The Year of Mercy and What It Means for Human Rights, Gonzaga Lecture, The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Glasgow

Jan 28, 2016 | Uncategorized

In thanking Ryan Day for inviting me to speak this evening I sense that this is also a rather clever way of imposing a Lenten Penance on you the audience.

In the best Jesuit tradition – and as the Romans divided Gaul into three parts – I note that there are three elements to the title which I was given for this evening: mercy; education and human rights.

It’s rather too much to cover in one lecture so I will try to unpack what a Catholic educator means by mercy and human rights and why a Christian education should root words like these in authentic Gospel values and not be frightened to question secular assumptions. I hope this will illustrate the approach which I think Catholic education should always take.

I am personally hugely grateful to the Catholic teachers – not least the Jesuits who opened the Grammar School where I and other sons of Irish and other immigrants – were given an education. We were taught to question, to take nothing at face value, to cultivate the virtues, and to be men and women for others.  My school, with its Jersuit emphasis on being “a man for others” re-enforced what my first educators, my parents, taught me –my father placing great importance on duty while my Irish speaking mother taught me about the strengths of family and community, looking out for others, and knowing who you are.

There were direct links between St.Aloysius School in Glasgow and my own school but the Catholic tradition of Christianity links more than 2000 British schools which educate three quarters of a million children – and that tradition gave birth to great universities such as Glasgow and St.Andrew’s, where I have had a Visiting Fellowship.

Although Ryan was responsible for the title it is of course Pope Francis who has proclaimed 2016 as a Year of Mercy. He has told us that “the name of God is Mercy”; that “the Church must be a place of mercy, freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” His central exhortation in – Evangelii GaudiumThe Joy of the Gospel (2013) and in his subsequent discourses has been that mercy is “Jesus’ most important message.”

  When Pope Francis opened the Holy Door at St.Peter’s to inaugurate this year of mercy he said that he hoped it would lead to fervent dialogue between the monotheistic religions all of whom profess to believe that mercy is one of God’s most important attributes.

As we witness a new genocide against religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians; and see war crimes committed by Muslims against Muslims all over that region, it is as well to recall that Muslims begin all their formal prayers –with the words “In the name of God, the most gracious, most merciful.”  Many Muslims contend that at special moments of the year – such as at the conclusion of the fasting month of Ramadan, abundant mercy flows through the very gates of heaven.

Perhaps Pope Francis had this in mind when he prayed that at this special time of jubilee for Christians from the Catholic tradition, the jubilee would“open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.”

He also says that to be effective we have to open the door“a crack” and recognise our own sinfulness. I was particularly struck by his description of his encounters what he calls his “special relationship” with prisoners, saying that whenever he goes to a prison to say mass “I always think: why them and not me? I should be here. I deserve to be here. Their fall could have been mine. I do not feel superior to the people who stand before me….This might seem shocking, but I derive consolation from Peter: he betrayed Jesus, and even so, he was chosen.”

But, whether or not you believe in God, the Pope’s challenge to seek forgiveness; to be forgiving; and to seek mercy strikes a chord.

Maybe they can at least agree with the Bard who, in Titus Andronicus, insisted that “Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge” while Abraham Lincoln saw the healing which the practice of mercy can bring to our communal as well as our personal affairs, remarking that “ I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice” – although I would add that in the Judaeo-Christian tradition the words justice and mercy are joined at the hip; like Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac.

At a moment when the world is witnessing so much visceral hatred – and where mercy and forgiveness are in such short supply – how good it is that Pope Francis has mobilised the whole Church – and those who live beyond its portals – to reflect on ways in which we can all put our hands to the plane and the lathe in the mercy factory.

There is a story about a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit who were sitting together in a room when suddenly the lights went out. Don’t worry, said the Franciscan let’s mediate on Brother Sun and Sister Moon until light fills our minds.  Unfortunately, they remained sitting in the darkness.  Next, the Dominican said I will preach a sermon – and he took as his text Chapter 5 of St. Matthew’s Gospel – that we should not hide our light under a bushel.  Unfortunately, the three friends remained in darkness. Finally, the Jesuit got up, left the room and as he returned moments later the lights came back on.  What did you do? The others asked. I changed the fuse, he said.

In some respects that is what our Jesuit Pope is doing; armed with his tool kit of practicalities he’s been changing the fuse, both in the Church and in the world. Of course, we need all the gifts of our rich tradition but as Esther was chosen “for such a time as this”, so Francis has been chosen for our time.

