Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Pray about it."

I regret that I don't have the time and energy to offer a lengthy and/or original post at the moment - one is actually on the way, slated to go 'live' later this week - but I would like to share some wise and challenging words from Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest who blogs at Glory to God for All Things. Father Stephen acknowledges that some may initially be offended by what he has to say, but his hope (and my hope, too) is that candid words like these can be helpful to those who are willing to consider them thoughtfully:
The simple truth, painful as it is, is that "pray about it" is among the worst spiritual advice ever given to someone. Not that God should not be prayed to – but that most people have so little experience in such a reality that "praying about it" is tantamount to asking them to write an algorithm on the topic or express it in terms of quantum mechanics.

. . .

We often think we know what is best for our lives, and pray accordingly. But the simple truth is that we rarely have any idea what is necessary in our lives (or that of anyone else) in terms of salvation. Salvation is far more than coming to make a statement that "Jesus is the Lord of my life." It is the daily living consequences of having accepted Christ as Lord of life. Such a consequence is difficult and demanding, sweeping away all false idols before it and healing even the secret thoughts of our hearts. It is terrifying.

Few of us would ever complete a short time in prayer and actually ask for such an all-encompassing event in our lives. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31).
If you would like to read the rest of Father Stephen's post - and I hope that you will - please click here. AMDG.

The photo that illustrates this post was found here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On Thanksgiving Day.

It has been my custom in recent years to post something literary, historical or poetic in honor of Thanksgiving Day, a holiday that I still think of as somehow peculiar to New England even though it is celebrated throughout the United States. In that spirit, I now offer the following poem by Robert Frost, "The Gift Outright":
The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.
To all readers celebrating this holiday, I wish a very happy and blessed Thanksgiving. AMDG.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On wearing clerical attire.

Before I turn to the real subject of this post, here's a brief preview of coming attractions: For a while, I've been preparing a response to a tag from Macrina Walker on a 'fifteen authors' meme that has been making certain rounds. Actually compiling a list of fifteen authors took me very little time (in full compliance with the rules, I managed to do it in under fifteen minutes), but preparing a post that goes beyond a list of names and actually explains the role that each has had in my life has proven much more of a challenge when teaching and preparing to teach dominate most of my waking hours. I hope that the break from work provided by this week's Thanksgiving holiday will give me the time to complete the 'fifteen authors' post and to work on some others that have been in the hopper for a while.

Now, the matter at hand: over the weekend, America's In All Things blog included a post by Jesuit Father Francis X. Clooney, currently Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard, offering some personal reflections on the question of how priests should dress in public. As he notes at the start of the post, Father Clooney was prompted to write on this topic in response to some readers' reactions to an earlier blog post which included a video link to a lecture that he gave recently at Harvard; to Father Clooney's surprise, reader comments on the earlier post focused not on the substance of his lecture but rather on his attire, or, more specifically, the fact that he wasn't wearing a clerical collar when he gave the talk. For Father Clooney, these comments raise the following question: "Should priests always wear clerics?"

In his reply, Father Clooney notes that great Jesuit missionaries like St. Francis Xavier, Roberto de Nobili, and Matteo Ricci all adapted their attire to suit the cultures in which they worked, concluding that "how we dress is instrumental to our purpose, and should be assessed in terms of its usefulness and appropriateness to the occasion, the mission." For a Jesuit at Harvard, Father Clooney suggests, this may mean dressing as most academics dress, even if doing so requires one to eschew more explicitly "priestly" garb. At the same time, Father Clooney is quick to point out that he always wears a Roman collar when he goes to the parish where he says Mass on weekends and that he sometimes does so at Harvard as well. He also insists (most explicitly in the comment thread on his earlier post) that at Harvard "everyone knows I am a Jesuit and a Catholic priest" even though he doesn't wear the collar on a daily basis.

