I needed some time to gather my thoughts following a moving ceremony that I attended this week at Westminster Abbey to celebrate the contribution of Christians in the Middle East. Of course this was also a time for reflection on the immense loss endured by Christian communities in the region in recent years due to violence, loss of human life, destruction of homes and sacred places of worship. Only the day before I had been listening to the tragic testimony of kinder Ruth Barnett at the ceremony held by CCJ at Lambeth Palace to mark the 80th Anniversaries of Kristallnacht and the Kindertransport. The next day I found myself listening to the equally moving testimony of Domician Sister Nazek Khalid Matty, currently serving her order in the plains of Nineveh in Iraq. An excerpt of her testimony is below:
‘For centuries, Christians extended bridges between the Roman and the Persian empires, between the Greek and the Arab Muslim cultures, between the East and the West…Waves of persecution, over the centuries, targeting the identity of Christians and their sense of belonging, made Christians doubt that they would ever live in peace in their own homeland. More recently the violent invasion of the Plain of Nineveh by ISIS and the wave of destruction left behind have deeply wounded the Christian community. As part of this wounded community, the Dominican Sisters, who were forced to leave their convents, now hope for restoration and healing. With our people, we still believe that our mission is to extend bridges between the past and the future. That is why we returned to the Plain of Nineveh with all the doubts and fears in our hearts. Truthfully the return of Christians, despite everything, is based upon our determination to live our beliefs and traditions in the place where we belong, and where we feel deeply connected to our roots. Having returned, we realize how threatened our Christian community is by the uncertainty that permeates all aspects of our lives’
The two descriptions of human suffering seemed overwhelming coming from the comfort of our secure day-to-day experience. It is so terrible that only 70 years or so after the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate another faith community continues in our time, and I was reminded of the sobering words of Ruth Barnett: that we are on a path to self-destruction if we do not work to end violent conflict.
Nazek’s account reminded me of the story of Chanukah. A story about the triumph of the Jewish people over adversity, of religious freedom and determination to stay true to your identity. This is exactly what the service at Westminster Abbey was about.
While Jewish people light the Chanukah candles, our Christian friends light advent candles. I felt deeply that the stories of these two modest women brought the light into our lives. They demonstrated the very best of humanity, and the capacity for good that each of us hold within us. Their stories were of the triumph of the human spirit against all odds. Both these women had found such constructive ways to give back to society despite their own personal trauma. Their indomitable spirits shine brightly like the Chanukah and Advent candles and they are an example to us all.