In practical ways – from the Central African Republic to Cuba, from Kenya to the UN General Assembly  – has been a demand for mercy – especially for the weak, the marginalised, the dispossessed.

In his book – his toolkit –  “The Name of God is Mercy” he rebukes “scholars of the law” who “live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries.” He uses the metaphor of “the field hospital” in describing the sort of place the Church should be – a place where all can find forgiveness and mercy – especially “to those who are the most wounded.” The Church must be a field hospital for the wounded.

 These ideas are rooted in the words of Christ Himself – who rebuked the lawyers and the Pharisees, the whited sepulchres – who were so obsessed with legalism that they could not see the man or woman made in God’s image   –        “ before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity” – and were devoid of compassion or understanding.

These timeless ideas – which place such a great emphasis on human dignity – are to be found in the traditional teachings of  the Church – not least in the Corporal and Spiritual works of mercy. Aquinas – building on Aristotle and forging the enlightened concept of Natural Law –  reckoned mercy to be a special virtue directly linked to the notion of justice. The traditional enumeration of the corporal works of mercy, rooted in Jesus’ injunctions to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, are:

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbour the harbourless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

While the spiritual works of mercy are:

  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead

Francis tells us that we must be merciful, as Christ was merciful. He says that when we reach out to the refugee or the homeless, or “immigrants who have survived the crossing and who land on our shores we touch the flesh of Christ in he who is outcast, hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, ill, unemployed, persecuted, in search of refuge.” 

There is not time this evening to talk about each of these groups of people – although I have done so on numerous other occasions and  copies of my remarks are on my web site – but Ryan did ask me to say something about the relationship between mercy and the fight for human rights.

My starting point in fighting for the human rights of every unique person is the Book of Genesis. Here we are told that every man and woman is made in the image and the likeness of God Himself. Whatever characteristics we have they are a reflection of God’s own image. God made us uniquely different from one another and it is this beauty of difference that we must honour and cherish. Jonathan Sacks calls it the dignity of difference.

Every person uniquely reflects the Divine Likeness, and for that reason alone we are required to uphold the dignity of each – and fight against those who would trample on that dignity. And yet, human rights are violated on a daily basis in every corner of the world.

We see this in modern day slavery, human trafficking, gross exploitation, child labour, political prisoners, torture, crimes against humanity, denial of free speech, the right to worship, the suppression of difference, and even genocide.

In every generation challenges emerge with which we are called, in our time to grapple.

The idea of the rights of man are synonymous with the 18th century philosopher, Thomas Paine. Writing of the world in which he lived he said “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  But that is surely true of all times. He was right, though, that if we want to be the beneficiaries of free societies we must cherish our rights and work for them in every generation: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” Two centuries later, the failure to do that had catastrophic consequences.

The infamies of the 20th century—from the Armenian genocide to the defining depredations of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps – led to endless horrors:  from the pestilential nature of persecution, demonization, scapegoating and hateful prejudice; and, notwithstanding violence associated with religion, it emerged primarily from ideology, nation and race. It was the bloodiest century in human history with the loss of 100 million lives.

One outcome was the promulgation, in 1948, of the 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 1 insists that All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Let’s consider just two of those 30 Articles.

Article 3 states that Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.  This right to life is the supreme human right and trumps all others – not least the so-called right to “choose”.

 While Article 18 insists that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”.

In reflecting, first, on Article 3, which enshrines that supreme right – the right to life itself – we need to say when life begins.

It was Nature Magazine that reminded us about when life begins. In an editorial entitled “Your Destiny from Day One” it states:

 “Your world was shaped in the first 24 Hours after conception. Where your head and feet would sprout, and which side would form your back and which your belly, were being defined in the minutes and hours after sperm and egg united.”

Next year, 2017, it will be 50 years since Parliament made what had been a criminal offence a legal right. Since then there have been 8 million abortions – around 600 every working day in the multi-million pound abortion industry. In 99.5% of cases where an unborn child’s life is ended there is no risk to the health of the mother. Other figures reveal that 3 teenage girls have had 24 abortions between them and that some women have had more than 8 legal abortions. With evidence accumulating of abortions carried out on the grounds of gender and of forged authorisation forms these figures underline why a rigorous independent review of the 1967 Act is long overdue and why society needs to reassess the presumption that ending the life of an unborn child is merely a matter of choice: indeed, even a right.

