(This editorial first appeared in the October issue of the Anglican Journal.)
People who keep up with the news will, by now, be familiar with the name James Foley. Foley was an American freelance journalist who was beheaded on Aug. 19 by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda spinoff group that has been persecuting Christians and other religious minorities in Syria and in northern and western Iraq.
Lesser-known but no less gut-wrenching and deserving of attention is the fate of a five-year-old boy named Andrew, who was chopped in half in front of his father, Hana, during the ISIS seizure of Qaraqosh. Once “the Christian capital of Iraq,” Qaraqosh is now a ghost town. “The murdered little boy had been named Andrew, after me,” says Canon Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad, in an emotional interview with the Anglican Communion News Service. White had secretly visited Qaraqosh and met Hana, the former caretaker of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, who fought back tears as he recounted the murder of his son.
The brutal slayings of Andrew and James Foley, who had been held captive since November 2012, have stunned many. In death, Foley achieved what he had strived to do with little success when he was alive: bring attention to the plight of innocent civilians suffering under oppressive regimes and a chilling climate of intolerance.
While we don’t know much about Andrew, except that he and his family moved to Qaraqosh when Hana retired, he was robbed of his precious, innocent life, and that will haunt us all.
In Foley, friends recalled a fearless journalist who was committed to the truth and who believed that, as one recalled, “you couldn’t do that standing on the sidelines; you had to be in the thick of it.” His parents say they have found solace in knowing that “Jim is in God’s hands, and we know he’s done God’s work.”
Born and raised Catholic, Foley clung to his faith while in captivity. He had done the same when he was captured once before, in Libya. “I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray,” he said in his final letter home, which he requested a hostage, who was being released, to commit to memory since all written correspondence was confiscated by their abductors.
“I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray” are powerful words that we might hold onto as we grapple with the senselessness of the deaths of James Foley and Andrew, and as we contemplate the suffering of Christians, Yezidi, Shabaks, Turkomen, Kaka’e and Sabaeans and others who are being targeted for their beliefs in Iraq and other parts of the world right now. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has noted, the persecution of Christians has also become “depressingly familiar” in other countries, including South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
But even as we pray in darkness, we should also consider what more we can to do to help bring the light. “[Jim] would never want us to hate or be bitter,” Foley’s parents have said. “We’re praying for the strength to love like he did.”
What can those of us who enjoy unbridled freedoms do? There is a desperate need for practical action to address the mass exodus of the persecuted, said White. Most Christians have fled to a self-ruled Kurdish region; tens of thousands of Yazidis have taken refuge at Sinjar Mountains, where aid agencies are struggling to provide food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the relief and development arm of the Canadian Anglican church, is accepting donations. (See p. xx.)
There is a need to speak out. The faithful—as individuals and as communities—must not tire of pushing their governments and the international community to exhaust peaceful means to end the humanitarian tragedy, to provide a safe haven for refugees and to prosecute those who have committed atrocities.
There is a need to stay informed and to share the information so that others, too, may similarly take action. When we do, we not only honour the memories of James Foley and Andrew, but we help make it possible for tens of thousands others to live, and to do so without fear.