What comes after the Paris demonstration for unity against terrorism?

Will it be a new direction, or a short term distraction?

The massive rally in France drew European leaders together with a defiant and determined population in response to last week’s lethal attacks there by Islamic radicals. As big as it was, it was still little and late. It was trending, live in Paris and on social media, the thing to do at the moment. It was impressive to witness and encouraging to consider the opportunities this moment in history presents. Still, in these days in the immediate aftermath.

But look with the longer lens.

Why is free speech so fierce a battle cry now? The sudden, vicious and terrifying attacks on a publication in France started this new wave of international unity for free speech. Pens have become emblematic of this revolution against violent extremism that seeks to destroy free expression of ideas repulsive to the terrorists. But it took this week of terror to come to this unified stand against radical extremism. Before this, even the threat of such violence worked to stifle free speech, as Nina Shea has said time and again, and most recently here.

What lesson will Europe draw from the Charlie Hebdo massacre? Will it get serious about ending Muslim extremism within its borders, or will it try even harder to curb offensive political cartoons and speech about Islam? Up to this point, Europe has responded to Islamist violence in retaliation against ridicule, and even against sober critique of Islam, by taking the latter course.

In 2008, the EU mandated religious hate-speech laws, with European officials indignantly declaring that there is “no right to religious insult.” More revealingly, one official European commission delicately explained that this measure was taken to “preserve social peace and public order” in light of the “increasing sensitivities” of “certain individuals” who “have reacted violently to criticism of their religion.”

Consider this recall Shea makes:

Europe was frightened and wanted to cool down its angry Muslim populations and appease the censorship lobby that claims to represent them in the 56-member-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Since 2004, it had seen the assassination of Theo van Gogh in an Amsterdam street for his and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film on abuses against Muslim women; worldwide Muslim riots and economic boycotts over an obscure Danish newspaper’s caricatures of the Islamic prophet Mohammed; and yet more rioting and murders after Pope Benedict presented a paper to an academic audience at Regensburg University that questioned Islam’s position on reason. The subjective hate-speech laws were intended to placate those — including Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who in 1989 issued a fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie — who demand that Europe police its own citizens for conformity to Islamic blasphemy codes. European leaders insisted that this could be accomplished while somehow still upholding Western principles of free speech.

These hate-speech laws have failed in both aims. Islamist extremism continues to grow in Europe, while speech critical of Islam is undertaken at ever greater personal risk, including risk of criminal prosecution. Some are so intimidated that they remain silent even when it is their duty to speak up.

And so on. Read Nina Shea’s whole article. She’s an expert on persecution and terrorism against minorities, and continually shines the spotlight on hard truths that slip into obscurity if not recalled as she does so often.

NRO’s Andrew McCarthy makes the same case, about what has happened for years when the fundamental principles, liberties and essential identities of Western nations were threatened by radical extremists opposed to their core values and being.

What is the response of Western governments, particularly in the United States — the leader of the free world, whose government was formed for the primary purpose of protecting our God-given fundamental liberties, including the right to free expression?

Surely we know this as a knee-jerk response by now.

Snug among her “Istanbul process” partners in Turkey, then–Secretary Clinton lamented that — despite energetic Obama-administration efforts — the campaign to muzzle “Islamophobia”…had been hampered by a legal inconvenience: Throughout American history, free speech had been deemed “a universal right at the core of her democracy.”

But there was, she declared, a way around the First Amendment, a way around the parchment promises of law. The United States government would “use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming so that people don’t feel they have the support to do what we abhor.”

Was that clear enough? Since we can’t make the law prohibit critical examination of Islam, we hereby endorse coercion.

It wasn’t long afterwards that four American officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were murdered by jihadists in a terrorist attack on Benghazi. Almost all of the terrorists are still on the loose, but Secretary Clinton, President Obama, and their underlings took pains to blame the attack, falsely, on an anti-Islamic video. In particular, they choreographed a high-profile jailing and prosecution of the video producer.

That was shameful then, all the more culpable now for probably emboldening radical jihadists.

This Wall Street Journal editorial continues the point. Consider it carefully.

Wednesday’s massacre, following a long string of plots foiled by police in the U.K., France and elsewhere, is a reminder that jihadism isn’t a distant Middle Eastern phenomenon. There will be many more such attempts at mass murder, and authorities in the U.S. and Europe need broad authority to surveil and interrogate potential plotters to stop them.

This offends some liberals and libertarians, but imagine the restrictions on liberty that would follow if radical Muslims succeed in blowing up a soccer stadium or half a city. Men willing to execute cartoonists in Paris and 132 children at point-blank range in Peshawar in the name of religion

(remember that?)

won’t shrink from using more destructive means to impose mass casualties. Better to collect metadata and surveil some people now than deal with public demand for mass Muslim arrests or expulsions after a catastrophe.

Wednesday’s attack also demonstrates again that violent Islam isn’t a reaction to poverty or Western policies in the Middle East. It is an ideological challenge to Western civilization and principles, including a free press and religious pluralism. The murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is merely the latest evil expression of a modern arc of Islamist violence against Western free speech that stretches back to Ayatollah Khomeini ’s 1989 fatwa calling for the killing of novelist Salman Rushdie.

There are the reminders again. How quickly we forget atrocities when the cameras go away and the headlines move to other news. Or fail to cover atrocities at all.

Like the story I heard Saturday on the BBC about a 10 year old girl strapped with explosives and sent into a busy market in Nigeria.

The bomb exploded in a market in the city of Maiduguri, in Borno state.

“The explosive devices were wrapped around her body,” a police source told Reuters.

No group has said it carried out the attack. The market is reported to have been targeted twice in a week by female bombers late last year.

Correspondents say that all the signs point to the militant Islamist Boko Haram group.

They have been fighting to establish an Islamic caliphate in the north-eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, which have borne the worst violence in their five year insurgency.

Where and when did you hear of this, if at all?

Have you heard about the attack carried out by Boko Haram after that one? The horrific “deadliest massacre” to date, in the words of Amnesty International?

Reporting in northern Nigeria is notoriously difficult; journalists have been targeted by Boko Haram, and, unlike in Paris, people on the ground are isolated and struggle with access to the internet and other communications. Attacks by Boko Haram have disrupted connections further, meaning that there is an absence of an online community able to share news, photos and video reports of news as it unfolds.

But reports of the massacre were coming through and as the world’s media focused its attention on Paris, some questioned why events in Nigeria were almost ignored.

On Twitter, Max Abrahms, a terrorism analyst, tweeted: “It’s shameful how the 2K people killed in Boko Haram’s biggest massacre gets almost no media coverage.”

Musician Nitin Sawhney said: “Very moving watching events in Paris – wish the world media felt equally outraged by this recent news too.”

If the unity rally was to be a consequential tipping point – and I believe it was intended as that and has the potential to be that – then it has to quickly spawn groups resolved to focus global attention on all the atrocities committed by violent extremists against innocents, and ready to direct relief, aid and protection to those children, women and elderly innocent people especially endangered by them.

Full stop.

Saints, cynics, and striving souls in apocalyptic times

The world is in turmoil, the grip of darkness, and it seems things are spiraling out of control. What can we do?

Some people turn away, it’s all too much. We can’t turn away. This is an extraordinary, historically pivotal time. ‘A Necessary Look at Reality‘ is in order when the world is in such disorder, writes my friend Elizabeth Scalia, and she points to a New York Times’ piece ‘The Great Unraveling’ as the necessary reckoning with it.

This morning (September 15), the New York Times published an exquisitely-written dose of reality via Roger Cohen. If “only Nixon could go to China” then perhaps only a NYT columnist could spell this out and thus permit us to credibly acknowledge that things are as grim as we have all known, in our guts:

“It was the time of unraveling. Long afterward, in the ruins, people asked: How could it happen?

“It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker. The jihadi seemed comfortable in his work, unhurried. His victims were broken. Terror is theater. Burning skyscrapers, severed heads: The terrorist takes movie images of unbearable lightness and gives them weight enough to embed themselves in the psyche.

“It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth pronounced his country encircled, even humiliated. He annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane. The victims, many of them Europeans, were left to rot in the sun for days. He denied any part in the violence, like a puppeteer denying that his puppets’ movements have any connection to his. He invoked the law the better to trample on it. He invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.”

