Terror and Tears: Is Religion to Blame?

What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

                 ~ Genesis 4:10

Northern Iraq is burning. One village at a time. At this moment, thousands of desperate Christians and other religious minorities are fleeing for their lives. Reports from religious communities on the ground are unimaginably sad and horrific (such as this letter from a Dominican sister fleeing Karakosh).

Cain and Abel – Salaheddin Province [AFP Photo]
As an American citizen I share responsibility for the disintegration of Iraq. (Repeat after me.) As an American citizen I share responsibility for the  disintegration of Iraq. Like other “guilty bystanders” I’m sure I’m not alone in the feeling of horror and even physical nausea as I “see” such “news events” unfolding, even if through the sanitized distance of a computer screen. Words certainly fail. Perhaps the first and most humane response is silence, where images are permitted to pierce the heart.  

But at least one question haunts, though it feels rather abstract and quite secondary in view of the very real sword of death now hanging over the necks of so many. If people of faith remain silent in the face of these atrocities – Muslims especially, but not only Muslims (consider the unfolding catastrophe in Israel), What credibility will religions have in the present and future, not only for ourselves, but for the next several generations?


An Iraqi family who fled from Mosul take refuge in Iraq's Kurdistan region [Reuters photo]
An Iraqi family who fled from Mosul take refuge in Iraq’s Kurdistan region
[Reuters photo]
Of course this is not merely an “academic” question. It is one of the most stubborn existential questions of our times. It is the question most often on the lips of my students, simply because the question of “religion” is inseparable from “religious faith” and the behavior of religious adherents. Whether the terror is caused by ISIS or by the “shock and awe” military crusade of an Evangelical Christian US president, backed by the majority of his citizens, What good is religion or religious faith when so-called religious people seem to be behind so much hatred and bloodshed in the world? From the beginning it is God’s own question to Cain, and thus to us, whose brother’s blood cries out to God from the earth.

And what is the future for the relationship between the world’s religions? Yesterday the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, a Vatican office that has done extraordinary work at the highest levels building bridges of understanding and healing between the Roman Catholic Church and other religious traditions, issued a powerful statement on the violence in Iraq, with a plea for peoples of faith around the world to stand in solidarity for peace. In the face of my own poverty of words, my inability to speak, I’m grateful for this statement, and as well, for the impassioned pleas of Pope Francis for peace.

Here is the English translation of the original French text, with a link at the bottom that can be shared:

The whole world has witnessed with incredulity what is now called the “Restoration of the Caliphate,” which had been abolished on October 29,1923 by Kamal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.  Opposition to this “restoration” by the majority of religious institutions and Muslim politicians has not prevented the “Islamic State” jihadists from committing and continuing to commit unspeakable criminal acts.

This Pontifical Council, together with all those engaged in interreligious dialogue, followers of all religions, and all men and women of good will, can only unambiguously denounce and condemn these practices which bring shame on humanity:

-the massacre of people on the sole basis of their religious affiliation;

-the despicable practice of beheading, crucifying and hanging bodies in public places;

-the choice imposed on Christians and Yezidis between conversion to Islam, payment of a tax (jizya) or forced exile;

-the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of people, including children, elderly, pregnant women and the sick;

-the abduction of girls and women belonging to the Yezidi and Christian communities as spoils of war (sabaya);

-the imposition of the barbaric practice of infibulation;

-the destruction of places of worship and Christian and Muslim burial places;

-the forced occupation  or desecration of churches and monasteries;

-the removal of crucifixes and other Christian religious symbols as well as those of other religious communities;

-the destruction of a priceless Christian religious and cultural heritage;

-indiscriminate violence aimed at terrorizing people to force them to surrender or flee.

No cause, and certainly no religion, can justify such barbarity. This constitutes an extremely serious offense to humanity and to God who is the Creator, as Pope Francis has often reminded us. We cannot forget, however, that Christians and Muslims have lived together – it is true with ups and downs – over the centuries, building a culture of peaceful coexistence and civilization of which they are proud. Moreover, it is on this basis that, in recent years, dialogue between Christians and Muslims has continued and intensified.

The dramatic plight of Christians, Yezidis and other religious communities and ethnic minorities in Iraq requires a clear and courageous stance on the part of religious leaders, especially Muslims, as well as those engaged in interreligious dialogue and all people of good will. All must be unanimous in condemning unequivocally these crimes and in denouncing the use of religion to justify them. If not, what credibility will religions, their followers and their leaders have? What credibility can the interreligious dialogue that we have patiently pursued over recent years have?

Religious leaders are also called to exercise their influence with the authorities to end these crimes, to punish those who commit them and to reestablish the rule of law throughout the land, ensuring the return home of those who have been displaced. While recalling the need for an ethical management of human societies, these same religious leaders must not fail to stress that the support, funding and arming of terrorism is morally reprehensible.

That said, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is grateful to all those who have already raised their voices to denounce terrorism, especially that which uses religion to justify it.

Let us therefore unite our voices with that of Pope Francis: “May the God of peace stir up in each one of us a genuine desire for dialogue and reconciliation. Violence is never defeated by violence. Violence is defeated by peace. “


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