Syndicated News For Assyrians, Joy Amid Terror

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By Kathryn Jean Lopez
Christian refugees from Mosul attend mass in Arbil, November 2015. ( Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty)
‘Our identity is to live like Jesus Christ.”
For the Christians of Mosul, Jesus Christ isn’t a benevolent teacher whose words help them to be nice. He is the Savior who opened the doors of eternity to them and to whom they seek to conform their lives and whose name they are willing to give their very lives to proclaim.

“We were angry. We were afraid. But we were also happy. . . . Our faith is more important than everything else.”

Archbishop Amal Nona is their shepherd. But their home diocese no longer exists. His people are scattered, many of them taking refuge on church property in Jordan, others living in storage containers and other makeshift homes, if you can call them that. These people fled ISIS. The Chaldean Church has since reassigned Nona, a native Iraqi, to Australia, “where they are keeping me busy.”

As he talks with me in New York City, there is, of course, an expected and appropriate sadness on his face, but the overwhelming impression is of joy — a joy that comes from the peace of knowing that you’re doing God’s will, that your life has the kind of meaning and purpose people crave — and often go looking for in all the wrong places.

I’d even go so far as to say that before me is a happy man. Indeed, he tells me: “We were always a minority. We always knew it was not important what we have but what we do. The Lord shows us how it is important to be happy in all situations.”

He emphasizes that the Christian has no other identity than as a Christian. The Gospel is what you want to conform your life to, he says. “For us, we want to practice our identity. We are not another identity. Our identity is to live like Jesus Christ.” There is no other life, he says, for a Christian. Christ becomes everything, and so there is no life without Christ. “I think all our problems lie in this point: that in our life, sometimes we forget to live like Jesus. It’s not theology, it’s reality.”

This problem is an epidemic in both East and West.

Archbishop Nona is a proud father to his people. “None of them thought it would be better not to be Christian,” he tells me. And while he admits it’s heartbreaking to have to flee your home, he radiates gratitude: “We thank God for everything, because we are still alive, we still have a very strong faith. We thank God for that.”

Archbishop Nona has been here at NY Encounter — a three-day cultural event held every January in Manhattan — talking about how his people wouldn’t consider walking away from their faith. I play devil’s advocate and ask him if he’s really fessing up. Surely there were some hard conversations with people who thought they could keep their Christianity in the shadows or renounce their faith outright in order to keep their families in their home. No, he says, there were not.

He talks about the importance of living love over fear. It was just over a year ago now that ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Christian men. Their families had words of forgiveness and deep compassion, and they desired the conversion of those who had murdered their loved ones. This is who Christians are. It’s why, frankly, Pope Francis says things like building walls is not the Gospel. If we’re stuck in anger and vengeance, we’re not giving gratuitously out of an overflow of love. That’s not a political platform or a policy position; it is a posture that can make for the peace of the world and that can restore a shattered heart.

“In Mosul, going to church could mean going to die.” Archbishop Nona’s best friend, another priest, was in fact killed by al-Qaeda. I think of how spoiled we can be. I think of how easy it is for me to get to church — so many options. I think about how people would die for the religious liberty we’ve had here in the United States, and how fragile that liberty can be if we’re not grateful stewards of it.

The buzz continues to be that the White House will soon declare that what is happening to the Yazidis in Iraq is genocide, but that it will overlook the Christians in Iraq and Syria who are likewise targeted. Nona believes that the upside of the targeting of Christians there is that while for many years there was a widespread silence in the West about the dangerous predicament they were in, now there is an awareness. “The globalization of indifference is a malignant cancer,” he had said earlier, during a panel discussion. He is grateful for those in the West who have a desire to help, and he urges the United States to acknowledge the genocide. There is no question in his mind that that would make an international difference. He also appreciates the need for the U.S. to protect its own people, even while he urges that we give some priority to those who are innocent victims of genocide.

For anyone in the West living in fear after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, he offers some hard-earned advice: Terrorists are afraid of joy. To his fellow Christians he issues a challenge: “We fight them by living the Christian life.” And he and his people demonstrate just what that means. In our relative luxury here, Christians ought to do the same. It would do the world a world of good.