All flesh, like grass, withers. So declared the prophet Isaiah, whose words we recently heard in the first reading for the Memorial of St. Ambrose on December 7th. Taken from Isaiah 40:1-11, it reads, in part:
All flesh is grass,
and all their glory like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower wilts,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it.
So then, the people is the grass.
Though the grass withers and the flower wilts,
the word of our God stands forever.
It’s a sobering thought, that mankind is as vulnerable and ephemeral as the grass we trod over, mow, and throw into the compost heap.
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In the affluent West, even with slightly declining life expectancies—and a pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives—it can be easy to downplay or simply ignore our mortality. If we take reasonably good care of ourselves and have a decent health insurance policy, we have a good chance of living into our 70s, if not 80s or 90s. But for many Christians around the world, especially those in Muslim-majority countries, that’s often not the case.
In Afghanistan, for example, hundreds of Christians have fled in the face of an extremist, intolerant Taliban who would almost certainly murder them. Last month, Muslim militants in Uganda murdered a 58-year-old Protestant pastor. In September, a Muslim militia group in Nigeria killed 49 Christians and kidnapped another 27 in a coordinated attack on a Christian community. And in Pakistan, Muslims armed with firearms attacked a Christian village in October, killing at least two men. I catalogue many of these types of stories in my new book, The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands.
Harassment, intimidation, kidnappings, physical assaults, rapes, and murders are common experiences for millions of Christians across the Muslim world. Many of us have heard the horror stories of what happened to Christians when the Islamic State conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq. They immediately began exterminating Christian communities who can trace their origins back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, and they forced Christian women into sex slavery. But this problem goes far beyond those places governed by Muslim extremists.
In Pakistan, where some of my Christian friends now live, they fear not only Muslim militants but a government that enforces a controversial blasphemy law, which not only allows Pakistani courts to convict the accused of blasphemy but also to sentence them to death. That was the case for Asia Bibi, the poor Pakistani Catholic falsely accused of blasphemy, convicted, and sentenced to death. She was only saved and evacuated from Pakistan because of a tremendous international outcry, including from then-Pope Benedict XVI.
Sometimes even having high-level advocacy is not enough. One Pakistani family I met in Thailand, where they had fled seeking asylum, possessed a letter from Joseph Coutts, the Archbishop of Karachi, providing verification of the terrible persecution they had endured in their native country. They had letters from Catholic priests and international aid organizations attesting to what they had suffered. They even brought clippings from Urdu newspapers describing what had happened to them. Even with all of this, their application for refugee status was denied by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In certain respects, what this family endured was even worse than what Asia Bibi experienced. A couple members of the family had been shot at by a Muslim extremist. Two teenage female family members had been attacked in broad daylight and set on fire. Some family members had disappeared. The family had moved several times in order to evade detection by Muslim militants. Nearly ten years after they first fled to Thailand, almost all of them are still there, waiting.
For other Pakistani families, the situation is even worse. I knew one Pakistani Catholic who was physically assaulted multiple times by Muslims, sometimes on his way to Mass. They kidnapped his sister-in-law and forcibly married her to a Muslim cleric. They threatened to do the same to his wife and young daughter. The family fled to Thailand, where they lived for many years, also seeking refugee status with UNHCR. They, too, were denied and were detained multiple times in Bangkok’s filthy, corrupt Immigration Detention Center. Eventually, my family and some other generous donors paid to send them back to Pakistan. Less than a year later, the father was identified by Muslim extremists. They torched his motorized rickshaw (his only source of income) and beat him almost to death.
There are many other similar stories, not only in Pakistan but from Muslim North Africa to Indonesia. Much of the time, these events attract little if any international media attention, unless they are egregiously horrific, such as the Taliban’s 2016 Easter bombing, which murdered at least 75 Christians in Lahore, Pakistan. Most Westerners, however, have little if any idea that such things occur regularly as part of a decades-long attempt to exterminate Christians from the Muslim world.
The Christians who endure it, however, know exactly what’s at stake. The Pakistani Catholics I knew in Thailand were a hardy, pious bunch who were intimately aware of the fleeting nature of human existence. They had witnessed evil men treat the lives of their friends and family with careless disregard. They knew, as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed 2,500 years ago, that all flesh is grass, which withers and wilts, often with little notice from anyone.
Nevertheless, those same Pakistani Catholics also understood that the word of God stands forever. I was constantly amazed by the faith of my friends, who prayed without ceasing and made even Muslim’s Ramadan fasts look like child’s play. They believed, in a manner I have never seen before or since, that God truly is sovereign and that He works for the good of all those who love Him. They trusted that their Lord would save them, one way or another. And in some cases, He has: since I left Thailand in 2017, four of my Pakistani friends have been repatriated to the Netherlands.
Of course, when you are talking about thousands of Pakistani Christians in Thailand, or millions of Christians across the Muslim world, that’s a drop in the bucket, or perhaps more appropriately, a few blades of grass. Yet isn’t that the amazing thing about our God, that, as Christ says, His love for each one of us is of inestimable worth? “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30). Whatever we can do to help others to understand their value, be it through prayer, financial aid, or public advocacy, we can play our own role in proclaiming the Gospel message, that though our lives be transient as blades of grass, we were made for eternity.
[Image Credit: From front cover of “The Persecuted”]