Overall, Father Clooney's remarks on this issue strike me as fairly reasonable. I'm a bit skeptical of his claim that "everyone" at Harvard knows exactly who he is; I'm sure that this is the case with his Div School colleagues and others with whom he has regular contact, but I have a hard time believing that this is more universally true - Harvard, after all, is a big place, and I doubt that everyone on campus recognizes Father Clooney on sight and knows his bio. Nonetheless, there is something classically Jesuit about Father Clooney's argument on inculturation in an academic milieu - as he points out with his references to Xavier and Ricci, it's the sort of thing that Ours have always done - though in practice Jesuits are bound to disagree about how principles like these should be applied in concrete circumstances. As perhaps bears mentioning, Father Clooney offers his views not as a reflection of official Jesuit policy or as a prescription for all priests, seminarians, and religious, but merely as an explanation of his personal practice.

Though I'm not a priest, as a Jesuit regent and university lecturer I wear clerical attire on a regular basis. The Jesuits with whom I live and work take varying approaches to the issue of attire: some never wear clerics, some wear them for part or most of the time, and some wear them all the time (indeed, one priest in my community goes a step further and regularly dons a traditional Jesuit cassock when going out to do pastoral work). Though we rarely discuss such matters in community, I'm sure that each Jesuit could offer his own well-articulated rationale to explain why he dresses as he does. Given the diversity of the global Society of Jesus, it would be unwise to try to generalize too much about Jesuits' attitudes and practices in this area. At the very least, I should emphasize that anyone who presumes that Jesuits never wear clerics is quite mistaken - even if the Jesuits that you know don't wear clerics, you shouldn't take their example as representative of the universal Society. To quote an old and wise saying, "If you've met one Jesuit, you've met one Jesuit."

In my case, I always took it for granted that as a regent I would wear clerics in the classroom. Given that I teach at a Jesuit university and that it is precisely as a member of the Society that I came here, I think that it's important that I dress in a manner that visibly manifests my identity as a Jesuit; the easiest way for me to do this at a place like Saint Joseph's University is to wear clerics. Though this sometimes forces me to explain my status in Jesuit formation, noting (as I always do to my students on the first day of class) that I'm not yet a priest even though I often dress like one, I've come to value initially awkward 'don't-call-me-father' moments as opportunities to help my colleagues and students broaden their understanding of the Jesuit charism that animates the place where they work and study. I could articulate other good reasons for wearing clerical attire in my ministry at Saint Joseph's, but the ones I've given so far should suffice for now.

Given that this precise question came up in some of the responses to Father Clooney's post, I should add that I don't believe that priests, religious and seminarians should be expected to wear identifiable religious clothing every time they appear in public. You're not likely to see me in clerics at the bank or the post office, or (to cite one of Father Clooney's examples) at the airport. Though my sense of decorum is such that I generally dress up a bit when I attend classical concerts (something I do as often as my time and budget will allow), in that particular context I take 'dressing up' to mean wearing a jacket and tie - but never a Roman collar. I've also been in apostolic situations where I found it best not to wear clerics. As a novice and as a scholastic I have worked in two refugee resettlement programs, both of which operated under Catholic auspices and had vowed religious on staff; though all of my coworkers and some of the clients I served were aware of my religious identity, for various reasons I decided that I could more effectively carry out the mission that I had been given if I wore secular clothes. Thus, I recognize that the question of what Jesuits ought to wear in ministry is a complex and multifaceted one.

I could certainly write a lot more on this topic, but the above will have to do for now. Later today, I'll be driving up to Massachusetts to join my family for Thanksgiving. My prayers and best wishes are with all readers who are traveling or preparing to welcome guests and visitors in the coming days. May those who celebrate Thanksgiving Day this week find peace and joy on this holiday, and may God grant all of us a greater sense of gratitude for His work in our lives. AMDG.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eternal memory.

Ninety-two years ago today, "at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month," the First World War officially came to an end with the signing of the Armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers in the Forest of Compiègne. In prayerful remembrance of all who lost their lives in the Great War, here is a rendition of "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations as it is played annually on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the Armistice as part of Britain's major official remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph in London:

As I noted last year on this date, the silence that forms an essential part of Remembrance Day becomes a bit more profound each year as the last surviving veterans of the Great War gradually pass away. Out of more than sixty-five million people who fought in the war on all sides, only three remain alive today: British veterans Claude Choules and Florence Green and American Frank Woodruff Buckles, each of whom is 109 years old. As I've written a number of times before (for example, here and here), I believe that something irretrievable is lost when the last living survivor of a particular event goes to his or her grave. That 'something' may be impossible to quantify, but it certainly includes a human connection that helps to keep history from becoming an abstract concept to younger generations. Once that connection is lost, part of our collective memory of the past is lost as well.

