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Do we pray for Michel Butros al-Jisri? I realize, of course, that everyone’s response to that question will be to ask who this person is as most of us have never before heard of him. But what I really mean is do we in the church pray for people like Michel on a regular basis as part of our care for “the communion of the saints.”
This past Sunday the New York Times featured a story titled “Now There Is No One: The Lament of One of the Last Christians in a Syrian City.” The article centered on the Syrian city of Idlib that was once home to a vibrant Christian community. But Idlib’s story is repeated in untold numbers of towns and cities throughout Syria and the Middle East (and the whole world). Where once the Christian population in the Middle East and North Africa was over 20%, today that number has fallen to below 4%. In Syria a decade of civil war, oppression, and the strong influence of Islamists have resulted in shuttered churches and a mass migration of Christians to other parts of the world.
The Times article opened rather heartbreakingly, recounting how at Christmas, Mr. al-Jisri spent part of the day in the local Christian cemetery because the believers buried there are the only fellowship Mr. al-Jisri has left. He is now 90 years of age but knows of only two other Christians still living in or near Idlib. He lives in a one-room home without electricity and without fuel to use for heat.
For a long time Christians like Mr. al-Jisri—who is Greek Orthodox—lived at ease with Muslim neighbors and friends. Muslims and Christians freely mingled in the marketplace, and Muslims were welcomed into the home of the Orthodox priest on holy days like Christmas and Easter. But as intolerance has risen in more recent decades, that kind of friction-free intermingling became more and more rare. Christian believers felt threatened and with good reason as many of their churches were chained shut and increasing numbers of the people who had once made up the congregations of such churches fled for what they hoped would be safer lives in other parts of the world.
And yet there in Idlib is Mr. al-Jisri, bearing a quiet witness to the Gospel and to the hope he has in Christ. I was moved by this part of the article near the end:[H]e spends his days wandering the city market, chatting with neighbors or dropping in on friends — or on the children of friends who have died. It doesn’t bother him that they are all Muslims. “We are all brothers,” he said. Some days, he walks to the cemetery where he worked for so many years, just to check on it. Once busy with families coming and going, it is now deserted, and he sometimes sits for hours, alone with the gravestones. But despite the collapse of his community, he said he had never considered leaving Syria. “Why should I?” he said. “I have friends that I love a lot, nobody is bothering me and I’m not bothering anyone.”
So I ask again, do we pray for Michel Butros al-Jisri? Do we pray for the persecuted church? For those parts of the church that struggle? For the congregations and whole Christian communities ravaged by war and threatened on all sides by oppression? Among the things that my colleagues at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship have emphasized over the years is the need for churches to model in public worship capacious prayers whose petitions range far beyond the confines of this or that sanctuary and far beyond the local concerns listed in the church bulletin.
We confess our belief in “one holy catholic church” and in “the communion of the saints” but do our prayers in public or in private move beyond the local and the intramural to the global? Mr. al-Jisri is now a rare commodity for most of us: an isolated Christian victim of oppression and war whose name we now suddenly know because of the reporting of a secular newspaper. But whether or not we know their names, we know of the existence of Christian sisters and brothers in many places in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia, in Mexico, in Central and South America whose lives are punctuated by persecution and threats of persecution in ways many of us have never faced.
A few years ago I introduced then New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof when he spoke at Calvin University’s “The January Series.” I noted then that of all the parables Jesus told, only one parabolic character was ever given a name: it was the poor man Lazarus. Jesus gave that beggar a name because he did not want “the poor” to be some faceless, anonymous category of people. The poor have names, stories, beating hearts, hopes, dreams. I mentioned that because Nicholas Kristof over the years had also done an outstanding job of humanizing things like the genocide in Darfur or more recently the crisis in Yemen by telling the detailed stories of real people whose names he was careful to reveal to the world.
Now all of us reading this blog and the Times article that steered me this direction today know the name of one brother for whom we can pray. But Michel Butros al-Jisri has many similar brothers and sisters around the world.
For these members of the communion of the saints, let us then pray.