A displaced woman and child flee violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar, Iraq, Aug. 10. Rampaging Islamic militants have forced tens of thousands of Christians and other ethnic minorities to flee their homes in Iraq and Syria. (CNS PHOTO/ RODI SAID, REUTERS)
A displaced woman and child flee violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar, Iraq, Aug. 10. Rampaging Islamic militants have forced tens of thousands of Christians and other ethnic minorities to flee their homes in Iraq and Syria. (CNS PHOTO/ RODI SAID, REUTERS)
Speaking at the recent In Defense of Christians summit in Washington, author Eric Metaxas compared the world's silence regarding the plight of suffering Christians in the Middle East, to the silence of the German people during the Holocaust. Metaxas is the author of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who spoke out against the Nazi genocide of Jews and was executed in a concentration camp in 1945. Bonhoeffer, who wrote the spiritual classic The Cost of Discipleship, said, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil."

During the IDC summit, five Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs, joined by other religious leaders from the region, said it was difficult for them to find the words to describe the catastrophe unfolding for Christians in northern Iraq and Syria. Rampaging Islamic State militants have forced tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities to either convert to Islam, pay a heavy tax, flee their homes, or be killed. The militants' wave of terror has been marked by murder, torture, rape and even crucifixions, and the mass exodus of Christians from lands where their forefathers and mothers have lived since the Apostles first preached the Gospel there.

"We have no place!" a frightened boy living among 50 refugee families in a crowded church hall in the Kurdish region of Iraq, told a patriarch visiting the displaced Christians.

The patriarchs at the summit not only expressed sorrow over the plight of their flocks in the Middle East, but also over the world's silence in response to the overwhelming suffering there.

Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Egypt, decried the "persecution, genocide, religious and ethnic cleansing we're seeing today" in the Middle East, and said it was a clear violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that people have the fundamental right to practice their religion freely. 

The United Nations General Assembly adopted that declaration in 1948, following the horrors of World War II. Yet today we wonder how important those rights are to the international community. Christian leaders from the Middle East have appealed to the United Nations and to the European Union for help, but so far the U.N. response has been relatively tepid, with just a statement of opposition to what is unfolding in the region. And during the height of the Islamic State's rampage through northern Iraq, the United Nations Human Rights Committee sidestepped that crisis, and instead strongly criticized Ireland for its restrictive abortion laws.

Pope Francis has written Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, saying that the situation "cannot but awaken the consciences of all men and women of goodwill to concrete acts of solidarity by protecting those affected or threatened by violence and assuring the necessary and urgent assistance for the many displaced people as well as their safe return to their cities and their homes."

In a recent general audience, Pope Francis expressed thanks to persecuted Iraqi Christians for being witnesses of Christ's love, forgiveness and hope. "You are in the Church's heart," he said.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who presided at a recent Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle to pray for peace in the Holy Land, and hosted a related interfaith service at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, has emphasized the need for people to raise their voices in prayerful solidarity on behalf of the suffering Christians in the Middle East. He also encouraged people to support Catholic Relief Services and other Church groups providing humanitarian assistance to the suffering people of the Middle East. At the end of a recent Mass for the opening of the school year at The Catholic University of America, Cardinal Wuerl asked where are the voices of political leaders, the media, and members of the community.

"Why a silence?" Cardinal Wuerl asked. "I think each one of us has at least the power to raise our voice and be in solidarity with people distant from us, unknown to us, not a part of this campus, not a part of this family, not a part of this university, not a part of our nation. But they are a part of our human community. I think it should rest on the conscience of each one of us. Atrocities happen because there are those who commit them, and those who simply remain silent."

At a press conference opening the IDC summit, Robert George - the McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom - said too often Christians and other Americans have remained silent as religious persecution is unfolding. Whatever the reason for that silence - complacency, indifference, antagonism or antipathy toward Christianity - George said people's voices must be raised.

"We must stand for all victims of religious persecution," he said. "It is a fundamental right of every human being to worship God according to his or her conscience." George added that as genocidal evil is being perpetrated on Christians in the Holy Land, "Our voices should be raised loudly every day. Christians in the Middle East should have no doubt that their Christian brothers and sisters in the West stand with them."

More than two centuries ago, the Irish statesman Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." 

In abandoned churches, monasteries and convents in northern Iraq and Syria, the crosses have been torn down, bells no longer ring, and prayers recited and hymns chanted there for 2,000 years have been silenced. In some of those holy places, people had prayed in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples.

Today, we can no longer remain silent to the suffering of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East. We must raise our voices in prayer and solidarity on their behalf, and bring Jesus's voice of love, peace and justice to a region and a world where that message must never be silenced.