As I reflect wistfully on the passing of the final Great War veterans, I find consolation in the above video produced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in which a Scottish teenager explains how he developed a deeper appreciation of what Remembrance Day is about. (If you're curious about the poem that this young man quotes, "In Memoriam," by Ewart Alan Mackintosh, you may find the text here.) As long as some of us are willing to engage with the past and allow ourselves to be affected by it, the collective memory of events like the First World War will endure.

On this Remembrance Day, I pray for all who have given their lives in military service and for all victims of war. May the living continue to learn from them, and may their memory be eternal. AMDG.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Mourning in Baghdad.

Following up on last week's post on the attack on the Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad, I would like to share a couple of short videos from Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera looking at the aftermath of this tragedy. As difficult as it is to watch and to listen to tragic news reports like these, I believe that we all have a responsibility to make ourselves aware of the ongoing suffering of Iraq's beleaguered Christian communities and to reflect on how we should respond to what is going on. In the first video, Al Jazeera correspondent Rawya Rageh reports on a funeral service for some of the victims of the Baghdad church attack (h/t Byzantine, Texas):

The above video includes a brief reference to the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, Emmanuel Cardinal Delly, whose response to last week's attack included a strong call for Iraqi Christians to remain in their historic homeland despite spiraling violence and regular threats from Islamic militants. Outside the country, however, some Iraqi Christian exiles are suggesting that the time has come for Iraq's remaining Christians to seek refuge in the diaspora. In this second video, Al Jazeera reporter Jonah Hull visits the Syriac Orthodox cathedral in London, where resident Archbishop Mor Athanasios Thoma Dawood and members of his predominantly Iraqi congregation suggest that the time has come for all Christians to leave Iraq:

Though I am far away from the carnage chronicled in these news reports, I share the anger expressed by some of those interviewed. I pray for the victims of last week's tragedy and for the consolation and the safety of those who mourn them. As I wrote last week, despite my pessimism regarding the current situation I desperately hope that the Christians of Iraq will somehow be able to find a future for themselves in the country. Whatever else you do, I hope that you will join me in praying for this intention. AMDG.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

After an election.

Tradition demands that I post something about the recently completed election in the United States, though my comments are necessarily circumscribed by the twin restraints of prudence and time. Thus, I plan to limit myself to some brief comments on a couple of political races I've already written about. Before I do that, though, I should note in passing that in the immediate aftermath of an election I generally feel something akin to what Bart Giamatti described in these two paragraphs at the very end of his brilliant baseball essay "The Green Fields of the Mind":
That is why it breaks my heart, that game--not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.
Though Giamatti was writing about the end of the Major League Baseball season rather than the end of campaign season, the spirit of words sums up my experience of elections. Though political campaigns are ostensibly about the future, a mere means to the end of electing individuals to serve in government, for some people campaigning is an end in itself. On the basis of personal experience, I'll readily admit that campaigning is hard work and that it can often involve a lot of demoralizing drudgery and thankless toil. At the same time, though, for me there can also be a kind of magic to political campaigns, a kind of euphoria that creates the feeling that the voice of the people really matters, that the least probable of candidates might succeed no matter what the conventional wisdom or the pundits have to say, that all kinds of dreams and promises could come true - in short, that our lives could be dramatically different. Then, on election night, it all comes to a screeching halt and ordinary life resumes for all but a relative handful of the many people involved in the political process; after a few heady and exhilarating months, everything goes back to normal and we political junkies find ourselves strangely - if perhaps only temporarily - bereft.

