It was the Feast of St James last week and so my mind was taken back to the conference that I was part of just after Easter which was held at Santiago de Compostela but also, of course, to the great pilgrimage on which a group of us from the Cathedral went last year. As soon as you have been somewhere and experienced what the life of the Christian community is like there then you always feel a close connection with them.
One of the images that we discovered on the Camino was St James as ‘Matamoros’ – slayer of the Moors. It was an uncomfortable image to see in some of the churches and a reminder of less glorious periods of Christian history when we have persecuted members of the Islamic faith – and gloried in it! We cannot imagine making a statue of Santiago Matamoros nowadays, I hope.
The disturbing news from the Middle East this week is put into this context, that we too have been guilty of persecution and the kind of prejudice that finds expression in slaughter, forced conversion, ghettoisation and all the other things that are part of our history. So we acknowledge this in our past. But it does not excuse what we are seeing today in terms of the persecution of our Christian brothers and sisters in Mosul.
The destruction of ancient places of worship is shocking but nothing by comparison with what is happening to those who share the faith in Jesus Christ, faith in the Living God, that I share with them. As St James was martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ, these are modern day martyrs.
I have not been on pilgrimage in Iraq but I have been in Syria and was enriched by seeing the Christian communities there. I will never forget visiting Maaloula in the north of Syria, an ancient town where Aramaic – the language of Jesus – was still spoken. The church there was ancient and beautiful. When I was in the town it was a place where Christians and Muslims came as pilgrims together, to pray for God’s blessing and to give thanks. It was amazing and very moving to see – but so much of it is no more and that relationship is lost, perhaps for ever.
I have been many, many times to the Holy Land and my heart grieves for the people of Gaza and the other Palestinian Territories as well as the people of Israel. The spiral of violence is shocking and seems to be pulling people down in a vortex of killing. There are ancient Christian communities here as well but whether people are Muslim, Christian or Jewish makes no difference. The killing has to stop.
The truth is of course that there will be talk between those currently shelling each other and there will be a solution found but at the moment it seems a desperately long way away and it grieves the heart – our heart – and it must grieve the heart of God.
I was reading the psalm at Morning Prayer today and it began like this
I cry aloud to God;
I cry aloud to God and he will hear me.
and it seemed to echo (as the psalms so often do) what was going on in my own prayers. We have to cry out and cry out and not cease crying out, against the violence, against the injustice, against the horror, against the killing and cry out for peace and life. And as we cry to God we also pray for the people who are trying to remain faithful to the God who loves them, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are teaching me the harsh reality of living the Living God.
God of peace,
hear our cry for peace.
God of love,
hear our cry for love.
God of life,
hear our cry for life.