The murder of more than fifty Catholics by jihadists during Sunday Mass in Baghdad on October 31 is the latest in a series of outrages committed against Christians by Islamist fanatics throughout the world: Egypt, Gaza, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, and on the list goes. The timing of the attack on Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic cathedral was striking, however, for it came shortly after the conclusion in Rome of a special Synod on the Middle East. During the Synod, very little was said about Islamist persecution of Christians; indeed, every effort was bent to show the Catholic Church sympathetic to Muslim grievances, especially with regard to the politics of the Middle East.
This strategy of appeasement has always struck me as unwise. The al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists’ answer to the Synod — the Baghdad murders — has now proven the strategy deadly. Appeasement must stop.
I quite understand that Christians in the Islamic world are tiny minorities, burdened by economic distress and cultural prejudice (the latter partially explaining the former). But unless Christians begin to push back against those who, like the Baghdad murderers, describe their churches as “dirty place[s] of the infidel that…have long been used as a base to fight Islam,” jihadists and other radical Islamists will simply roll over them, en route to rendering anything deemed an “Islamic land” Christian-free. What might a strategy of resistance to this implacable persecution look like?
It would begin with the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI quickly and forcefully condemned the murderers of Baghdad; no one should doubt the Pope’s commitment to the survival of Christians in Muslim-dominated lands and to combating the anti-Semitism that often goes hand-in-glove with Islamic Christophobia. Yet in the Vatican Secretariat of State, the default positions vis-à-vis militant Islam are unhappily reminiscent of Vatican diplomacy’s default positions vis-à-vis communism during the last twenty-five years of the Cold War: try to reach political accommodations with Islamic states; foreswear forceful public condemnation of Islamist and jihadist ideology; look for interlocutors with whom to discuss co-existence among Islamic intellectuals. Such a strategy did not work in the Cold War, as I demonstrate in The End and the Beginning: John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. And it will not work with jihadist Islam, which in many respects is a more ruthlessly determined foe than the late-bureaucratic communism of the 1970s and 1980s. So strategic re-set is required in Rome. And it might well begin with a steady campaign of public condemnations of Islamist depredations against Christians throughout the world.
The Vatican bureaucracy and local Catholic leaders in the Middle East must also reexamine the assumption — widely bruited at the recent Synod — that resolving the Israel-Palestine issue through a two-state solution will solve every other issue between militant Islam and Christianity. It won’t. Moreover, a viable two-state solution, which every reasonable person supports, is not on the short-term horizon (although important steps are being taken to build the infrastructure of civil society on the West Bank). Meanwhile, Islamist depredations against Christians in the Holy Land are a present reality. Christian leaders whose people are being murdered by jihadists and other Islamist fanatics ought to stop blaming their precarious situation on the State of Israel and put the blame where it belongs: with Muslim intolerance.
The key theme to be stressed in all this is religious freedom, which is precisely what Benedict XVI emphasized at the conclusion of his homily at the Middle East Synod’s final Mass. As Father Raymond de Souza pointed out after the Baghdad massacres, “Christians have been in Iraq from the earliest centuries, long before there was an Iraq or, one might note, there was Islam.” Christians do not live in majority-Muslim lands by sufferance but by right. They should say so, and their co-religionists should say so. It would be helpful if the United States government would say so and would name the jihadist perpetrators of murder for who they are. But while we await that (unlikely?) change, we in the Church can summon the courage to confront, without illusions, what has become a lethal problem.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.