On Saturday, July 4, Father Dhiya Aziz, OFM, an Iraqi Franciscan friar serving as a missionary in Syria, was taken by an “unknown armed brigade” for a supposed brief interview with the local Emir. He never returned and no one has heard from his since.
Fr. Dhiya is not alone, in Syria or in history. He is not the first priest to go missing in Syria this year, and he is certainly not the first priest to go missing in violent areas or the world. As representatives of a worldwide Christian organization and being sources of resistance to injustice and violence, priests have often been prime targets for militant groups in the past. (One has only to look to El Salvador in the 1980s for more than a handful of examples.)
So, what are religious doing in such places, walking around with bullseyes on their backs? This was the topic of discussion at dinner last night: “Pretty soon someone is going to have to act on this. It doesn’t look like it’s getting any better… Michael [minister general of the OFMs] should tell these guys to get out of there.” Point taken. When a situation has gotten so bad that nearly four million people have fled the country since January 2012 and the city in which one is ministering, Yacoubieh, was completely abducted by the militant Islamic regime two years ago, one could certainly deem volunteering to transfer to this place, as Fr. Dhiya did, to be useless, futile, or even reckless. Wouldn’t it be better, at that point, to flee as well, saving oneself for another day of ministry rather than almost guaranteeing one’s fate as a martyr? Are we called to be martyrs or called to realize that we have been given a life worth living, not throwing away?
What comes to mind for me in situations like these are a handful of well-made movies based on true stories (Of Gods and Men, The Mission, Romero). The most prominent in this situation for me is Beyond The Gates, the [mostly true, very Catholic] story of a priest and teacher caught in the Rwandan genocide. Obviously against the genocide of their people, they turn the school into a refugee camp and receive aid from the United Nations. Eventually, though, the UN determines that they can no longer stay and offers the two men an out: being foreigners, they can safely transport them across the border, leaving the Tutsis behind, no doubt to be killed as soon as they leave. For most of the movie, the two men struggle with this question, ultimately deciding on opposite fates: the priest decides to stay and is eventually killed; the teacher decides to leave and safely returns home.
For me, both of them made the correct decision. The priest, knowing with all of his heart that this is where he was supposed to be, could not imagine being anywhere other than right here where his people were suffering:
You asked me, Joe, where is God in everything that is happening here, in all the suffering? I know exactly where he is. He’s right here. With these people. Suffering. His love is here. More intense and profound than I have ever felt. And my heart is here, Joe. My soul. And if I leave I think I may not find it again.
For him, it was not about preserving his life for another day, it was about living it today. He had found God. What could he want with safety or comfort?
The teacher, seeing the bigger picture, saw the reality of the situation: whether he stayed or left, everyone was going to die. He could not change that with all of his might. Instead, God had given him a gift: because of his white skin and European nationality, he was given preferential treatment by the UN and offered a way out. He could live another day, fight another fight, and make something productive out of his situation. It wasn’t fair, but it was what he believed to be the best option in a bad situation.
In the end, his decision was not without consequences and the priest’s was not without positive effect. It is here that I return to the situation we face today in Syria, among other places. For the people remaining in these situations, whether it be Rwanda in 1994 or Syria in 2015, the poorest and weakest do not have the opportunity to flee, only the opportunity to see everything they know and love leave them one by one. While the teacher had considered the fact that his friends would all eventually die, he did not realize until the moment his truck was driving away how much pain his decision would inflict on them while they remained alive: “Joe… where are you going?” one friend called with despair. “You promised!” While he left for his safety, she remained, left to contemplate not only her imminent death, but the fact that someone she considered her brother abandoned her to face that death alone. The priest may not have accomplished anything to prolong her life, but his presence until the end served as witness that it was a life worth living.
Putting myself in this situation, thinking about myself in Rwanda or Syria, I can honestly say that I have no idea what I would do. Just writing this post has evoked so much emotion in me that I have had to take a few breaks just to finish. Add in personal relationships with people suffering without any hope for safety and a healthy dose of fear, and it’s likely that I would crawl into a state of physical and emotional paralysis, unable to actually make a decision at all. I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that I admire anyone willing to stand with those left behind, to truly be who we say we are as Franciscans, the least among society.
I hope that you will join me in praying for our brother Dhiya Aziz for his safe return, for all the people of Syria and countries around the world where people are left to suffer, and for each of us, that we may find the courage to stand with the lowest and least around us, not because we can necessary change their situation but because we can show them that their life is worth living.
UPDATE: On July 10, three days after this post was written, Br. Dhiya Aziz, OFM was released unharmed. Thank you all for your prayers!