The Cohen piece, Scalia notes, is a must-read, loaded with observations and provocations, and “it beats at us like a drum. Or, really, like a gavel, calling us to order:”

It was a time of breakup. . .It was a time of weakness. . .It was a time of hatred. . .It was a time of fever…”

It is, finally, perhaps a time of dawning realization that the centers are not holding; old orders are in extremis; new orders are in capricious adolescence.

The troubles briefly enumerated in this sobering op-ed are only the most obvious issues. They are the pebble tossed into the pond, rippling outward in ever-widening circles — expanding to include a unique “time” of global crisis: governments failing at every level, everywhere; churches are divided, their freedoms challenged; citizens are distracted, dissatisfied and distrustful, their election mechanisms in doubt; schools are losing sight of the primary mission of education; families are deconstructed and the whole concept ripe for dissolution; respect for human dignity is doled out in qualified measures; there is a lack of privacy; a lack of time to think, to process and to incarnate; a lack of silence.

“It sounds terribly, terribly depressing, yes. Who wants to read that? Who wants to think about that?

Sadly, this is essential reading; this is essential thinking…

With this column, Mr. Cohen has done us the remarkable service of showing us the ugly landscape all around us; the one we have not wanted to pretend was neither so vast nor so damaged and fragile. Without taking it in, we cannot possibly begin to address the least-precarious bit of it.

Here’s Roger Cohen’s op-ed in full.

Then there’s the assortment of things I came across over the past week or so of news coverage, things I took note of for one reason or another, because there is indeed a great unraveling happening at a faster pace now, we got shocked as never before in ‘the civilized world’ and we’re confronting genocidal ferocity and barbarism ‘over there’ and accelerating social breakdown right here and people are getting very fearful and depressed.

Tod Worner, another respected friend, brings two things together at this point in one post that I believe is also a must-read.  Always facing the true, good and bad, I’m also always looking for the good and the beautiful. He put that together here. In covering a wide swath of news, commentary, social and political and theological analyses, and more, he finally came to say ‘Enough.’

The point is that I could become and did become rather fluent in the events of the day. Only it made me a bit cynical and depressed. Nowadays, everyone is a muckraker, everywhere there is injustice, and everyday requires the long climb up the hill to fight another fight. Now let me be clear, I am not arguing that there is no evil, hardship and injustice in the world. Sadly, there is plenty. Even further, I would not jettison all writing/reporting that informs and spurs us to improve the lot of humanity. But this is not all that humanity is. We were not designed to constantly look in the mirror…to rend our garments and spit at it. We are called to receive the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. We are designed to cultivate the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage. The devil is constantly reminding us, “You are a lousy, unworthy creation.” Whereas God is, instead, calling us, “Though imperfect, you are redeemable and called to achieve great things in my name.” Neither of these voices neglects our shortcomings, but one sees us through to greater ends. The other tempts us to wallow in the inky blackness of our sin.

I’ll come back to that remark about the devil.

Read Worner’s post, because it’s all so good, and he starts to point out some of the bad news we’ve been hearing so much about in recent weeks but adding the good news in related topics that never got attention. I love this quote he cites from newsman Bob Schieffer, a “moment of clarity” on “the virtue of courage.”

As I watched the documentary on PBS this week about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their cousin Teddy, I couldn’t help but think about what set them apart from today’s politicians. Yes, they were very smart but there are still a lot of smart people in Washington. Yes, they saw wrongs that needed to be corrected. But we still have those with good hearts, and yes they were good politicians but we still have a few good politicians around here. What set them apart to my mind was their courage. When they saw wrong, they not only tried to make it right, but they did so with no guarantee of success. What a glaring contrast to the Washington of today which spends most of its time doing nothing and the rest of its time devising schemes to avoid responsibility for anything. The latest example: when congress approved arming the Syrian rebels, they stuck the legislation in a bill that also provided money to keep the government from shutting down. That way, if arming the rebels turns out to be a debacle, members can say, ‘I was never for arming the rebels, I just voted to prevent a government shutdown.’ The Roosevelt documentary was 14 hours long spread over seven nights. A story about the courage of today’s Washington would take about 30 minutes-at most.”

And then the account of a friend’s father who passed on this month, and left a legacy evident in some of the comments left in his online obituary, respect and appreciation for his witness to a life well lived, and for others.

You see, these stories, these lives, are not the common currency of all the subscriptions I had (with the exception of the theological ones). And yet, these are the ones that matter. These are the stories that edify, that embolden, that grapple with suffering and loss, yet encourage me to keep going. Sure, at times they make me wistful and sad, but by the grace of God, they also make me smile. And keep moving forward. I have cancelled most of my subscriptions and watch less TV. Oh, mind you I still pay attention, shake my head and occasionally my fist. I will never stop caring. But I won’t be cynical. I won’t believe that we are irretrievable failures. I can’t believe we are beyond redemption.

That has become a theme that, thankfully, kept repeating all this past week in different ways and places, in articles and columns, radio show roundtable discussions and messages in church, both local and universal.

This article by my friend Kathryn Jean Lopez candidly and unapologetically says that ‘amid arguments, it can be easy to forget that God is love.’ Citing a documentary made by the group Courage, she writes:

“Look at the face of the other. . . . Discover that he has a soul, a history, and a life, that he is a person, and that God loves this person,” the film begins. It’s a quote, as it happens, from Pope Benedict.

Kathryn came from the East Coast (I never know if she’s in DC or NY) to Chicago to hold our regular roundtable with Word On Fire’s Fr. Steve Grunow in person, around an actual table, live in the Chicago studio. We did two shows, and in those two hours of in depth conversation, and extra time before and after, we tackled the issues of the day, the moment, and what we must do not just to be in the public square, but make a difference there.

We talked about the terminology of ‘battle’ in so much news and discourse, and Kathryn made a good point that while we hear about all these so-called ‘wars’ going on like the ‘culture war’ and the ‘war on women’, there are real wars happening out there with great humanitarian consequences. And Pope Francis has called on the Church to be the “field hospital” for the wounded. Fr. Grunow said “the real battle is spiritual, where dark powers inflict wounds on people” and we all noted how frequently Francis has brought that up, talking about the devil and evil in the world. “That didn’t get press attention,” Kathryn noted.

“The pope’s insights are very Ignatian,” Fr. Grunow explained, since he’s a Jesuit, “and part of that is asking ‘whose banner do you follow? Christ’s, or the devil’s? You have to make a decision.’ And Francis challenges people to see that choice clearly.”

They don’t. Kathryn shared the “odd situation” she found herself in several months ago “in a mall with a shooter, a poor kid who felt no one could reach him,” which she only found out by having a few moments to talk with him after he shot himself. “We’re having policy debates in this country all the time on all sorts of issues, and that’s important, but there’s a prior step,” she continued. “People are facing dire circumstances. They need to be addressed in their needs.”

I asked Fr. Grunow if an existential crisis is one of the most urgent problems the Church faces today, and he pointed out that the top crisis globally is of course the persecuted Church in danger of extinction in some areas of the birthplace of Christianity. But “the existential crisis is the perennial work of the Church to address in every age,” he added. “Everyone has a relationship with God, whether they realize it or not.” How to help doubters, skeptics, atheists and those who have lost hope realize that is a mission more than a task.

Pope Francis repeatedly calls Catholics, Christians and all people of goodwill to ‘go out to the existential peripheries’, to ‘create a culture of encounter’, and meet people where they are. That means noticing someone across the globe, the street, the room or dinner table or office space from you. Which circles back to the question at top, what can we do?

Michael Cook pointed to one outstanding witness, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo. Who knew how to serve whoever he met by doing whatever he could, and well, to be the presence of faith, hope, charity, and joy.

“He knew how to be very human when treating people, in the work that he did, knowing that his work was also a springboard, an aid to approach God and to be with God,” Bishop Javier Echevarria Rodriguez, prelate of Opus Dei, told CNA in Rome Sept. 26.

“He helped us, he understood and encouraged us and at the same time he was greatly interested in all things that affected us. He didn’t feel distant from us or indifferent.”

Bishop Echevarria said del Portillo was “totally at the disposal of others.”

“He was a person who knew how to love, who knew how to serve and who knew how to be at hand.”

It’s what I learned years ago from a young priest as ‘the ministry of presence’, being in the moment. Which, providentially, came up in the homily on Sunday of a local parish pastor reflecting on the two sons in the parable of the Gospel, one who said he wouldn’t go work but wound up going, the other who said he would, but didn’t show up. He talked about decisions, regret, anxiety, love, forgiveness and the importance of the moment.

