Snow flurries and chilly temperatures didn’t stop concerned citizens from assembling in Downtown Brooklyn’s Borough Hall Plaza to raise awareness about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East last week.
In observance of International Human Rights Day, nearly 50 people of various faiths and cultural backgrounds held signs, prayed and sang, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” on the steps of Borough Hall amid the evening rush hour, Dec. 10.
“People should know that Christians are dying everyday for their faith in Jesus Christ,” said Father Michael Perry, pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Church, Flatbush, who organized the rally.
“Everyone has a human right to practice their faith and that is being denied to Christians in certain places by certain people,” he said. “Many people aren’t even aware that this is happening.”
Religious freedom is repressed to varying degrees across the globe but nowhere has garnered more attention in recent months than the Middle East, where hundreds of thousands of Christians have been forced to abandon their homes and countries because they refuse to renounce their faith.
Those who stay behind must convert to Islam or live in fear of beheading, execution and other acts of violence that have been perpetrated against Christians by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS extremists paint Christian homes with the Arabic letter “nun” (pronounced “noon”), short for Nazarene, to identify followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The mark has been likened to a modern-day Star of David worn by Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
“Jews were forced to wear yellow stars … because we lived in somebody else’s society that didn’t want us there,” said Rabbi Bob Kaplan, who directs the Center for Community Leadership at the Jewish Community Relations Council of NY. “Those stars … were markings for death.”
As he spoke, demonstrators displayed the “nun” symbol on laminated cards and lapel buttons.
“We stand in solidarity with those … now being targeted by this sign,” he said. “We don’t stand against any one faith. We stand against those who use faith for hate.”
The demonstration was attended by several Catholic clergy, including Msgr. James Root, rector, Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral, Brooklyn Heights; Father Francis Abaskhron, Resurrection Coptic Catholic Church, Park Slope; Father Edward Doran, pastor, St. Charles Borromeo Church, Brooklyn Heights; and Father John Amann, pastor emeritus, Holy Family Church, Canarsie.
One of the first participants to arrive was transitional Deacon John Gribowich, who serves at Our Lady of Light parish, St. Albans.
“It’s important to show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Middle East,” said Deacon Gribowich. “This is just a small way to show we hear their cries.”
“When I lived in Syria, I found liberty, freedom,” said Egyptian-born Father Abaskhron. “Everybody was equal. There was no difference between Muslim and any religion.
“It is very difficult there today. I know many families left their houses. They left everything. They live in tents,” he said.
The situation is equally painful for the local Catholic priests, explained Father Abaskhron, who related that one of the beautiful churches he had known in Syria was bombed earlier this fall.
“To have priests and people killed because of their belief and faith is not Christ-like. Jesus stands for peace,” said Gloria Harbour, a parishioner from Our Lady of Refuge.
“I’m not against Muslims or any other religions but to kill is not in any religion. It’s the wrong thing to do and we can’t be silent about this anymore,” she said.
As the crowd dispersed, Father Perry thanked everyone for being a “seed of hope.”
Standing in the dark shadow of the Borough Hall Christmas tree, days before the lighting ceremony, he wondered what hopes fill the hearts of Christians in the Middle East at this time of year.
“What season is it for people who live in fear,” he said. “What will Christmas be for them?”