One of the two races I feel compelled to report back on here is the hard-fought race between Democratic incumbent Barney Frank and Republican challenger Sean Bielat in my home congressional district in Massachusetts. While Frank held a comfortable lead in all pre-election polls, first-time candidate Bielat ran a vigorous campaign that led some observers to speculate that he might beat the odds and defeat a thirty-year incumbent whose role in the subprime mortgage crisis and acerbic personal style seemed to make him vulnerable. On Tuesday, Frank won reelection with nearly 55% of the vote, with 44% going to Bielat and the remaining votes distributed among two independent candidates. Frank's eleven-point victory over Bielat seems convincing enough, but it bears mentioning that the only time Frank has won by a narrower margin than this was in his first election to Congress in 1980, when he beat GOP candidate Richard Jones by a mere four points. Given the district's electoral history, Sean Bielat could conceivably be regarded as the strongest foe that Barney Frank has ever faced - perhaps even stronger than veteran GOP congresswoman Margaret Heckler, whom Frank beat by a remarkable twenty points after redistricting pitted the two against one another in 1982. Frank's victory may seem remarkable, but Bielat also deserves credit for making this a competitive contest.

I've commented here before on the considerable geographic, socioeconomic, and ideological diversity of Massachusetts' 4th District, and I've observed that Barney Frank's ability to hold this seat for so long is more reflective of his ability to win federal funding for local projects and the attentiveness of his staff to constituent service than it is to his ideology. Particularly in the more blue-collar and culturally conservative southern half of the district (the part of the district that I hail from) a politician's ability to 'get things done' matters much more than what he or she might have to say about more neuralgic policy issues. Frank's national reputation as an articulate and combative liberal spokesman may have helped him consolidate a strong base of support in affluent and left-leaning Boston suburbs like Newton and Brookline, but voters in cities like New Bedford and Fall River back him for an entirely different reason: as Fall River native E.J. Dionne observed a couple of days before the election, SouthCoast voters support Frank because he attends to the bricks-and-mortar and bread-and-butter concerns of the region.

Taking a closer look at Tuesday's results, it's also worth noting that Bielat won in a majority of the district's cities and towns (eighteen communities went to Bielat, while eleven were won by Frank) and that nearly all of Frank's winning margin of 24,510 votes came from Newton and Brookline. If the votes cast in these two communities for both Bielat and Frank are excluded from the total, Frank's margin of victory becomes razor-thin - a margin, in fact, of exactly 458 votes (86,653 to 86,195). To me, this suggests that the 4th District is deeply divided: support for Frank seems to have eroded outside of his base at the northern end of the district, with many people who presumably supported him in the past having decided to switch to Bielat. This leads me to speculate that many 4th District voters have been "soft" Frank supporters who have tended to vote for the incumbent in races where he had merely token opposition but are willing to support rival candidates who seem viable. Looking ahead to the next two years, I'll be curious to see whether and how Barney Frank might try to mend fences with the erstwhile supporters who have apparently turned against him.

Turning to another contest that I've discussed here before, the Massachusetts Governor's Council race between brothers Charles Oliver Cipollini (R-Fall River) and Oliver P. Cipollini, Jr.(D-Barnstable), I have the duty to report an outcome that surprised some observers as well as the candidates themselves. Despite having refused to campaign on his own behalf and having endorsed Oliver Cipollini as the "more qualified" candidate, on Tuesday Charles Cipollini defeated his younger brother by only 1,286 votes out of over 277,000 cast and will take office in January as one of eight elected members of the Massachusetts Governor's Council, a part-time body dating back to the colonial era that advises the Governor on judicial appointments, criminal pardons, and related matters. Speaking to reporters after conceding defeat, Oliver Cipollini expressed surprise at having lost but also noted his satisfaction at a "successful" outcome.

The Cipollinis' satisfaction over Charles' victory seems not be shared by the local media. The day after the election, the Fall River Herald-News expressed some consternation over the fact that "Charles, the Republican in the big blue state, the admittedly less-qualified candidate, the candidate who asked not a single voter to vote for him, the good brother who spent countless hours stumping for his sibling, won." More recently, New Bedford Standard-Times columnist Jack Spillane speculated that some Democrats may have voted for Republican Charles Cipollini as "payback" for a brotherly scheme that was intended to put Oliver Cipollini into office. Spillane gets things wrong when he describes the district as "overwhelmingly Democratic" - it also includes a lot of Republican-friendly territory in Plymouth County and on Cape Cod - but I wouldn't be surprised if supporters of some of the Democratic candidates who lost to Oliver in the primary voted for Charles in the general election.