He quoted Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen on this profound awareness of something we tend to miss altogether.

“All unhappiness (when there is no immediate cause for sorrow) comes from excessive concentration on the past or from extreme preoccupation with the future. The major problems of psychiatry revolve around an analysis of the despair, pessimism, melancholy, and complexes that are the inheritances of what has been, or with the fears, anxieties, worries which are the imaginings of what will be…But God in His Mercy has given us two remedies for such an unhappiness: One is the sacrament of Penance…Nothing in human experience is as efficacious in curing the memory and imagination as confession…

“The second remedy for the ills that come to us from thinking about time is what might be called the sanctification of the moment – or the Now….The present moment includes some things over which we have control, but it also carries with it difficulties we cannot avoid..

We don’t or can’t always know why suffering happens, he continued, but God can draw good out of evil, and “the human mind must develop acceptance of the Now, no matter how hard it may be or us to understand its freight of pain.” To accept pain and suffering, with belief that God is in control, “is to have taken the most important step in the reformation of the world…the reformation of the self.”

G.K. Chesterton nailed it in his book ‘What’s Wrong With the World”, by concluding that his best response was “I am.” Our human nature recoils from the pain and misery and evil happening around us by crying out ‘Someone ought to do something!” True and understandable reaction.

But we should also ask ourselves ‘what am I doing?’

Why the silence on Christian elimination?

Pope, patriarchs and prelates are crying out for intervention. Where are the presidents and prime ministers?

I’ve known Maronite leader Monsignor Sharbel Maroun for many years, talked with him on radio in 2006 after Telelumiere was nearly destroyed in the Lebanon War that summer, and many times before and after then about the ongoing work of unity and mutual respect of Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. He just returned from Lebanon recently, we talked again this week, and he is despondent. What he said is captured well here.

Catholics in the Middle East are being persecuted and slaughtered while the world watches and remains silent, said the leader of an Eastern rite Catholic community.

“It is a very heartbreaking situation, affecting everybody but mainly Christians,” said Msgr. Sharbel Maroun, pastor of St. Maron Maronite Parish in Minneapolis. “The Middle East is an erupting volcano, causing so many people to be wounded, displaced, injured and killed. There is a wave of persecution — I think it is a systematic persecution — that the church hasn’t seen since the early ages.”…

“It is devastating that the international community is just watching, doing nothing,” Msgr. Maroun said.

Several weeks ago, Christians were told to get out or be killed, and the international community said nothing and did nothing.

“I am talking about the international community in general, including the super powers,” he said. “By not doing anything, you are as guilty as those who are killing Christians. This is plain English.”

Msgr. Maroun said it is similar to the silence of the world when Jews were persecuted, rounded up and murdered wholesale in Nazi Germany.

“The Christians have been appealing, crying, begging the world to do something about this situation in the Middle East,” Msgr. Maroun said.

Those three statements tie together some important pleas by other leaders and leading voices.

Consider them in reverse order.

Pope Francis, other Vatican representatives and several Patriarchs have appealed to the United Nations and the international community to intervene in the most dangerous places for minorities, in what is clearly a sweep of maniacal genocide.

Some Jewish leaders see with clarity history repeating itself, and have cried out about the silence as it unfolds in sheer, graphic, and now widely known brutality. Like Ronald Lauder in the New York Times, asking Who Will Stand Up for the Christians?

Why is the world silent while Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East and Africa?

As the leader of the World Jewish Congress, Lauder

slammed global apathy to persecution of Christians in the Middle East and other parts of the world, saying more countries should be moved to action.

“The general indifference to ISIS, with its mass executions of Christians and its deadly preoccupation with Israel, isn’t just wrong; it’s obscene,” wrote Ronald S. Lauder in an Aug. 19 New York Times editorial.

“The Jewish people understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent,” he said. “This campaign of death must be stopped.”

Lauder stated that while the international community has rallied to defend the persecution of other minorities in other conflicts…“the barbarous slaughter of thousands upon thousands of Christians is met with relative indifference.”

Noting a range of offenses against “Christian communities that have lived in peace for centuries” in the Middle East and parts of Africa, he decried a lack of action…

“Historians may look back at this period and wonder if people had lost their bearings,” Lauder warned. He noted that international organization have mostly remained quiet on “the Nazi-like wave of terror that is rolling across” Iraq.

Additionally, he said, celebrities or public figures have not spoken on the persecution, and he wondered “why doesn’t the slaughter of Christians seem to activate their social antennas?”

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington D.C. wondered the same thing out loud, with a profoundly heavy heart. His closing remarks at the opening of the new Catholic University of America school year rattled everyone who heard it live and in its reverberations since he uttered his brief but deeply felt message last Thursday.

Where are the voices?” he asked.

Why a silence?

Today our solidarity with brothers and sisters of our faith and of other faiths in a part of the world where there is clearly an effort to eliminate them is something that we simply cannot in conscience ignore. Often we’re asked, “How is it possible that in human history atrocities occur?” They occur for two reasons. Because there are those prepared to commit them and there are those who remain silent. And the actions in Iraq and Syria today, what’s happening to women, children, men, their displacement – as the least of the things happening to them – is something that we really are not free to ignore and sometimes all we have to raise is our voice.

That’s quite profound, when you consider it. So is the rest of what he said.

I’m sharing these thoughts with you because I don’t want to have on my conscience that I was complicit in something as horrendous as this simply by being quiet. And I ask myself where are these voices? Where are the voices of parliaments and congresses? Where are the voices of campuses? Where are the voices of community leaders? Where are the voices of talk show hosts and radio programs? Where are the voices of the late night news? Where are the voices of editorial columns? Where are the voices of op-ed pieces? Why a silence? I think each one of us has at least the power to raise our voice and be in solidarity with people distant from us, unknown to us, not a part of this campus, not a part of this family, not a part of this university, not a part of our nation. But they are a part of our human community. I think it should rest on the conscience of each one of us. Atrocities happen because there are those who commit them and those who simply remain silent.

‘Mr. Obama’s war’

What is its strategic goal?’ Does the president yet have one?

So asks the BBC, among other news outlets and voices in media punditry. It sounds trite, the ‘economy of the media’ in some ways. Because it’s a large, historic, confrontation with evil. But since that has to be carried out by world leaders, beyond the real ‘shoes on the ground’ of the heroic relief organizations who have been there far longer than the media have been paying attention, this is how the story is being reported.

All three of President Barack Obama’s predecessors in the White House were involved in one way or another with military conflicts in Iraq. Now, having set out his stall as the president who would end Washington’s foreign interventions, Mr Obama has a new Iraqi conflict of his own.

True, for now, the US role seems limited and circumscribed. Mr Obama has made it clear that it is up to the Iraqis to do the fighting. There will be no US “boots on the ground”, at least in terms of combat troops.

A further 130-strong US assessment team of military advisers has been despatched to Irbil – in addition to the US trainers and liaison people who are already there. But the aim is to bolster the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to enable them to hold the line against the advancing Islamic State (IS) tide.

The humanitarian crisis afflicting Iraqi minorities – the Christians and the ancient Kurdish Yazidi sect – has formed the ostensible reason for American involvement. Accordingly the US action has been as much humanitarian as military.

Indeed the number of actual air strikes on IS vehicles and positions has been small – enough to send a clear warning that an advance on Irbil would bring much heavier US action.

For now, at least on this front, the US demonstration may have contained the pressure on the Peshmerga, though it has clearly done nothing to put the IS advance into reverse.

Fanned by factionalism
This, then, raises the most fundamental question about Mr Obama’s war: what is its strategic goal?

Is it to try to defeat IS – a group that holds a huge swathe of territory in both Syria and Iraq and one that is already being hailed as the next great strategic threat to the region and beyond ?

If so, then according to Mr Obama’s critics, US action has been both too little and too late.

But there are significant constraints on US action and Mr Obama’s caution may indeed be well advised.

The message coming from Washington is that Iraqis must do the heavy lifting here themselves.

This is complicated, but the president waited a long time to say or do anything, and then only when the Yazidis cried for help from the Sinjar mountaintop did this administration respond. Democratic pundit Kirsten Powers takes issue with that.

It wasn’t until Aug. 5 that the administration acknowledged the crisis in Iraq. It was done in the form of a statement, condemning attacks on religious minorities, by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.

