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In memory of my brother, Naseem Fahim

It was a good Lent in so many ways for my family, and as my wife and I got the kids ready for Palm Sunday Mass, there was a sense of anticipation throughout our home.

Then I saw the news: Islamic State had snuffed out the lives of 46 Coptic Christians at Palm Sunday liturgies in Tanta and Alexandria, Egypt. As we got the kids into the car, memories of my trip to Alexandria 20 years ago came back. 

“It is hard to say,” an Egyptian friend, Ramses, emailed from the Middle East later that week as dozens of funerals took place and as the details of the bombings began to fade in my mind, “but I do wish you a happy Easter. Although we celebrate the risen Jesus, our hearts are heavy with grief for and with the many families.”

Ramses included a link to an interview with Samira Fahim, whose husband Naseem, 54, stood guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. In security camera footage, I watched Naseem direct the suicide bomber away from the main door — thereby saving untold lives — and toward the metal detector, seconds before the entire street turned into a conflagration. 

“I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you,” Samira addressed her aggressors, “I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds. I am sure Naseem has been happy to give his life for Christ.”  She added, “When we talked about this one day, he said that he would be willing to defend the Church with his own blood.”

As the interview ended, Muslim Egyptian journalist Amr Adeeb let 12 seconds of silence pass before he said, “Egyptian Christians are made of steel! How great is this forgiveness you have … These people are made from a different substance!”

While our steely Egyptian Christian brethren undergo this martyrdom, I am on the sidelines. ISIS is executing a strategy to drive the Fahim family and countless others from their homelands of the past 2,000 years, and I just watch from my iPhone.  

Attempting to find some foothold on the mountain of this issue, I recently attended a day-long summit -- co-sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute and University of Notre Dame -- entitled “What is to be Done? Responding to the Global Persecution of Christians,” at which scholars and other leaders outlined the threat, a new study, and a way forward.

“Some things are worth standing for,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl in a keynote address. “We need our collective voice loud enough to be heard over the indolence of indifference … Two things need to be present for Christians to be persecuted: First, those willing to commit the violence, and secondly, those who are willing to be silent.” I winced, sensing that I belonged to the latter category.

In a sweeping new study, Daniel Philpott of Notre Dame outlined how 500 million persecuted Christians today demonstrate a “creative pragmatism” and deep “theological hope” through strategies of survival, association (by building ties) and confrontation. Over 80 specific and actionable proposals conclude the report.

At the family dinner table that evening, I gave a recap before playing the Fahim interview. The boys quickly decided to steer some of their allowance to Aid to the Church in Need, but our 8-year-old daughter had the last word.  “We’ve got to pray for them every night,” she said simply.   

A few days later, my 12-year-old son brought me a letter addressed to our member of Congress. “As an American,” he wrote, “I am grateful for my rights, but it has occurred to me that it’s near impossible to enjoy them, knowing the conflict that is happening.”

“Bullets are flying and heads rolling is what they’re experiencing,” he continued, “and as a devoted Catholic I think such things belong in hell. For my heart trembles to think that fellow Christians are being persecuted at the rate of at least one death an hour — every single day. From now on I resolve to take actions, this being my first — a simple plea for you to spread the word and help my beloved Christians and others. The world must know to get off their seats, help the lonely and scared, and halt ISIS in, if at all possible, a non-violent way. For we must forgive, not kill.”

“I have the greatest gratitude for you,” my sixth-grader concluded, “but please push further for better results. God bless you. Thank you.”

Some things are worth standing for. Now on Sundays in Alexandria, Naseem Fahim’s son George stands guard at the same door of St. Mark’s. Pope Francis will visit Egypt on April 28-29. In solidarity with the Fahims, we need to find credible and workable ways to honor Naseem’s life and forestall more bloodshed. From now on, each of us owes it to the Fahim family to push further for better results.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is the bishop’s Delegate for Evangelization and Media.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017