The law was supposed to be for “hard cases” – it has led to a throw away culture, and also to eugenics, with abortion up to and even during birth for a baby with a disability and to gendercide, the abortion of girls purely because of their gender.  Through our aid programmes we have indirectly supported coercive one child policies in countries like China. In addition it has led to destructive experiments on 2 million human embryos and the creation of animal human hybrids and so-called three parent families.

It has been said that a country which kills its own children has no future. That’s true. And a country which accepts infanticide or the killing of a little girl or a little boy because of their gender; the killing of a baby because of a disability; or the killing of a child because it is inconvenient, the wrong shape, or the wrong colour – and then removes the right to refuse to be complicit in such deeds- also forfeits its right to call itself civilized.

Pope John Paul II, in his inspirational encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, said that all have a right to life, upon recognition of which “every human community and the political community are founded.”  He was emphatic:

“To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognise that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom.”

At the other end of the spectrum it has led to demands that we follow Holland and Belgium in legalising the killing of the sick or disabled people. Mercifully, and perhaps mindful to where the assurances given in 1967 concerning abortion have led,  both the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament have both rejected euthanasia and assisted suicide in these jurisdictions.

Paradoxically, given the title of this evening’s lecture, in a subversion of language and in the high style of euphemism some choose to call euthanasia this “mercy killing”. The distortion of language and the relationship between truth and mercy might be worth a lecture all of its own.

Baroness (Mary) Warnock, one of Britain’s most influential philosophers – and whose report led to the industrial destruction of human embryos – gave us a glimpse of the sort of economic considerations that will threaten the human rights of the sick and disabled people. In arguing for a change in the law she said, in an article in The Times:

“If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives—your family’s lives—and you’re wasting the resources of the NHS”.

There is a fundamental divide between those of us who measure life in terms of the right to life and the duty to protect life and those who measure life by its quality. Those who believe in a culture of life will work for the provision of hospices and palliative care. To die with dignity we do not need doctors to kill us.

One of the pioneers of eugenics was the British abortionist, Marie Stopes, after whom clinics have been named and Royal Mail commemorative stamps issued. In 1935 she declared: No society “should allow the diseased, the racially-negligent, the careless, the feeble-minded, and the very lowest and worst members of the community to produce innumerable tens of thousands of warped and inferior infants.”   This is racist eugenics and an absolute denial of human rights, human life and human dignity.

The UK has exported what Pope John Paul memorably called “the culture of death” to other parts of the world.

For decades Britain’s aid programme indirectly aided and abetted China’s coercive population policies: the one child policy, where it has been illegal to have a brother or a sister.

This abuse of human rights has led to “gendercide”, to population imbalance and distortion: with 117 boys being born for every 100 girls. It is leading to human trafficking and sexual slavery; to a black market in stolen children – estimated to be 70,000 a year; to health problems and female suicide – The World Health Organisation say China’s is the highest in the world.

Where was the public outcry about the violation of her human rights whenThe South China Morning Post detailed the case of Jin Yani?

One night Jin Yani was woken up by Family Planning Police. They battered down the door of her home. As she screamed with terror they pulled her onto the street in her nightclothes. Even though she was nine months pregnant, and this was her first child, she was manhandled to the family planning centre, where, despite her desperate pleas, five officials pinned her to her bed, stripped her, and injected saline solution through her womb into her unborn child.  The loss of blood nearly killed Jin Yani and after chronic haemorrhaging she was hospitalised for 44 days. Now infertile, and having challenged the officials in court, she and her husband, Yang, went into hiding, in fear of their lives.

A former operative in a Chinese one child clinic escaped and gave evidence to the American Congress. Mrs Gao Xiao Duan said:

“A baby of nine months gestation had poison injected into its skull and the child died and was thrown into a trash can.” 

 The Sunday Times reported that a man was tortured to death in Hunan after refusing to reveal the whereabouts of his pregnant wife.

The Independent newspaper first reported the case of a blind bare foot human rights lawyer, Chen Guangchen who had been arrested after exposing the situation in Shandong province where he said that over a 12 month period 120,000 women had been coerced into abortions – some 9 months pregnant. For doing so he served a 4 year prison sentence before escaping from the country – and last year I was proud to present him with the Westminster Award for Human Rights, Human Life, and Human Dignity.

Perhaps it takes a blind man to see what we, who have eyes, choose not to see.