By last Thursday, the largely Christian towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh had fallen to the Islamic State.

Finally, later that night — and two full months after the crisis began — President Obama announced airstrikes in Iraq and for the first time acknowledged that Christians are being driven from the homeland of their faith. But the Christians garnered a passing mention, while the religious minority of Yazidis seems to be what moved the president to act.

An Iraqi Christian leader lamented to me that his people would have to convert to get the administration’s attention.

Homeless Christians

The Yazidis deserve protection and humanitarian aid, but so do the Christians who number in the hundreds of thousands in Iraq. While the Yazidis received air drops of food and water, nothing has been dropped to the Christians who are homeless and in dire need of food and water. Each day that passes is a matter of life and death.

Powers has been an Obama defender on many issues over the years of his two terms of administration. And though humanitarian crises should never be politicized, they are de facto in today’s world.

To world powers that are engaged (and many are not), political realities determine what else might be done.

The danger is that it will be the IS actions that determine the pace and scale of US intervention.

Mr Obama must also contend with the broader strategic picture.

IS is a transnational organisation in the sense that it is fighting in both Iraq and Syria. Indeed the geographical ambitions of its caliphate may be even broader. It has taken on the Lebanese army in the border region and potentially threatens Jordan too.

The US needs to establish a broader coalition in the region to contain the IS advance.

And in this light it cannot avoid thinking again about Syria.

Syria, after all, provided the launch pad for IS. And the failure to halt its growth there meant that it was able to export its violence across the border into Iraq.

Whatever the political realities, it prompted the US and UK governments to declare, suddenly, that the relief mission was over.

Christian leaders don’t see it that way. The Vatican has been outspoken on the need to meet this catastrophic crisis with international intervention. This document clearly enumerates the consequences.

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..

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. “

Francis urged the United Nations to intervene. It’s a reminder of the duty to protect stated in the UN’s founding Charter.

The Catholic Church for millennia has taught that war must be a last resort to resolve problems. But it continues to recognize the right of people to defend themselves and, particularly since the pontificate of St. John Paul II, the church has taught that the international community has an obligation to intervene — with force, if necessary — to defend the lives of innocent people at risk of genocide.

“When all other means have been exhausted, to save human beings the international community must act. This can include disarming the aggressor,” said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva.

The duty to defend the innocent explains how Pope Francis can appeal for peace and, at the same time, his representative in Baghdad can welcome President Barack Obama’s decision to begin using military force against Islamic State positions in northeastern Iraq in early August.

Asked about the U.S. military airstrikes, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the Vatican nuncio to Iraq, told Vatican Radio Aug. 11, “This is something that had to be done, otherwise (the Islamic State) could not be stopped.”

The Islamic State, defined as a terrorist group by the international community and by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has captured a wide swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, torturing and massacring civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands of people — particularly Christians, Yezidi and other minorities — from their homes.

Given the brutality of the terrorists, Archbishop Lingua’s comments were in line with papal statements and Catholic social teaching.

CNEWA, one of the many organizations doing the best on the ground relief operation at the local level, everywhere Christian and minority communities are threatened, reports that some Muslim leaders are speaking out against these crimes as well.

Faced with the unrelenting reports about the sufferings of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, even Christians who are friendly toward Muslims can be perplexed and ask, “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against these atrocities?” The answer is: Muslims have been speaking out in the strongest terms, condemning the crimes against humanity committed by ISIS (or, as it is increasingly called, IS) and others in the name of Islam.

So, why do we not hear more of this?

The first reason is because Islam is not a structurally centralized religion. Unlike, for example, Catholicism, there is no one person or institution that can speak with authority for all Sunnis or even all Shiites — to say nothing of speaking for all Muslims around the world.

The second reason is that there is a huge number of newspapers in Muslim countries throughout the world. Many, if not most, of these newspapers appear in languages unfamiliar to people in the West. Sometimes, it is not a question of Muslims speaking out, but of others just not hearing. Often, the “not hearing” happens because people do not have access to sources or just do not speak the same language. But the voices are out there. And an important media monitoring group has turned up the volume, to make sure more hear them.

MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), which could never be accused of being apologetic to Islam or Muslims, has just published a “Special Dispatch,” in which it gives a platform to several significant editorials written by Muslims in important Middle Eastern newspapers — condemning the atrocities taking place in Syria and Iraq in no uncertain terms.

I’ve spoken with scholars waiting to hear this, and it’s good news that people of intellect and good will agree on how to live together with civil, respectful and humane treatment of each other.

Meanwhile, Princeton Professor Robert George is not waiting on the sidelines to see what happens. He has issued a plea on behalf of victims of barbarism in Iraq, and launched a campaign to join high level and grassroots voices to speak with the strength of numbers and influence and intent to help those in harm’s way.

Here’s the distinct site to sign on and join your voice to the plea for humanitarian relief.

President Obama was right to order airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL to stop its advance on key cities, as well as to provide humanitarian assistance to people fleeing their assaults. Much more needs to be done, however, and there is no time to waste.

We, the undersigned, are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. We are conservatives, liberals, and moderates. We represent various religious traditions and shades of belief. None of us glorifies war or underestimates the risks entailed by the use of military force. Where non-military means of resolving disputes and protecting human rights are available, we always and strongly favor those means. However, the evidence is overwhelming that such means will not be capable of protecting the victims of the genocide already unfolding at the hands of ISIS/ISIL. That is why Iraq’s Chaldean Patriarch Sako has requested military intervention.

Therefore we call upon the United States and the international community to do everything necessary to empower local forces fighting ISIS/ISIL in Iraq to protect their people. No options that are consistent with the principles of just war doctrine should be off the table. We further believe that the United States’ goal must be more comprehensive than simply clamping a short-term lid on the boiling violence that is threatening so many innocents in ISIS/ISIL’s path. Nothing short of the destruction of ISIS/ISIL as a fighting force will provide long-term protection of victims.

We call upon President Obama and the Congress of the United States to expand airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL with a view to eroding its military power, and to provide full air support for Kurdish and other forces fighting against ISIS/ISIL. Further, we endorse the Washington Post’s call for the United States to provide arms, ammunition, and equipment to Kurdish forces, Sunni tribesmen, and others who are currently hampered in their ability to fight ISIS/ISIL by a lack of sophisticated weapons and other resources. The U.S. should also assist with intelligence. We are hopeful that local forces, with adequate support and assistance from the U.S. and the international community, can defeat ISIS/ISIL.

The expansion of humanitarian aid to the displaced and fleeing is also urgent. Local churches and aid agencies are overwhelmed, and we have grave concerns about how these victims of violent religious persecution will be cared for this winter. The U.S. can and should take the lead in providing food, water, medicine, and other essential supplies.

We must be mindful that in addition to stopping the genocide, the U.S. and Europe have very concrete interests in disabling ISIS/ISIL. As the Washington Post has warned:

“The Islamic State forces, which have captured large numbers of U.S.-supplied heavy weapons, threaten not only the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, but also Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. With hundreds of Western recruits, they have the ambition and capability to launch attacks against targets in Europe and the United States.”

It is also worth bearing in mind that our own nation is not without responsibility for the plight of victims of ISIS/ISIL genocide. What is happening to these people now, and the further threats they face, would not be happening but for errors and failures of our nation’s own in Iraq. This can and should be acknowledged by all, despite disagreements we may have among ourselves as to precisely what these errors and failures were, and which political and military leaders are mainly responsible for them. The point is not to point fingers or apportion blame, but to recognize that justice as well as compassion demands that we take the steps necessary to end the ISIL/ISIS campaign of genocide and protect those who are its victims.

So well written. So let it be done.

Obama to Iraqi refugees: “Today, America is coming to help”

It’s about time.

Atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities have been perpetrated for months and have grown more ferocious and dire in recent weeks. Then overnight, the horrific account of the Yazidis running for their lives and stranded on a desolate mountain in Kurdistan finally got the world’s attention, those elite media and world leaders who were saying and doing next to nothing or nothing until now.

Elizbabeth Scalia has used her megaphone and all social networking media to call attention to the problem and point to possible avenues of relief. Take a look at just that handful of examples of Christian cleansing from their ancient homeland. With no government response and practically no media mention at all.

Then overnight, this happened and hit the collective consciousness.