On the other hand, the presence on the ballot of higher-profile contests involving competitive GOP candidates (the Frank-Bielat race, for example, as well as the open-seat congressional race between Bill Keating and Jeff Perry) likely boosted turnout among Republicans and more conservative independents and could have given a low-visibility Republican nominee like Charles Cipollini an edge he otherwise would not have had in the Governor's Council race. In other words, people who went to the polls specifically to support candidates like Sean Bielat and Jeff Perry may also have voted for the unknown Charles Cipollini simply because he had an 'R' after his name, giving Charles the extra few votes he needed to win even as Bielat and Perry went down to defeat.

That being said, I imagine that the similarity of the two candidates' names - the Republican was listed on the ballot as Charles Oliver Cipollini - may have left some voters confused about whom they were voting for, though it's impossible to tell whether this alone could have made a difference. As one who enjoys the drama and spectacle of campaign season and appreciates the presence of colorful characters like the Cipollinis, I must confess that I'm amused by the outcome of this race even if I can't offer a satisfying explanation for it. As I prepare to return to my usual fare of cultural and religious blogging, I thank my regular readers for their indulgence of this rare foray into political commentary. AMDG.

Monday, November 01, 2010

A retreat with refugees.

The spiritual as well as material needs of nearly 16 million refugees throughout the world today could scarcely be greater. God is calling us through these helpless people. We should consider the chance of being able to assist them a privilege that will, in turn, bring great blessings to ourselves and our Society.

- Pedro Arrupe, S.J., "The Society of Jesus and the Refugee Problem," 14 November 1980.

The fourteeth day of this month is the thirtieth anniversary of the foundation of the Jesuit Refugee Service by Father General Pedro Arrupe. The global refugee crisis that Father Arrupe observed in 1980 has only grown more serious over the past thirty years; according to the most recent available UNHCR statistics, the number of forcibly displaced people in the world has risen to 43.3 million. Still guided by Father Arrupe's vision of the integration of pastoral care and practical assistance, JRS currently works with refugees and internally displaced persons in over fifty countries.

One of the ways in which JRS is marking its thirtieth anniversary this month is with an online retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. This retreat offers an opportunity for daily prayer and reflection on the plight of refugees and migrants, combining meditations from the Exercises with reflections and stories offered by JRS staff members from around the world. Reflections for the first week of the retreat are already online, with content for the remaining weeks to be provided as the month goes on. Whether you are looking for a new way to pray or simply want to know more about the work that JRS is doing around the globe, I invite you to give the online retreat a look. AMDG.

The continuing tragedy of Iraq's Christians.

Last night, I received word of a tragic hostage crisis at a church in Baghdad that has left at least 58 people dead and 75 wounded. The crisis began when Islamic militants stormed into the Sayidat al-Nejat Syrian Catholic Cathedral during the Sunday liturgy, killing a priest and taking much of the congregation hostage. After a four-hour standoff, Iraqi security forces launched a raid that freed the hostages - albeit at substantial human cost, as revealed by this Guardian report on the tragedy:
Ferocious gunfire heralded the raid – almost on the captain's cue – followed by three loud booms, which security officials at the scene said were caused by terrorists detonating explosives strapped to their body as troops advanced.

A second burst of shooting followed the crack of sniper rounds from nearby rooftops. Eerie silence lasting around 5 minutes then followed, before a soldier called frantically for an ambulance – a fleet of which had been kept waiting about 500 metres away.

For the next forty minutes, a cacophony of screeching ambulances carried away the dead and injured. Walking wounded and survivors without injuries stumbled past them through the mayhem.

Among them were two elderly ladies in their blood-stained Sunday best, several children trembling too much to walk and a traumatised elderly couple searching in vain for their priest.

The priest they call Father Rafael is believed to have survived, but his colleague, Father Wissam, is believed to have been killed.

Bewildered and frantic, the survivors collapsed onto a median strip crying for telephones to call their families.