Worldwide, our legislators have permitted the abortion of hundreds of millions of unborn babies on the specious pretext that such decisions can be reduced to a matter of personal choice: an exercise in autonomy where ethics are reduced to a mere trial of strength. My “right to choose” is the leitmotif against which the debate is played out and which seeks to trump Article 3 and the Right to Life.

When this impoverished slogan is subjected to forensic analysis its inadequacy is rapidly exposed. “Me” or “I” rather than “You” or “We”assumes paramount importance; rights supersede responsibilities, duties, or obligations; and choice takes little account of the consequences of our actions.

In 1906, in Orthodoxy the Catholic convert, great English writer, and master of paradox, G.K.Chesterton, said that “to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.” Our admiration for mere choice above all other considerations has never been greater.

In a climate of blacklisting speakers or denying a platform to speakers who dare to contest this canard, educators should go back to C.S.Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man” and especially his description of the consequences when educators simply become “conditioners” , as hi puts it, warning that the conditioner “bid the gelding to be fruitful” and then proceeds to castrate it.

To what does it lead when we fail to contest the double-speak and the euphemistic language favoured by those who promote their new intolerance?

Just two weeks ago the UK abortion provider, BPAS launched a campaign to legalise abortion-on-demand, up-to-birth, for any reason. The Royal College of Midwives – without any consultation of their members – have announced their support for this campaign.

In the same week, a man was convicted for child destruction under the Infant Life Preservation Act, 1929 which is part of the suite legislation governing abortion BPAS have just announced that they are trying to repeal.

What does it say about our laws that this man has just been given life for killing his son in utero by beating up the mother with intent to kill the baby after she refused to abort while 8 million unborn babies can be killed in their mother’s wombs and we say that’s just a matter of choice.

Let me develop this point about how inconsistent we are in shaping both our priorities and the contrast between the rights we cherish and those on which we trample.

A national newspaper reported that a goldfish has undergone a 45-minute operation in Bristol to remove multiple tumours from around its eye and back.

The five-year-old fish, named Monty, had to be put under general anaesthetic for the “very delicate” £200 procedure.
Vets used water soluble anaesthetic to knock the goldfish out before operating to remove its eye.
Sonya Miles, who assisted in the operation, said: “Monty is doing exceptionally well at home and is acting as if nothing has happened.”
“He was a brilliant patient and the surgery went very smoothly from start to finish,” said Ms Miles.
“We don’t perform surgery on goldfish very often but we are seeing a definite increase in veterinary treatment in fish generally,”

Meanwhile, while we intervene to save the life of a goldfish ethicists tell us that killing new born babies is no different from abortion.

A group of medical ethicists linked to Oxford University has argued that parents should be allowed to have their new-born babies killed because they are “morally irrelevant” and ending their lives is no different to abortion.

The article, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, says new-born babies are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life”. The academics also argue that parents should be able to have their baby killed if it turns out to be disabled when it is born.

Rather than being “actual persons”, new-borns were “potential persons”. They explained: “Both a foetus and a new-born certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’.

They also argued that parents should be able to have the baby killed if it turned out to be disabled without their knowing before birth, for example citing that “only the 64 per cent of Down’s syndrome cases” in Europe are diagnosed by prenatal testing. 90% of Down’s babies are now routinely killed in the UK and, in Parliament, I recently raised the case of a hospital putting a Do Not Resuscitate notice over the NHS hospital bed occupied by a patient with Down’s syndrome.

They Oxford academics did not argue that some baby killings were more justifiable than others – their fundamental point was that, morally, there was no difference to abortion as already practised.
They preferred to use another euphemistic phrase “after-birth abortion” rather than “infanticide” to “emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a foetus”.

So we have these two stories two stories – one about an operation on a goldfish to remove tumours and one from Oxford academics saying a new-born baby has no right to life.  Perhaps when a fox arrives at Westminster brandishing a placard saying “save the human race” we will see the illogicality of some of the causes we embrace and of some of our priorities.

Ironically, over twenty years ago I left my political party when in the morning it passed a Resolution calling for protection, among other things, for goldfish being sold at fun fairs and in amusement arcades, while, in the afternoon, it passed a Resolution to extend the abortion laws, rescinding the traditional “conscience” right of every member to come to their own conclusions about the taking of the life of an unborn child.

The erosion of conscience is also about human rights. Article 19 of the UDHR sates that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference.”