Stranded on a barren mountaintop, thousands of minority Iraqis are faced with a bleak choice: descend and risk slaughter at the hands of the encircled Sunni extremists or sit tight and risk dying of thirst.

Humanitarian agencies said Tuesday that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians remain trapped on Mount Sinjar since being driven out of surrounding villages and the town of Sinjar two days earlier. But the mountain that had looked like a refuge is becoming a graveyard for their children.

Unable to dig deep into the rocky mountainside, displaced families said they have buried young and elderly victims of the harsh conditions in shallow graves, their bodies covered with stones. Iraqi government planes attempted to airdrop bottled water to the mountain on Monday night but reached few of those marooned.

“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads,” said Marzio Babille, the Iraq representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”

…“Children have died because of dehydration and lack of food,” Vian Dakheel, a Yazidi parliamentarian from Sinjar, said through tears. “My people are being slaughtered,” she continued, referring to reports of mass killings of those who had stayed behind.

Tireless human rights activist Nina Shea had issued this warning about issuing only a statement on so massive a humanitarian crisis. And she describes it in more gruesome detail.

On Wednesday, Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province, came under assault from the Islamic State, and all 50 to 60,000 of its residents have fled to Erbil in Kurdistan. In June, Qaraqosh’s residents had fled in terror when Mosul was taken but, some 80 percent of them had since returned. The recent exodus was triggered when jihadists’ mortars killed two children and a 30-year-old woman.

Yesterday, the Christian residents of other Nineveh towns and villages, Bartilla, and Bahzany, also left and sought safe haven in the monastery of Mar Mattai, as well as in Erbil and Duhok. Ba’ashiqa and the Ba’ashiqa Monastery are being evacuated by their inhabitants and the displaced civilians who had recently sought refuge there. The Yazidi and Christian families who lived in Ein Sifni are all fleeing.

The enormity of the humanitarian crisis of the cascading exodus from Nineveh was overshadowed, though, by the early reports indicating genocide is taking place against the people of Sinjar, who are mostly followers of the Yazidi religion but also include some Christians.

The Yazidi city of Sinjar and the towns of Tal Afar and Zummar, captured on Sunday by the Islamic State, remain under jihadi control. Some 200,000 of their citizens fled, mostly to Kurdistan. But about 40,000 are now in a truly desperate situation, trapped on Mount Sinjar, where they had fled on foot without provisions and are now dying. Quoting a UNICEF spokesperson, the Washington Post reports today: “There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads. There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”

Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana reports that Kurdistan’s High Commission of Human Rights airlifted ten shipments of aid, each with 20 tons of provisions, to those on Mount Sinjar today.

Others who did not manage to escape have been executed, abducted into sex slavery, or are being used by jihadis as human shields.

This is horrific. The ‘international community’ surely could not allow this to continue….one could only hope and pray.

The following is a description of their ongoing ordeal from a report sent today by Christiana Patto of the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq:

Yesterday 45 children died of thirst. Some families throw their children from the top of Sinjar mountain in order not to see them die from hunger or thirst, or not to be taken by the terrorists. 1500 men were killed in front of their wives and families, 50 old men died also from thirst and illness. More than 70 girl and women including Christians were taken, raped and being captured and sold. More than 100 families are captured in Tel afar airport. There is about 50 Christian families in Sinjar. The terrorists were able to control the Syriac church there and cover the Cross with their black banner. Till now we do not know anything about those Christian families.

Read these numbers as human lives, each and every one. Men, women, children, very young and very old, terrorized and driven by fear and self-preservation to the mountains with nothing but what they were wearing and who they could carry or help make the climb along the agonizing, torturous way. While we sit comfortably in the West either unaware of the ‘headlines’ (behind which there is so much massive human atrocity and unimaginable suffering) or aware and engaged but feeling helpless to do anything about it.

In booking Catholic Near East Welfare Association Communications Director Michael La Civita to come back on my radio program this Friday for the third time in three weeks, I learned that listeners had opened their hears and resources to respond to the persecuted religious minorities in dire need, and they were so grateful. But guest after guest on radio, experts all, expressed frustration at the lack of attention to the crisis by government and media.

I talked about it again on Thursday’s show, calling for awareness of a crisis of epic proportions that grew horrific overnight, citing Pope Francis’ latest appeal for relief. Its tone had increased in extreme urgency.

Pope Francis asked Catholics around the world to pray for tens of thousands of Christians from villages in northeastern Iraq who were forced from their homes in the middle of the night by Islamic State militants.

The pope also made a “pressing appeal to the international community to take initiatives to put an end to the humanitarian drama underway, to take steps to protect those involved and threatened by violence and to ensure the necessary aid for so many displaced people whose fate depends on the solidarity of others,”…

Think about that, having your very fate in the hands of people in other parts of the world even noticing that you are in mortal need and then doing something to help.

Father Federico Lombardi, the spokesman, told reporters the pope was appealing “to the conscience of all people and every believer,” repeating what he had said July 20 after a similar forced exodus of Christians from Mosul: “May the God of peace create in all an authentic desire for dialogue and reconciliation. Violence is not conquered with violence. Violence is conquered with peace. Let us pray in silence, asking for peace.”

Meanwhile, people were suffering the most extreme measures just to hang onto their lives.

This proved to be a turning point.

Overnight Aug. 6-7 fighters belonging to the Islamic State attacked the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh and other villages in Ninevah province, said Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad. “The Christians, about 100,000, horrified and panicked, fled their villages and houses with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

In an appeal, the patriarch described the scene as “an exodus, a real ‘via crucis'” or Way of the Cross. “Christians are walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat” toward Iraqi Kurdistan. “They are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide. They need water, food, shelter.”

The central Iraqi government appears incapable of protecting its citizens, the patriarch said, and there is no cooperation or coordination with the regional government.

The Islamic State fighters, he said, are taking advantage of the power vacuum “to impose their rule and terror. There is a need of international support and a professional, well-equipped army. The situation is going from bad to worse.”

That’s an understatement. The situation went from torturous to horrific.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the former nuncio to Iraq and current prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said the Islamic State militants are “chasing out thousands of Christians.”

“We are facing a serious humanitarian situation,” Cardinal Filoni told Fides, the congregation’s news agency. “These people have been left to their own devices with a closed border in front of them and they don’t know where to go.”

“The Christians had to abandon everything, even their shoes, and barefoot they were forced toward Iraqi Kurdistan,” a region already overwhelmed with displaced people, the cardinal said.

Relief organizations and some Christian and (few) sympathetic media had been calling on governments and citizens on different continents to intervene in this horrifying crisis. Pope Francis made an urgent appeal when the crisis grew catastrophic late this week, from August 6-7.

Something about the overnight turn of events, something in the Yazidi call for help that made it to the West, reached a US administration well aware of the ISIS problem for about a year. The president referred to that cry for help when he addressed the nation to announce a mission of humanitarian intervention had begun, finally.

The United States has authorized targeted airstrikes and carried out a humanitarian operation in northern Iraq, President Obama said Thursday night.

The aid mission dropped by aircraft 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 meals ready-to-eat to thousands of Iraquis who have been stranded atop a mountain, driven there by attacks from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Obama said he directed the military to “take target strikes” against ISIS to prevent the terrorist group from advancing in Iraq’s city of Erbil and threatening U.S. personnel there. “We plan to stand vigilant and take action if they threaten our facilities anywhere in Iraq, including the consulate in Erbil and embassy in Baghdad,” the president said.

“Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, ‘there is no one coming to help,'” Obama said. “Well, today America is coming to help.”

He added: “We can act, carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

News media coverage of that address and the aftermath of political analysis was in full swing breathlessly trying to come up to speed with a crisis some of us have been talking about and warning of in blogs and columns and news articles for weeks and months.

They played a sort of parlor game in advance of the president’s appearance Thursday night predicting what he would say and how he would say it. Having little patience for that sort of punditry, I turned the volume back on when Obama appeared…not behind the desk in the Oval Office looking squarely into the camera and addressing the world, as some of my colleagues noted, correctly, but at a podium with the left and right teleprompters he’s so used to and comfortable with, before the assembled world press. He looked and sounded determined and resolute, which is rare outside political campaigning for this president. I was impressed with his deliberation. He talked about “adhering to a set of core principles; to support allies when they’re in danger; to stay true to fundamental values, like human dignity’, which was great to hear. This isn’t the time to apply that to a test. And again he talked about “the dignity of our fellow human beings”, finally.

