Beirut (AsiaNews) – Like in a flashback that almost never ends, Syrian Catholic Bishop Flavianus Michael Malke was beatified last Saturday during a religious ceremony at the Patriarchal Convent of Our Lady of Deliverance in Harissa, Lebanon.
The proclamation was made a century and a day after the bishop was killed because of his faith during the 1915 genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans. However, for everyone that genocide seems to be a background to the recent genocide or rather ethnocide by the Islamic State group in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in 2013 with the support of certain regional powers.
Patriarch Ignace Youssef III Younan, who led the beatification ceremony, described the event as “historic”, coming a few months after Pope Francis referred to the Armenian tragedy of a hundred years ago as a “genocide”.
Born in 1858 in Kalaat Mara (near Mardin, in present-day Turkey), the future bishop saw his mother murdered and his church looted and burnt during the 1895 massacres. Ordained in 1913 as bishop of Mardin and Gazarta (modern-day Cizre, in south-eastern Turkey), Michael Malke lived in extreme poverty, going so far as to sell his liturgical vestments to help the poor.
During the summer of 1915, he quickly decided to return to his diocese as soon as he learnt that violence would come to his city. Despite calls by his friends to leave Turkey, he said he would “never” leave. Instead, “I will spill my blood for my flock.”
He was arrested on 28 August along with Chaldean Bishop Jacques Abraham. Pressured to convert to Islam, the two men steadfastly refused. In view of this, Mgr Abraham was shot dead whilst Bishop Malke, 57, was beaten unconscious before he was beheaded. His body was eventually thrown into the Al-Doujla (Tiger) River.
The new blessed is the second eastern bishop to be officially recognised by the Vatican as a martyr in odium fidei (In hatred of the faith). In 2001, John Paul II beatified Ignatius Maloyan, Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Mardin (Turkey), in an effort to highlight his sacrifice, and encourage the faithful of his Church to remain in their land.
The martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist
The beatification ceremony was held in presence of Bechara al-Rahi, Gregorios III and Aram I, three patriarchs representing the Maronite, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Catholic Melkite Churches, as well as representatives of all the Eastern Patriarchs and Mgrs Gabriele Caccia and Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncios to Lebanon and Syria.
Many priests and religious figures whose orders are present in Syria and Iraq, and a small crowd of Syriac Catholics were also present at the ceremony, which took place in a sweltering heat. Card Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, read the papal bull bestowing the title of blessed on the martyred bishop.
In his homily, Patriarch Younan noted the extraordinary coincidence that the beatification of Bishop Michael Malke on 29 August falls on the same date that the Catholic Church commemorates the beheading of John the Baptist. This goes to show that, through the centuries, faith has often been tried in the crucible of martyrdom.
Making the link between the 1915 genocide and what is happening at present, especially in Syria and Iraq, the Patriarch said that any answer as to why a people is uprooted, stripped of his country, forced to wander can only find an answer in faith. "The secret of suffering cannot be understood,” he said. “It is to be accepted in the spirit of Christ."
The 1915 genocide virtually wiped out the presence of Syrian Catholics in Turkey. Today, out of 80 million Turks, some “50,000 belong to our Church”.
The attack against Baghdad cathedral
During the ceremony, the prelate also announced that in 2016 his Church plans to begin another cause of beatification, that of the 48 victims of the bomb attack that devastated Baghdad’s Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) Syriac Chaldean Catholic Cathedral during Sunday Mass, noting that the two priests who officiated that day died in the explosion.
The patriarch also mentioned the expulsion of Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain (2013), the recent kidnapping of 200 Christian families in Quaryatayn (province of Homs, Syria), and that of Fr Jacques Mourad who is still missing after three months, not to mention the destruction of the monastery of Saint Elian, which dates back to the fifth century.
"Have they been slaughtered, forced to recant their faith, sold as slaves? We do not know,” the prelate said about what might have befallen the abducted families in the hands of the Islamic State group. Likewise, the two bishops of Aleppo, Syrian Catholic Youhanna Ibrahim, and Greek Orthodox Boulos Yazigi, missing after more than three years were not forgotten.
For someone as levelled-headed as Patriarch Younan, the current situation does not mean that we have to accept it as a fait accompli. As he does every time he speaks to the public or the media, Patriarch Younan slammed the “passivity of the great powers” that “claim to defend liberty” but abandon entire communities “who took the risk of staying”.
Similarly, the patriarch did not fail to note that all the Christians of the East – Chaldean, Assyrians, Maronites, Melkites, and Armenians – are as threatened as Syriac Catholics, adding that "when the persecution is not physical, it is moral."
The prelate slammed the great powers for shirking their duty to extend hospitality to refugees, leaving instead a small country like Lebanon to face the burden of hundreds of thousands of displaced people. "Where is the world’s conscience?” he asked for the umpteenth time.
Speaking about Lebanon, he slammed “some Lebanese leaders for the insouciance with which they failed to live up to their duties to the country," when they could have "provided reassurances to the Christians of Lebanon and the East by electing a president of the Republic ".
A hymn written in honour of the new Blessed was sung during the religious ceremony. His life-like icon and bust will officially present him to the faithful. His feast day will be celebrated on 28 August, the day of his martyrdom.