(Editor's note: This article includes explicit descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.)
In a Christian neighborhood inside war-torn Syria, a young boy was waiting to be discharged from a hospital after undergoing surgery. Suddenly the building shook from a bombing.
His mother, who was with him, ran out of the hospital to look for help. After she left, a bomb directly hit the building and her son was killed.
“She told me ‘My son was already prepared to be in heaven’,” Sister Maria de Guadalupe, a missionary in Syria with the Institute of the Incarnate Word, said of the mother. According to the mother, her son had recently reminded her of Christ’s Gospel admonition not to fear those who can kill the body, but rather those who can take the soul.
“This is what persecuted Christians live daily,” Sr. Maria said. “They say ‘Don’t worry — kill me. They can’t take away the heaven from me. You can take my head, you can burn my churches…when I die, I won’t die.”
Sr. Maria testified at the #WeAreN2016 international congress on religious freedom in New York City. The April 28-30 meeting detailed the plight of persecuted Christians in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria, and asked the United Nations to take action to prevent further atrocities in those regions.
On Friday, the advocacy group CitizenGO delivered 400,000 signatures to the United Nations headquarters, petitioning the UN Security Council to declare that the Islamic State is committing genocide in Iraq and Syria against Christians and other religious minorities, and for the matter to be referred to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution.
Sister Maria and Fr. Rodrigo Miranda, missionaries in the Institute of the Incarnate Word, both testified at the congress. They have lived in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war, and told the gathering of unspeakable atrocities committed against Christians there.
For Christians in Syria, life has been one long “Way of the Cross” since the civil war began five years ago.
“The media talked about [peaceful] demonstrations from the Syrian people, who looked for liberty and democracy,” Sr. Maria de Guadalupe recalled of the Arab Spring, though in reality “it was very different.”
Reports of non-Syrian armed groups entering Christian neighborhoods and killing Christians began to travel back to university students who were studying at the mission in Aleppo.
Thousands soon took to the streets of Aleppo “to demonstrate their support to the government” because they “preferred to keep going as they were,” Sr. Maria said. “Because what they saw coming wasn’t democracy.” What followed was “a war that nobody was expecting in Syria.” “Overnight, the armed groups started to seize the people in the cities.”
Aleppo, she noted, is the “most important city” and the “economic center of the country,” so terror groups targeted the city and besieged it for a full year. Electricity was available only one to two hours a day. Water came every 10 to 15 days.
“Then the city became war every single day,” Sr. Maria said. “And we have been living like that for five years.”
The Christian neighborhoods and churches have been targeted the most, she noted. There has been “total destruction” in the Christian communities, Fr. Rodrigo said, “especially during the important feasts of the Christian year.”
“So we always expect a massive attack during Christmas and Easter … They destroy our churches, monasteries, shelters, everything.”
After the Muslim preaching and prayer on Fridays, he said, his community would be “targeted, threatened, directly attacked, because we were the only Christian community in the area.”
Christians, he said, “are kidnapped, tortured, martyred, beheaded, cut in pieces.”
“Regularly they broke the windows of our houses and cars, or there were times when they entered into the houses of our consecrated sisters with knives, threatening of rape or martyrdom, commonly harassed them when they had to go on the streets.”
“Or they threw their cars or motorcycles against the children of our small Christian school. I personally defended my children from them.”
A Christian cemetery was also destroyed and the corpses desecrated and displayed in public, he said.
A Christian woman was tied to a pillar and beaten by passers-by until she would ask to convert to Islam. However, she never asked to convert, Sr. Maria said.
And children and priests have been special targets for brutality. They have been “buried alive” in front of their mothers, and beheaded with their heads put on spikes in public squares.
“Girls, mostly between 10 and 15 years old, are raped, up to ten times a day or more,” Fr. Rodrigo said, “and sold in the successful and growing prostitution market from the region and in the Western countries.”
Priests have also been targets of hatred. Fr. Rodrigo recounted the story of a 75 year-old Dutch missionary priest who “was kidnapped and shot twice in the back of the head because he was feeding the [poor].”
Other priests Fr. Rodrigo has talked to have had their bones broken and teeth knocked out, and have been starved nearly to death.
“Why? Political bias? Ethnic cleansing? He’s a priest, an imitator of Christ. The reason of this is the hatred of Jesus Christ,” Fr. Rodrigo said.
“If they persecute me, said our Lord, they will also persecute you. Christ is a sign of contradiction, and we are going to be the sign of contradiction in Syria and Iraq.”
For Fr. Rodrigo, “the motivation of today’s genocide is the same from the very beginning, from the roots of our very difficult coexistence with Islam.”
And the violence against Christians has continued to the present. On Saturday, Sr. Maria relayed a message from her community in Aleppo that “the city has been attacked terribly by rebels, the last desperate attempt to take the city.”
“There is no safe place in the whole city,” she continued. “A lot of Christians have died in the last few days. The rebels have said that this is a revenge. They will make civilians in the whole city to pay for the repression that they are receiving.”
“This is the ‘moderate’ opposition that we have in Syria,” she continued.
Yet the Christians, despite tremendous suffering, have seen their faith grow through it.
“Christians never blamed God for our situation. God created us free, and H=he respects our freedom,” Sr. Maria told CNA in an interview, through Fr. Rodrigo’s translation.
“Even because of a lot of suffering, God is powerful enough to take major goods from this situation. Because even when they’ve lost everything materially speaking, spiritually they have grown in faith and hope. And in this sense, they have won.”
“Suffering purifies faith and strengthens it,” she continued. “At the end of the day, the thing that we want is Eternal Life.”
“At the end of the day we have the cross that Jesus Christ gives us, and that is the way.”
Suffering also helps Christians to live as though every day is their last, because for Christians in Aleppo, it may well be their last day alive.
“Are we going to waste time in the last day of our life?” she asked in her Saturday testimony at the congress. “Are we going to keep living in sin in the last days of our lives? I can die today. I want to go to heaven. So today, I am going to make the most out of the day.”
Forgiveness is a hallmark of the Christian life, Fr. Rodrigo insisted. “Peace is a gift from above,” he said. “From God.”
“Forgiveness is in our blood, it’s in our divine blood because of grace,” he added. “Forgiveness is something so powerful that no one can give it except Jesus Christ.”
“It’s very difficult to speak and not to feel the instinct for revenge. So also we ask, from our Lord, the grace of forgiveness and the grace of mercy for all the people who’s responsible.”
“We are missionaries, and we have the opportunity, the possibility to live with the martyrs of our time. This is a privilege,” Sr. Maria concluded.