Secretary of State John Kerry said this about the US mission.

The stakes for Iraq’s future could not be clearer, and today’s crisis underscores the stakes profoundly. ISIL’s campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yezedi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide. For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it. ISIL is not fighting on behalf of Sunnis. ISIL is not fighting for a stronger Iraq. ISIL is fighting to divide and destroy Iraq – and ISIL is offering nothing to anyone except chaos, nihilism, and ruthless thuggery. With a gut-wrenching humanitarian crisis unfolding, and the rolls of the starving and sick growing daily, there’s not a minute to waste. The United States is acting and leading, and the world cannot sit by and watch innocents die. We will continue to coordinate with our allies in the region and the international community to assist Iraqis to confront ISIL’s brutal ideology which poses a severe threat to Iraq, the region, and the United States.

In the news analysis following the president’s address, one military expert expressed this concern about President Obama’s intentions and tolerance for a protracted engagement: “What does he do next, even if he stops genocide? What will he do to stop march of ISIS toward Baghdad?”

That is for tomorrow. For today, the US government finally stepped up to the role of international relief and aid when the balance of the world seemed to be teetering between chaos and some reconstructed form of moral order. Help had arrived, we learned, and we will learn what will come in the days ahead.

Exterminating Christians: End game in Iraq, little government expression of concern, intervention

This is an old story with new intensity. The elimination of Christians from their earliest homes is at epic proportions.

My files on this go back years. In less than six months, they’ve more than doubled. I regularly have guests on the radio show talk about  latest updates from around the world, always with something people can do to help make a difference for persecuted religious minorities worldwide. But lately, I’m beating that drum almost daily, while also covering the Israel-Gaza conflict, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and other US and geopolitical news. It’s been awfully busy.

There’s too much to cover in one post on the effort by militants to eradicate Christians from Iraq alone, so look at the past week or so chronologically, when ‘Christian cleansing’ reached a new fierce, brutal, in some places final level. Without much of the world even noticing.

Mark Movesian noticed, warned that a line had been crossed in Mosul, and signaled what that meant for Christians everywhere.

Say goodbye to one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world. Last week, members of ISIS—the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” a Sunni Islamist group that recently has captured parts of Iraq and declared a new caliphate—began going through the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and marking the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter “Nun.” “Nun” stands for “Nasara,” from “Nazarenes,” a word that refers to Christians. The implications were clear. Mosul’s Christians faced the same fate the Christians of Raqqa, Syria, had when ISIS captured their city last spring. “We offer them three choices,” ISIS announced: “Islam; the dhimma contract—involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.”

In other words, convert, pay punitively, leave or die. Or omit ‘leave’ as an option, and face the other three.

By last week, most Christians in Mosul had already taken a fourth option—evacuation. Their departure marks the end of a continuous Christian tradition in Mosul. For thousands of years, Mosul has been a center for Christians, particularly for Assyrians, an ethnic group that predates the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia. Indeed, the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where the Prophet Jonah preached, lies across the Tigris River. Christianized in apostolic times, Assyrians have divided over the centuries into a number of communions that reflect the history of the religion: the Assyrian Church of the East, a small body, historically associated with Nestorianism, which once spread as far as China; the Syriac Orthodox Church, a member of the Oriental Orthodox family; and the Chaldean-rite Catholic Church, in communion with Rome. A small number of Assyrian Protestant churches exist as well, the legacy of nineteenth-century American missionaries.

As recently as a decade ago, tens of thousands of Christians lived in Mosul, some of them descendents of victims of the genocide the Ottoman Empire perpetrated against Assyrians, as well as Armenians and Greeks, during World War I. After this weekend, virtually none remain. On Saturday, ISIS expelled the fifty-two Christian families still in the city, after first requiring them to leave behind all their valuables. For good measure, ISIS also burned an 1800-year-old church and the Catholic bishop’s residence, along with its library and manuscript collection.

What ISIS has done in Mosul is a worrying hint of Islamism’s possible future.

That, for another post. This crisis of Christian extermination continues to grow more grave, if that’s possible.

Some of the few media people paying any attention to this humanitarian story have called out the Pope to intervene, saying he’s ‘only calling for prayer’ and has to step in and do something. However, Francis is ‘putting his money where his mouth is’, Vatican expert John Allen told me on radio this week. He’s sending relief and opening centers for refugees, among other things.

Meanwhile, what’s the US government doing? Specifically, the president the world is watching? Nothing noticeable. Elizabeth Scalia has been writing frantically for days and weeks about the situation, which the White House saw coming, as it turns out.

The group’s operations “are calculated, coordinated and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al Baghadi,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk told a House committee on Feb. 5, four months before fighting broke out in Mosul. “The campaign has a stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.”

The testimony raises an obvious question: If the Obama administration had such early warning of the Islamic State’s ambitions, why, nearly two months after the fall of Mosul, is it still assessing what steps, if any, to take to halt the advance of Islamist extremists who threaten U.S. allies in the region and have vowed to attack Americans?

In fresh testimony before Congress this week, McGurk revealed that the administration knew three days in advance that the attack on Mosul was coming. He acknowledged that the Islamic State is no longer just a regional terrorist organization but a “full-blown” army that now controls nearly 50 percent of Iraq and more than one-third of Syria. Its fighters have turned back some of the best-trained Iraqi units trying to retake key cities, while in Syria, it’s seized nearly all that country’s oil and natural gas fields and is pushing the Syrian military from its last outposts in the country’s east.

“What started as a crisis in Syria has become a regional disaster with serious global implications,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday.

And the president has said little. Scalia called it ‘a threat ignored‘:

Bin Laden was a Western-educated terrorist looking for the big statement but lacking a substantive plan beyond mayhem. ISIS is a home-grown movement — “calculated, coordinated” per our intel, and apparently well-funded — seeking caliphate. Who is going to stop them? Turkey? Europe?

The unchecked, unprotested aggression of ISIS — now called “Islamic State” — is the story to watch; unlike the border immigration story, or the perennial Gaza headlines, this is the story that will go global, while the people in power do little, say nothing.

Ed Morrissey at HotAir says time is either running out for Christians in Iraq, or already has. That was on July 25th.

The Christians in Mosul have already fled, and those remaining in Nineveh and other areas of Iraq have until Saturday to make their choice to pay jizya, convert, or be put to death. While ISIS conducts an ethno-religious cleansing of Iraq, the ancient Christian communities there wonder when the West will at least speak out:

He and the rest of northern Iraq’s multitude of Christian sects have plenty of reason to worry about the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate that’s taken hold in much of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria since Mosul fell to the Islamic State on June 9. The men who lead the caliphate adhere to the most austere and literal interpretation of Islam, one that subscribes to the notion that improperly pious Muslims can be killed and that Christians, Jews and other monotheistic minorities must pay a protection tax or face a similar fate…

Bitterness abounds. In Qarakosh, where fighters from the Kurdish peshmerga militia maintain a front line just a mile or so from Islamic State positions and regularly come under sniper and mortar fire, one refugee from Mosul said he knew exactly whom to blame for the situation.

“Goddamn George Bush,” Abu Fadi spat out in English as he stood in line in the 100-degree heat to register for aid. “He removed Saddam, and this is all his fault.”

Then, in Arabic, he turned his anger on the current U.S. administration, which is still formulating what, if anything, it will do in response to the rapid advance of the Islamic State.

“Tell Obama I lost my house because of America, and now he’s a coward and won’t come save us from these animals,” he said.

McClatchy reports today that the earlier reports that the US had been taken by surprise by the ISIS sweep through Nineveh was no surprise at all. The Obama administration knew that ISIS had planned its invasion and seizure of western Iraq, but didn’t take any action to prevent it despite the obvious consequences…

At the end of the post, Morrissey quoted

Christian Kaldo Oganna, who is living in Iraq.

“Our people are under the threat of killing, ethnic cleansing,” he said. “We are all in fear. The Jihadis are going to attack.”

Oganna begged for condemnation of the violence and begged the United States to stop ISIS before things get worse.

The US has been much more focused on trying to stop Israel from crippling Hamas, for some reason. Maybe they’d prefer that people don’t ask too many questions about how Iraq went from an Obama administration success story in 2011 to a genocidal charnel just three years later.

