we were, and for the so-called crimes of the generations of our people who had come before us.
When we are ashamed of our faith, our nation, and our glorious patrimony, ideologies like Islamic extremism can gain a foothold among the young and impressionable. As we prepare for the Triduum, let it never be said of us that we were ashamed of Christ or His Church.
[Photo: A restored image of the Virgin Mary destroyed by ISIS is returned to its original parish in Iraq. (Credit: Fr. Thabet Habeb/CNA)]