"I am going to leave Iraq with my family tomorrow," said [freed hostage] Bassam, an employee of an internet company. "Why am I here?" he wailed. "Look at this – this is Iraq."
Other Iraqi Christians quoted in the media express sentiments similar to Bassam's. Another survivor of yesterday's siege told the BBC that "I do not think I and other Christians can stay in Iraq any longer," while a young Christian from Northern Iraq (which is ostensibly much safer than Baghdad) told the New York Times, "There is no future for us here." Accounts like the one given above make for difficult reading, but they remain only a small part of the larger tragedy of Iraq's ancient Christian churches, which have suffered from continual violence, persecution, and dispersion since the fall of Saddam Hussein. My greatest fear at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was that Bush administration war policy would play a direct role in destroying one of the oldest Christian communities in the world; over the past seven years, it has become increasingly clear that those fears are being realized.

Among the more provocative comments that I have recently read on this topic come from Orthodox Christian deacon and blogger Steve Hayes, whose reflections on the suffering of Iraqi Christians came to my attention by way of a post on yesterday's tragedy on Macrina Walker's excellent blog A Vow of Conversation. This is what Deacon Stephen has to say:
The destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East surely cannot be described as an unintended consequence of the invasion. It was both forseeable and foreseen, and therefore must have been intended. It is an integral part of the Bush-Blair legacy. It is said that one should not ascribe to malice what can be explained by ignorance and stupidity, but the leaders of the most powerful nation on earth cannot have been that stupid.... can they?
While I disagree with some specific aspects of Deacon Stephen's assessment, I do think that he makes a good point. Broadly speaking, I do not believe that moral agents can be held responsible for all the forseeable or foreseen consequences of their actions: intentions and circumstances matter a great deal in assessing moral responsibility, and I'm unwilling to say that forseeability and culpability always go hand and hand. In this case, though, it seems clear that Bush, Blair, and their advisors effectively decided that the foreign policy objectives that could be achieved by invading Iraq were important enough to justify forseeable negative consequences of the invasion, including the loss of security for religious minorities in Iraq.

The Christians of Iraq are not the first minority group to be sacrificed in the name of political expediency, and I regret to say that they will certainly not be the last. Over the last few years, some American public intellectuals (Noah Feldman, for example) have argued that postwar Iraq ought to serve as a model of 'Islamic democracy,' presenting a synthesis of democratic and Islamist ideologies that other nations might be inspired to imitate; whether or not such an approach is really the best thing for an ethnically and religiously diverse nation like Iraq hasn't been much of a worry for these theorists, and it certainly has not been a worry for most American politicians and diplomats. On the whole, I think that it's fair to say that the good of Iraq's religious minorities (and not only Christians, but also other persecuted groups like the Mandaeans and Yazidis) has not been a priority for U.S. policymakers and pundits.

To preemptively rebut some potential objections to what I have written, I must emphasize that I do not think that U.S. policymakers are solely responsible for the situation that Iraqi Christians now find themselves in. A full analysis of the factors that helped to produce the current tragedy would have to consider the legacy of dhimmitude, the rising influence of Islamic fundamentalism in recent decades, and a web of cultural, economic, and social realities that have made Middle Eastern Christians much more likely than their Muslim neighbors to emigrate to the West even when politics is left out of the equation. Even if one takes all of this into account, it is impossible to deny that the U.S. invasion and its aftermath have brought about a much faster and more dramatic diminution of the Christian presence in Iraq than would have been likely before 2003.

Is it too late for the Christians of Iraq? I am afraid that it could be, though I hope very much that I am wrong. As I see it, the only way that the ancient churches of the Middle East can retain a living presence in the region is for political leaders to embrace a secular approach to governance that can help to (re-)establish social conditions favorable to religious coexistence. This is the approach suggested by the recently-concluded Synod of Catholic Bishops of the Middle East, which urged the development of a "positive secularity" in the region. As Egyptian Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir wrote in an article on the Synod, "What the Christians of the Middle East are asking is not only to be treated well, but to be recognized as citizens with equal rights, so that no religion has any privileges. This is our concept of secular society." AMDG.