But the people have done an end run around politicians and even media, however silent they choose to be on the crisis in Iraq. Tod Worner provides this excellent fact checker and updated factual indictment of a disengaged government in the face of a violent onslaught against innocent minorities. Sometime between Elizabeth Scalia’s post and Ed Morrisey’s post, ISIS blew up a sacred site in Ninevah, where Christians not only lived but many had taken refuge.

If you flee, you leave your home, your possessions, your community and your culture. What little you carry is soon stripped and looted from greedy militia men. You leave with your lives and the clothes on your back. But what if you can’t or don’t leave? What awaits you? Beheadings, amputations, gunshots and crucifixions. Unbending Sharia law including women and girls forced to undergo compulsory genital mutilation and to don the most conservative of clothing. You know these are bad people when even Ayman al Zawahari, al Qaeda’s de facto leader, disavows them finding them too difficult too control.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Large swaths of previously secured Iraqi land and resources have fallen. Cultural and religious treasures have been destroyed. The Iraqi Army is in disarray and the Iraqi Government has been shaken up.

ISIS blew up the Tomb of Jonah in Ninevah, and the international community is doing what? Scalia cited the Washington Post as finally getting the picture, though barely:

The problem: In Iraq, the Islamic State is advancing. If it’s willing to destroy anything other religions — even other Muslims — hold sacred, what’s next?

Some Congressmen, led by Jeff Fortenberry, humanitarian rights advocate, tried to rush through last minute legislation for emergency relief before Congress went on recess.

And Commentary magazine laments, no one cares.

With reports of how the doors of Christian homes were ominously marked by Islamists so as to streamline this campaign of ethnic cleansing, with incidents of Christians having been crucified–yes, crucified–you might have thought that some of those avid humanitarian activists attending the recent anti-Israel rallies could have at least organized a sub-contingent to highlight the terrible fate of the Iraqi Christians, but no, that might have risked detracting in some way from the anti-Israel political objectives of these protests.

It’s a political chess board and Christians are the pawns. Even though many innocent Christians are in Palestine, which is getting Western media and activists’ attention, the Iraqi Christian holocaust is getting very little.

Kirsten Powers highlighted it in her USA Today column on July 29th.

Iraq’s Christians are begging the world for help. Is anybody listening?

If that sounds dire, it’s because it is.

Human rights lawyer Nina Shea described the horror in Mosul to me: “(ISIS) took the Christians’ houses, took the cars they were driving to leave. They took all their money. One old woman had her life savings of $40,000, and she said, ‘Can I please have 100 dollars?’, and they said no. They took wedding rings off fingers, chopping off fingers if they couldn’t get the ring off.”

“We now have 5,000 destitute, homeless people with no future,” Shea said. “This is a crime against humanity.”

For the first time in 2,000 years, Mosul is devoid of Christians. “This is ancient Nineveh we are talking about,” Shea explained. “They took down all the crosses. They blew up the tomb of the prophet Jonah. An orthodox Cathedral has been turned into a mosque. … They are uprooting every vestige of Christianity.” University of Mosul professor Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, a Muslim, bravely spoke out against ISIS’ purging of Christians and was executed.

Lebanon-based Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, who heads the Syrian Catholic Church, called the crisis “religious cleansing” in an interview. “I want to tell American Christians to stand up, wake up and no longer be a silent majority. American-elected representatives need to stand up for their principles on which the U.S. has been founded: the defense of religious freedom … and respect for human rights.”…

Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf has taken to the House floor three times in the past week to plead for action from the U.S. and world community.

Wolf told me, “The Kurds have done a good job, but they are bearing the burden. President Obama should thank and encourage the Kurds for protecting the Christians. He also needs to provide (humanitarian aid), including funds for water and food.”

But he hasn’t done those things. Relief organizations and religious groups are doing what they can, and Scalia is giving these causes all out attention.

The Nineveh plains to which many Iraqi Christians fled are within the sites of the Islamic State; water and electricity are already cut off.

Patriarch Louis Rafael I Sako denounced IS as worse than the country’s Mongol invaders during the medieval period.

“This has never happened in Christian or Islamic history. Even Genghis Khan or Hulagu [the Mongol destroyer of Baghdad in 1258] didn’t do this,” he said, according to Reuters, at a church service in Baghdad where 200 Muslims joined in solidarity.

“We are seeing great swatches of Christianity wiped from the Middle East,” said Edward Clancy, Aid to the Church in Need’s director of evangelization and outreach. He said IS enforces “the strictest and most brutal interpretation of sharia,” including “little children having their hands hacked off” for stealing food out of hunger

“They have no problem with crucifixion, and they have done it,” he said.

Clancy said Aid to the Church in Need confirmed IS’ atrocities with priests and bishops on the ground through its regional coordinator.

“Simply put, it is all true: They are kidnapping, there are crucifixions, beheadings, beatings and enforced conversions,” he said.

Citing another writer, she concludes:

Their witness stirs our conscience, too. We Americans want the world to take care of its own problems, but now Mosul’s Christians, along with many other embattled religious minorities, remind us that we can not wish away evil.

John Allen reports on those cries for help from Mosul’s Christians.

“We have to ask the world: Why are you silent? Why do you not speak out?” said Catholic auxiliary bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad last week.

“Do human rights exist, or not? And if they exist, where are they?” Warduni said. “There are many, many cases that should arouse the conscience of the whole world: Where is Europe? Where is America?”

Others are pleading with their fellow believers to act.

“We need the solidarity of Christians worldwide, not to be afraid to talk about this tragedy,” said Archbishop Amel Nona of Mosul.

On Wednesday, Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asking him to pressure the international community to step up assistance to Iraq’s Christians and other minorities targeted by militants.

It’s up to the people to act, contact members of Congress (in their home districts at this point), media, relief organizations, anything they can do to help. People are finding ways.

Members of ISIS have been marking Christian homes in Mosul with the Arabic character N, which stands for “Nazarene,” meaning Christian, Sichko said. “It is reminiscent of the Star of David that marked Jews in Nazi Germany.”

Because of that, “St. Mark in Richmond, Kentucky, today has marked our Church doors with the the Arabic letter N in solidarity with our brothers and sisters” in Iraq and around the world, he said.

“We are all Iraqi Christians,” Sichko said. “As Catholic Christians, the members of St. Mark stand together in defiance of genocide, of persecution, of hate and the slaughter of Christians anywhere.”

It takes a village? The part that’s on fire urgently needs relief from the rest of the ‘international community.’

Christmas presence

Start with perspective.

I was driving somewhere one day last week and just buried in work and deadlines beyond the usual, and the usual are demanding enough. It was all overwhelming, and the thought hit with urgency ‘how will I ever be able to get Christmas together this year?’ There was not time nor opportunity to decorate our home, select gifts appropriate for each beloved family member as I’d like to do, send out greetings, gather and deliver items for the community outreach to families in need, and so on.

Stopped at a red light, thoughts cascaded. Starting with Wait….

Think of all those people who can’t afford the luxury of worrying about these things. The families who have lost their homes to terrible storms and natural disasters this year. They lost everything they had, in some cases even loved ones, and still face inestimable hardship. Just weeks ago the freakish day of storms in Illinois left the town of Washington devastated beyond belief in the midst of otherwise happy, normal daily life. The town was virtually wiped out. People living in shelters and trying to exist day to day aren’t thinking about Christmas shopping and baking and decorating.

Even though it’s all done with the sense of loving tradition and sacred meaning, this is a gut-check moment to reconsider how we do what we do for Christmas, and why. Or least it was for me that day last week. What started as a panic moment quickly transitioned to a learning moment about what people call ‘the reason for the season.’ But some of those people still work hard to ‘do’ Christmas right, and to the fullest.

So what does it mean to observe, honor and celebrate Christmas? Really?

Right now, our world is besieged with violence, terrorism, natural disasters and man-made ones, and they keep erupting.

That’s the reality for a huge population of people, while other populations on different continents across the world are preparing in their own way for this occasion, Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, known among many other names as the ‘Prince of Peace.’

Recall the meaning, honor the occasion, I told myself in that car while grappling with the most overloaded Christmas I can recall. Don’t get caught up in perceived expectations and material trappings, though I saw them more as manifestations of the celebration carried out so joyously by those of us who honor the origins of Christmas. But there’s no time to even do the basics! Or so I thought.

What are the basics of ‘doing’ Christmas? Preparing decorations and presents? Ah. Preparing, yes. That is what ‘Advent’ means for Christians. Making ready the way of the Babe of Bethlehem who was the Prince of Peace. But that’s an interior thing, cleaning out the clutter of the heart, mind and soul more than the clutter of the home and office and worldly spaces to make a special preparation for something special.

