The massacres perpetrated by Boko Haram in Nigeria this past week demonstrate that the horrific violence the world suffered in 2014 is not about to abate in 2015. Pope Francis used his Christmas address to call attention to the violence and conflict worldwide. While the address was delivered to 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the Pope took aim at each and every one of us when he denounced "the globalization of indifference" to the injustices being done around the world.
The Pope's message was heard -- several newspapers led with it -- but did people really listen? Take the Christmas coverage of The New York Times, for example. It included a story about the Pope's message, another about the fate of Christians in Iraq entitled "In Iraq, Traditions of Christmas Found Only in Memory" and then, the day after Christmas, a story about peacekeepers leaving Darfur even as violence increases. During this news cycle, the same paper saw it fit to publish an opinion piece -- "An Atheist's Christmas Dream" -- that presented a very different worldview: "Violence is on the wane, there's widespread peace..."
One could only hope that this statement was the only indication of the "globalization of indifference". Unfortunately, it is not. Remember how riled up we all were about #BringBackOurGirls? Weren't we all -- including the now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power -- vowing "Never Again" when we were hearing news of genocide in Darfur? Wasn't it just over a year ago that we were all outraged by news of chemical weapons attacks on Syrian children? 2014 was more war-torn than the year before (with four new wars claiming more than 1,000 lives), yet we still hear claims of "widespread peace."
No, it is not peace that is "widespread", it is something else -- something the Pope accused us all of in the Christmas message: complicit silence. Another message on Christmas Day emphasized a problem that our indifference and complicity has made worse. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, proclaimed:
It is with great sorrow and deep regret that the Ecumenical Patriarchate follows the ongoing and increasing waves of violence and brutality, which continue to plague various regions of our planet and especially the entire Middle East, and in particular the native Christians there, often in the name of religion.
That the theme of this address did not receive greater coverage in major news outlets is further proof of our complicit silence. The targeting of Christians is one of the most obvious legacies of the Arab Spring, and a catastrophe of historic proportions. The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity and historic homeland of its most ancient populations. Yet when the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt, it initiated a campaign of terror against Coptic Christians. Syrian opposition forces targeted Syria's Christian communities. ISIS crucified Christians in Mosul and marked their homes and gave them a warning to convert, depart or die. Four of the original five Patriarchates of Christianity (Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch; Rome is the fifth) are in the Middle East. Of those, we can only be confident of a future for Christianity in Jerusalem.
Which brings us back to the Ecumenical Patriarch. Contrast his courage to our indifference. He not only spoke on behalf of these embattled Christians, but did so when being oppressed himself. At the turn of the 20th century, over 20 percent of Turkey's population was Christian; today it is less than .5 percent. The world's second largest Christian denomination enjoys no legal status in Turkey, the Turkish government denies the Patriarch's ecumenical status and it places restrictions on who may serve as Ecumenical Patriarch. Turkey's treatment of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has landed it on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's list of worst religious rights violators in the world.
On March 25, 2012 President Obama lauded then Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey for his treatment of Christians:
I congratulated the Prime Minister on the efforts that he's made within Turkey to protect religious minorities. I am pleased to hear of his decision to reopen the Halki Seminary.
Nearly three years later Halki remains closed, and we remain silent. The Pope's trip to Istanbul -- including a visit of the Ecumenical Patriarchate -- received wide spread media coverage without mention of Halki. President Obama has never withdrawn his congratulations for Erdogan's treatment of religious minorities or decision to open Halki. And when Hurriyet journalist Cansu Camlibel reported that former Turkish vice Prime Minister Besir Atalay admitted that the opening of Halki Seminary was removed at the last moment from the Erdogan government's democratization package? Silence.
2015 marks the centennial of Turkey beginning to target its Christian communities -- Armenian, Assyrian, Greek. The Middle East has become dramatically less diverse, less Christian, and less tolerant ever since. Christians in the region and the Ecumenical Patriarchate face existential threats today. If all we can offer is our silence, it's as if we might as well be killing them off ourselves. A Middle East without them is one that we will not want to face.