They walked barefoot for more than 20 miles, unable to take anything with them. Before they could make up their minds and flee from their city in Northern Iraq, some ISIS fighters (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), found out that they were Christians, beat them and threw them into a garbage dump.
A Muslim family dusted them off and took them to their home so they could clean up, and helped them get back on the road to a safer region in the dark of night. This family was convinced that religion should not divide people, but rather make them care that everyone should have the freedom to follow their own faith tradition without discrimination. There are a lot of people like them in the Middle East who do not agree with the fact that religion is often used to create friction in a region haunted by war and violence. The organization of ISIS, the cruelty and the amount of money behind the group that wants to establish an Islamic state as in ancient times, makes peace seem further away than ever before.
While fearful, there are still some Sunni Muslims courageous enough to help Christians, Yazidis and Shiites who were told by the new rulers to leave or die. “It’s not about faith, it’s all about power,” says one Iraqi. The situation is desperate for many Iraqi Christians and Yazidis forced to leave their homes.
Some Dominican nuns from Iraq were forced to leave their convent too, and now seek shelter together with thousands of other refugees. They wrote on August 23 from Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq: “Those who arrived here last night were in miserable condition. They had to cross the Al-Khazi River (a tributary to the Great Zab) on foot because the bridge had been destroyed. There are still many on the other side of the river. We do not know when they will make it to Erbil … Another woman, separated from her husband and children, knows nothing of their whereabouts. They are probably among those waiting to cross, or they might be among the hostages taken by ISIS.”
Some 100 miles southeast, in Israel, hope survives between one ceasefire and another. People thought things might have improved with the prayer for peace which took place in the Vatican with the leaders of Palestine and Israel, but the bombardments from both sides continued. Christians, Muslims and Jews are suffering, though the ceasefire gives new hope. The conditions are difficult: an electrical plant was destroyed, the home of H., who lives in Gaza, was completely blown up by four missiles. A Jewish lawyer shared how difficult it is to have hope amidst war and insecurity: “My husband has been called up as a physician to treat the wounded and dying soldiers. He barely comes home and when he does, it seems like the trauma and intensity is still with him,” she shared. Nevertheless, the war is such a contrast with the relationship of mutual respect and caring that she experienced with believers of other religions at a lawyers’ conference sponsored by the Focolare: “I need your support to keep on believing in change and peace.”
In a phone call, the Focolare directors of Jerusalem, Corres Kwak and Claudio Maina, after visiting some Gaza youth in the hospital with severe injuries, asked their friends worldwide, “Pray for peace in the Middle East — not only a little, but a lot!”
In the meantime, friends of the Focolare in Jordan came together to write a declaration: “We, Muslims and Christians of the Focolare movement in Jordan, wish to express our great sorrow for what has taken place in these days and is continuing at this very moment in the Middle East. In Syria there is a war that has lasted more than three years, destroying a nation and forcing millions to flee for their lives.”
They continue, mentioning the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian organization Hamas that does not spare civilians and costs lives on both sides. “There has been the recent advance of extremist militants in northern Iraq, who are spreading terror among several religions, forcing them to live like displaced people in their own land. Among these displaced people there are more 100,000 Christians who have been rooted in this land for 2,000 years.”
The Jordanians join in the disapproval of the terrorists’ strategy: “We wish to underline, especially concerning the events in Iraq, that those who commit these abominable acts do not have a religion, and if they claim to have one, they do nothing but undermine it,” they wrote.
Muslims from other North African countries joined in with this message of peace: “We, the Muslim members of the Focolare in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) wish to testify to our total and full support of the declarations of the Focolare in Jordan. Our religions are a treasure at humanity’s disposal, and they exist to uphold the supreme values inherent in all human beings. But these values are being manipulated for other purposes, in the quest for power and supremacy, instead of justice and peace.”
Commenting on the plans of ISIS to establish a state, they wrote: “Nothing would change its violence, savagery and inhumanness. The fact that they take inspiration from Islam is but usurpation — and even worse, this falsifies the tenets of Islam, as is obvious in the fact that their first and foremost victims are Muslims. These players and their schemers have steered political considerations and geo-strategies to suit their own ends. We join our voices with all who, throughout the world, call out for peace and dialogue between all cultures and religions.”
These messages demonstrate what Focolare founder Chiara Lubich said in June 2004 in London’s Westminster Central Hall, addressing the fear, distrust and intolerance reinforced by the threat of terrorism: “We need to follow the paths of dialogue, both political and diplomatic. But this is not enough. We need to promote solidarity among everyone in the world.”
Hers was a vision that came from faith and from the conviction that God is not absent from history. Answering a journalist in 2002, Chiara said, “We have to recognize that one of the truest causes [of terrorism] is the economic and social imbalance between rich and poor countries. This imbalance generates resentment, hostility and revenge, thus providing a breeding ground for fundamentalism which is more inclined to take hold in such terrain.” Although said 12 years ago, and in a different context, Chiara’s words still hold true.
Situations don’t change unless people’s hearts do. This is the conviction of the people of the Middle East — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — who resist the temptation of giving up, of hatred, of hopelessness. We can believe with them and show solidarity by joining them in hoping and praying for peace and giving concretely.
Donations to help support refugee families fleeing for their safety can be made by sending a check payable to “New Humanity” to: New Humanity, P.O. Box 11791, New Brunswick, NJ 08906, USA. Make sure to put “For Middle East Families” in the memo.