On my radio program last week I interviewed someone behind the Mary of Nazareth movie that features a captivating young woman in that role who almost wasn’t, in that role. Alissa Jung had her bags packed for humanitarian relief work in Haiti when she got a call to audition, and politely said ‘no thanks’. Several exchanges resulted in her recording a brief reading of some script and sending it in to be done with it, only she wasn’t. Because she was the one who most represented the humility and purity of spirit the producer wanted to capture on the screen as Mary, whose acceptance of a mission to serve humanity remains the model for that mission.

So this all reminded me of the story of the original meaning of Christmas, and the simple, humble beauty in the gift of presence and being. Being for others.

That doesn’t need or require the decorations and festivities and wrapped gits and baked cookies and special dinners and all, of course. But I’m doing what I can toward those traditions because they matter in the intent of doing them and giving to others out of love. Because they designate a special occasion to celebrate, a time set apart for giving, and checking how open your heart is for that, and for receiving.

There’s a reason ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas‘ (alert: Wiki link) became a hit and annual tradition. And A Charlie Brown’s Christmas also.

The story was a simple one, delivered in an understated way. Charlie Brown is down. His friends’ quest for presents and the best decorated house (or doghouse) seems to miss the point, but he’s not sure what the point is anymore. Exasperated, he exclaims, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” His friend Linus then poignantly reminds everyone that the day is about the birth of a “savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Overcoming a final setback, Charlie Brown returns to a welcoming throng singing “glory to the newborn king.” …

(Charles) Schulz, often beset by financial worries, would pioneer the mass marketing of his characters…Yet, despite its incorporation into the very sea of commercialism that it bemoaned, A Charlie Brown Christmas is still a gift that keeps on giving. For many, it is the only time they will hear the Incarnation narrative amid the holiday hype and Ho, Ho, Ho’s.

That’s true. For those who have access to televisions or other technology. Which gets back to the basics. The world has the tumult and turmoil we can’t seem to escape. Let’s pay attention to that and be present for those people who need aid and relief. Pause and consider the meaning of Christmas, those of who will. Slow down, don’t be in a hurry for once.

We are people in a hurry. We are people who are saying, insistently: Give it to me. Now.

Once, overnight delivery was more than enough. Then we wanted same day delivery. Now, we want everything in 30 minutes—whether it’s a pizza or a paperback. We want our food fast, our dinner microwaved. We can’t wait to get to a phone or a computer—and we don’t, because the phone and the computer are with us, every second, of every day, in our hand or in our pocket. Remember when we used telephones in phone booths? Remember when computers were confined to big boxes on desks in our offices?

What did we do before we had tiny smartphone screens to check every 10 minutes?

In 2013, we just don’t want to wait. For anything. Ever.

But in the middle of this, for four short weeks, we do.

The Church presses the “pause” button.

In the middle of all the hurrying and impatience and insistence comes…Advent.

We find ourselves suddenly in a state of suspended animation. It’s the season of expectation. Of longing.

Of waiting.

A child is coming, a hope is dawning. In our liturgies and in our lives, we yearn for something we cannot quite name.

But it’s palpable, for a great many people.

If you ask a child what we are waiting for, they’ll tell you in one word: “Christmas.” It’s that simple.

For a child, of course, it can’t come fast enough. For the rest of us, we’d probably like more time—a few more weeks to plan, shop, wrap and ship. But the reality of Advent—the astonishing truth at its center—plunges us into something deeper. The question demands an answer.

What, exactly, are we waiting for? What are we preparing for?

Spoiler alert: It isn’t really Christmas. It isn’t the presents and the tree, the cards and the tinsel.

No.

It is the presence. The presence of the one who came into the world to reach humanity, one heart and soul at a time…

to proclaim good news to the poor…

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim freedom for the captives…

to comfort all who mourn,

and provide for those who grieve

Many people are grieving. Many are lonely and afraid.

Many are among the poor, and today, we have a pope who asks the world to look at the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus and think of the homeless.

Pope Francis spoke of the great difficulties that families without fixed dwelling face – not unlike the Holy Family, to whom the Lord Jesus was born in a barn, and that experienced forced flight from their native land into Egypt. “Family and home go together,” said Pope Francis. He went on to say, “I call on everyone: individuals, organs of society, authorities, to do everything possible to assure that every family has a place to live.”…

The Holy Father concluded by encouraging all the faithful to celebrate the Christmas feast contemplating Mary and Joseph: Mary, full of grace, the woman who had the courage to rely totally on the Word of God; and Joseph, the faithful and righteous man who preferred to believe in the Lord instead of listening to voices of doubt and of human pride. “With them,” he said, “we walk together towards Bethlehem.”

So, reset.

Heal a wound. Mend a quarrel. Comfort the lonely. Console the grieving. Pray for the poor, the outcast, the forgotten. Look beyond. And look within.

And do it all deliriously, wondrously, tenderly, with love.

In this Christmas week and the days thereafter, I will do what I can as well as I can, with love, and pray it is enough.

This is a time to learn what that means. In my radio network’s last pledge drive, one listener wrote “may God take the money and prayers that come your way…and make it enough”. That served as a very good contemplation, and a profoundly good wish. It comes to mind now, contemplating Christmas and gifts, presence and presents.

I take this occasion to wish you every good thing, every grace and blessing. I wish you enough.

Provide clean water

At the very least, we can do that.

There are many efforts around the world, and the World Water Day calls our attention to the need. How many of us noticed?

It caught my attention especially one day last year listening to a report on BBC World Service radio about a clean water project in some remote village, and what a tremendous difference something so ordinary to the developed world makes to the developing world.

Facts:

1.Diseases caused by poor water, sanitation and hygiene kill more than 4,000 children a day.

2.Clean water availability improves school attendance.

3.Every $1 invested in water and sanitation returns about $8 in increased productivity and decreased health care costs.

4.More than one-third of people without safe drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa.

5.Programs that include clean water, sanitation and hygiene practices can help reduce diarrhea-related deaths an average of 65 percent.

Clean water. We can do this.

Japan’s disaster

You can see a hurricane coming. But violent eruptions of nature like the back to back assaults of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake followed by a deadly tsunami just happen. With no warning. They are stunning in their randomness and fury and they are terrifying because of both. And because it could happen anywhere, anytime.

Just like that day after Christmas 2004, sunny and normal in every other way in Thailand until the ocean roared onto land in that devastating tsunami. How many adjectives are there to replace ‘devastating?‘ How many ways are there to describe what we’re seeing on television screens coming out of Japan? I can’t look anymore, when they loop those videos that replay particularly the scene of the ocean storming onto the land, destroying and dragging along everything in its path. It’s not just that it’s so breathtakingly unnatural and scary. It’s mainly that in those cars and trucks and houses and buildings smashed and tumbled violently along in that dark black racing water, there were people. And in that moment when the violent roaring sea engulfed whatever held them, they were killed. Death on a mass scale of unknown numbers of individual human beings as the world watches in horror.

We see the violence of nature. But we don’t see them. Thankfully, for us and for them. Let’s give them their dignity in that death by lifting up a prayer for their eternal rest. And for the grace of God to help the survivors and workers who must contend with the aftermath of this. As it will undoubtedly also require dealing with aftershocks and the possibility of more quakes.

Help is on the way, and many major media are providing lists of relief efforts for readers and viewers to contribute in whatever way they find best. Here are a couple more, which in the early going hadn’t had the time to update their websites with this latest humanitarian relief effort. I’m glad they didn’t, it probably meant they were too busy rushing together the responders and resources they’re sending to Japan, among the other places they’re already bringing aid.

Caritas International.

And Catholic Relief Services.

On one of the evening newscasts in the US checking in with foreign correspondents on the scene in Japan about the morning after, an Economist correspondent did a good job of telling what it was like to be there when the earth moved violently and fear set in and people took to the streets to find a place of safety. He said out on the city streets, crowds moved along with composure, and when the traffic light turned red, pedestrians all stopped and waited before crossing the street. The street that wasn’t moving anyway, because vehicles were gridlocked. “What’s most important in cases like this is order,” he said. “And the Japanese are highly ordered people.”

May they also be blessed with the grace to endure the coming days, and recover from the one just passed.