At Mass a few weeks ago, I heard an unusual noise coming from the entrance of the church. Without thinking, I turned and found myself fearing the worst. An attack? After Mass I asked others if they felt the same way and, to my surprise, some did. How many of us are experiencing this type of fear in our places of worship? For most Canadians, the answer is not at all; the risk of this happening is still very slim, after all.
But it may not feel that way. This past Easter Sunday, the killings of innocent Catholics while celebrating Mass in Sri Lanka would certainly reinforce this fear. We could add to this the stabbing of a priest while celebrating Mass at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal; just before that, the killing of innocent Muslims in a New Zealand mosque; and last year, the killing of innocent Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The list, regrettably, goes on.
Are these despicable acts of terror and inhumanity starting to have their effect on our sense of safety?
As we just celebrated the great feast of Easter — not just with chocolate bunnies but with the same spiritual vibrancy that millions of Christians still feel today — let’s remember that there is another way to fight this looming fear.
I’m refering to the Christians of countries such as Egypt who, over the past 10 years or so, have experienced the worst at the hands of well-armed and organized extremist groups that are determined to target minorities on specific feasts and in sacred spaces. Easter and Christmas, for example, are moments of particular worry for thousands of Christians in that country.
A few years ago, I traveled to Egypt and experienced how this drama plays out. One night, in a rural town, I joined a local Coptic Catholic community to celebrate Epiphany. To my surprise, I saw a small battalion of well-armed men coming to the church. They’re here to protect us, I was told. Somehow this didn’t reassure me.
I was in shock to hear that this happens all over Egypt: armed men come to Mass to protect the faithful. “How do you do it?,” I asked, referring to the heavy burden and fear on their shoulders. Their answer was very simple. “There is a level of fear, sure, but we’ve been practicing our faith, here, for more than 2000 years,” I was told. “We’ve lived through much worse and we have a mission given to us by Jesus.”
And there it is. Our journey is to follow Christ, wherever that may lead us. We shouldn’t be afraid when we are led towards people who are different from us; but, rather, we should follow the example of Middle East Christians and persevere in encountering others through dialogue, service and love, no matter what. Each day, these Christians offer inspiring works in the areas of healthcare, education and service to the handicapped, elderly, poor and so many more, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
All are welcome. They know by experience that God’s compassion and mercy are the keys to fighting fear, building lasting relationships and, ultimately, bringing a lasting peace.
The terrorists can attack them, and yes, there will be broken families, pain, and horror, as in Sri Lanka this past Easter weekend. However, our Egyptian brothers and sisters can be witnesses that the faith will remain and love will prevail through forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion. It isn’t easy to do — but what an example to follow.
These values are the basis of CNEWA’s mission and this is why we have been working with Eastern Christians in the Middle East, India, northeastern Africa and Eastern Europe since 1926. They are the ones who started it all with great sacrifices and pain — but also with an amazing and deep commitment to Jesus.
So yes: in my parish earlier this month, for a short moment, I was distracted. But ultimately, I will keep my focus on the love of Jesus, which will help me to counter fear and to live in peace — no matter what.