This weekend, millions of children will revel in Easter celebrations, surrounded by loved ones and, well, kilos of chocolate bunnies and eggs.
It is a wonderful time for celebration and to be with family. For Christians, this also marks the most important time of the year: a time to reflect on the suffering, death and, above all, the resurrection of Christ. It is truly a season of hope. In one sense, this is what Easter represents to Catholics all over the world.
However, for many, the outlook is grim. According to various studies, roughly 75 per cent of all people persecuted globally are Christians. What have they done to deserve such treatment? While there is no simple answer, we may find some explanation in the story of Joseph and his family – Syrian Christian refugees, whom I met three years ago in Lebanon. Joseph’s last name and other details are not being published to protect his family’s privacy.
Like many of Syria’s Christians, prior to the war, Joseph didn’t experience problems with his neighbours or with the current government. He thrived as a business owner with more than 20 employees, most of whom were Muslim. They respected one another and each other’s faith.
When the civil war started in 2011 however, everything changed. Joseph refused to join the rebellion against the Syrian regime, was kidnapped and held hostage until his family was able to pay a ransom. During that time, his belongings were stolen. His business was destroyed, and he received threats that if he and his family stayed, they would be killed.
They escaped to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where organizations like the Catholic Near East Welfare Association along with the local church, helped his family as well as thousands of others, to survive the atrocities of war.
Recently, I met Joseph unexpectedly in Ottawa. A local Catholic parish had successfully sponsored him and his family to move to Canada. He told me that this weekend, he and his family will celebrate Easter in their new home.
He and his wife have found work and his children are now catching up on the three years of missed school because of the war. He says he still doesn’t understand why he was targeted and was forced to flee his home. Syria is the home of his ancestors, going back to St. Paul, the Apostle.
Joseph believes his faith is what has kept his hope alive through the ordeal. In one sense, he says he feels closer to Jesus’ Easter message more than ever before – the death of their lives back home, the pain, anguish, fear of the unknown, and moments of despair – they experienced it all. But, they also experienced a resurrection. For them, Easter has a new meaning. In Canada they are alive again with a new life, new friends and new hope.
Nobody has been able to explain to Joseph the reasons why he and so many other Christians were chased away from their homes. The reasons are many and complex. Yes, there is a rise of extremism, radicalism, and terrorism that will never tolerate a message of love that many Christians demonstrate – whether they are in India, Pakistan or Iraq. War gives many fringe groups a chance to perpetrate hatred and revenge. Along the way, it creates new enemies and even a world view that justifies stealing, kidnapping, rape, torture and slaughter.
Among all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear – it will take all people of goodwill to put an end to war. We must seek relationships with the “other” and welcome refugees and all vulnerable peoples regardless of religion, beliefs or nationality. We must, as Pope Francis encourages, build bridges not walls between all peoples.
Carl Hétu is the Canadian national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, an agency of the Vatican, which raises funds for the Eastern-rite churches in Europe, Asia and Africa