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The Good Martyr

The non-reaction to the murder of Father Boulos Islander Behnam.

11:00 PM, Nov 7, 2006 • By MARK D. TOOLEY
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A CHRISTIAN PRIEST in Iraq was dismembered and beheaded by radical Islamists a few weeks ago as a reaction against Pope Benedict's August comments about Islam. But Western church groups, more focused on denouncing the U.S. presence in Iraq than on criticizing radical Islam, have said virtually nothing about the atrocity.

The ordeal began on October 9, when Father Boulos Islander Behnam of the Syrian Orthodox St. Ephrem Church in Mosul was abducted on the street. The kidnappers demanded $350,000 in ransom from the priest's family but apparently reduced the amount to $40,000 if the priest's church would agree to denounce the Pope's criticism of Islam. Already having publicly distanced itself from the Pope's remarks, the St. Ephrem congregation dutifully mounted 30 billboards around Mosul criticizing the Pope. Meanwhile, his family raised the ransom money.

None of this satisfied the kidnappers. Within 48 hours Father Behnam's corpse was discovered, his severed arms and legs, along with his head, placed on his torso. His arms showed signs of torture. Reportedly, his killers phoned his widow, informing her that her husband deserved to die because he refused to convert to Islam. Five hundred people attended his funeral.

Churches in the Middle East are always hovering on the edge of disaster, with ruling regimes not always anxious to protect them. They are often--and understandably--reluctant to discuss their Islamist persecutors. What is less understandable is the non-reaction of many Western church groups, who live in safety.

HAVING BEEN CONTACTED by its Middle East member communions, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches felt obligated to respond to Father Behnam's death. In a public letter from WCC official Clement John, the council declared it is "appalled by the circumstances in which the killing of an innocent servant of God was carried out. The incident reflects the depravity to which the situation in [Mosul] has deteriorated. The killing of [Fr. Behnam] is a senseless crime that cannot be justified in any circumstances. It neither benefits anyone nor does it promote the cause of any religion. The World Council of Churches has always been an advocate of tolerance and remains committed to inter-religious harmony."

There is no mention of who killed Father Behnam, how he died, or what his murderers wanted--all of which facts would seem to interest an ecumenical church audience. The WCC's only implied criticism was aimed at Iraq's occupiers: "The Iraqi police and the coalition forces who are there to maintain law and order must ensure that every possible step is taken to secure the safety and protection of all human lives in Iraq," they insisted.

But at least the World Council of Churches said something about Father Behnam's murder. The National Council of Churches in the United States had nothing to say. And it wasn't as though the NCC wasn't interested in the region: At the time of Behnam's murder, the NCC had a delegation in Lebanon to investigate the depredations of Israel's strikes against Hezbollah.

In contrast to the NCC's silence, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has responded to the plight of Iraqi Christians. On October 30, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, chair of the bishops' Committee on International Policy, complained to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the "rapidly deteriorating situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq."

"The recent beheading of a Syriac Orthodox priest in Mosul, the crucifixion of a Christian teenager in Albasra, the frequent kidnappings for ransom of Christians including four priests--one of whom was the secretary of Patriarch Delly--the rape of Christian women and teenage girls, and the bombings of churches are all indicators that the situation has reached a crisis point," Bishop Wenski wrote. "The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that approximately 44% of Iraqi refugees are Christian, even though they represent only about 4% of the total population of Iraq."

Bishop Wenski's letter urged consideration of a new "Administrative Region" in the Nineveh Plain Area that would provide a safe haven for Christians and other minorities. It also urged a "more generous refugee and asylum policy" for Iraqi Christians and others "compelled" to leave Iraq.

These proposals from the Catholic bishops, backed by many Iraqi Christians, may be imperfect. But at least they acknowledge the suffering and vulnerability of Iraq's Christians. Meanwhile, other church groups in the West prefer not to spend time and effort criticizing the Islamist torment of Iraq's Christians. That would only distract them from their anti-war campaigns against the United States.

Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.