Save refugees, pope begs leaders

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“Do something to put a stop to the violence and oppression,” Pope Francis asked the international community after calling attention once again to the fate of persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East.

After reciting the Angelus on 30 August, Pope Francis told thousands of people in St Peter’s Square that martyred Syriac Bishop Flavien-Michel Malke had been beatified the night before in Lebanon.

“In the context of a tremendous persecution of Christians, he was an untiring defender of the rights of his people, exhorting all of them to remain firm in their faith,” the pope said. “Today as well, in the Middle East and other parts of the world, Christians are persecuted,” the pope said. “May the beatification of this bishop and martyr fill them with consolation, courage and hope.”

A woman who fled the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar sits with a child inside a tent at a camp in Syria’s northern town of Qamishli. Returning from a visit to the Kurdish region of Iraq, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan called the Islamic State invasion “pure and simple religious cleansing and attempted genocide.” Photo: CNS/Rodi Said, Reuters

Departing from his prepared text, the pope said “there are more martyrs [today] than there were in the first centuries” of Christianity.

He prayed that the beatification would “also be a stimulus for legislators and those who govern so that religious freedom can be guaranteed everywhere”.

He added: “I ask the international community to do something to put a stop to the violence and oppression.”

The beatification liturgy for Bishop Malke was celebrated in Harissa, Lebanon, on 29 August, the 100th anniversary of his death. Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan presided at the liturgy; Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, was present.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the early 1900s, there were waves of violence and persecution against Christian minorities, especially the Armenians and Syrians. Bishop Malke was the Syriac Catholic bishop of Gazireh, which today is the city of Cizre, Turkey. Although advised to flee, the bishop stayed with his people and was arrested.

Cardinal Amato said the bishop was told that if he converted to Islam, his life would be spared, but he refused and was beheaded.

According to the Vatican, the bishop was born in 1858 in Qal’at Mara, in what is now southeastern Turkey. Although his family was Orthodox, he became a Syriac Catholic and joined the Fraternity of St Ephrem. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1883 and named bishop of Gazireh in 1913.

In his homily, Patriarch Younan pointed out that on 29 August the Catholic Church commemorates the beheading of St John the Baptist. Referring to the 1915 Armenian genocide and what is happening today, especially in Syria and Iraq, the patriarch asked, “Why?”

“The secret of suffering one does not understand. It accepts the spirit of Christ,” the patriarch said.

A year ago thousands of Christians in Mosul and the Ninevah Plain in Iraq, including nearly 40,000 Syriac Catholics, were driven out by Islamic State militants. The militants have posted a number of videos of beheadings.

Patriarch Younan denounced the passivity of world powers “that boast defending freedoms” yet “abandon to their fate” the people who took the risk of staying in their homelands.

He stressed that not only Syriac Catholics are under threat, but all the Christians of the East – Chaldean, Assyrians, Maronites, Melkites, Armenians.

“When the persecution is not physical it is moral,” he said.

“Where is the conscience of the world?” he asked.