Where were human rights groups in defending the conscience rights of the two senior Scottish Catholic midwives who have lost their jobs having been told that they have no right of conscience in refusing to oversee mid and late term abortions, many on the grounds of disability? This old but new brutalism is an attempt by our Courts to subvert conscience.

This represents dictatorship – and attempt to corall us all into a cattle pen where we are forced to be complicit in the deliberate taking of innocent human life.

And how does this accord with Pope Francis’ call to engage in acts of mercy?

While speaking to a group of young people in Havana last year, Pope Francis slammed today’s “throwaway culture” that has little regard for the abandoned, the sick, and those whom society deems fit to “throw away.”

He called on us to defend the “smallest” and most vulnerable members of society, more particularly the unborn children, instead of supporting their death and suffering.

“Children aren’t loved, they’re killed before being born…The elderly are thrown away, because they don’t produce.”

He warned parents on the consequences of using prenatal testing to screen for selective abortion, with some parents choosing to “return it (the baby) before it comes into the world.”

Francis said that people should prioritise these “throw away” discarded members of society, since Jesus Christ Himself said: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”

Life begins at conception but it doesn’t end at birth; and the culture of death does not end when we venture from our mother’s wombs.

We must be positively pro-life, from the womb to the tomb, for the mother and the child, for the sick and the dying, for good medicine, ethical science, just laws. This is a daunting challenge but our world desperately needs to rediscover the beauty and mystery of life and to uphold a culture of life in place of our contemporary culture of death.   It is also the defence of the greatest of human rights – the right to life itself.

Let me also says something about Article 18 – which insists on our right to believe, not to believe or to change our beliefs. In 1965, in Dignitatis Humanae, the Church set out its own declaration on “the right of every person – and of communities – to social and civil freedom in matters religious”.

Yet, these human rights are trampled on daily. A Pew Research Centre study begun a decade ago found that of the 185 nations studied, religious repression was recorded in 151 of them – and there is a direct correlation between a nation’s prosperity and its protection of freedom of religion or belief.

Yet we take a wholly inconsistent approach to Article 18. We denounce some countries while appeasing others who directly enable jihad through financial support or the sale of arms. Western powers are seen as hypocrites when our business interests – in countries like Saudi Arabia – determine how offended we are by gross human rights abuses.

Who can doubt that this essential freedom needs to be given far greater emphasis and priority in these troubled times?

Jonathan Sack’s brilliant critique, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, is required reading for anyone trying to comprehend what motivates people to kill Christian students in Kenya, Shia Muslims praying in a mosque in Kuwait, Pakistani Anglicans celebrating the Eucharist in Peshawar or British tourists simply holidaying in Tunisia and for anyone trying to understand the dramatic rise in Christian persecution, the vilification of Islam in some parts of the world and, in Europe, the troubling reawakening of anti-Semitism.

Although there are echoes of Europe’s seventeenth century religious wars, never forget that the four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot—were united by their hatred of religious faith.

Seventy years later, all over the world, from North Korea  – which I describe in detail in my book on life in that country – to Syria, the dishonouring of Article 18 is evident in new concentration camps, abductions, rape, imprisonment, persecution, public flogging, mass murder, beheadings and the mass displacement of millions of people. Not surprisingly, the All-Party Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, of which I am Vice Chairman, in the title of its influential report, described Article 18 as “an orphaned right”.  Last week we issued a further report detailing the situation in Pakistan.

That report is the result of a visit I made to the detention centres in South East Asia where many escaping Pakistani Christians are incarcerated. I followed it up with evidence taking sessions at Westminster where we heard how a year ago a mob of 1,200 people forced two children to watch as their Christian parents were burned alive; which has imposed the death penalty on a mother of five, Asia Bibi, for so-called blasphemy

It still has to bring to justice the murderers of Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s Catholic Minister for Minorities who was assassinated in 2011; and our 100 page report, which is online, highlights excesses committed not just against Christians but against Shias, Hindus and Ahmadis. This is a country where churchgoers have been murdered in their pews and yet will receive £405 million of British aid this year, making £1.17 billion since 2011.

How is our aid programme making a difference there? How does our aid programme assist in promoting human rights and religious freedom?

Or take Eritrea, which is in receipt of a $300-million aid programme handed over to the Afwerki regime by the European Union, and to which the UK has contributed. In June the United Nations said that Eritrea is a country which is likely to have carried out gross human rights violations. Some 5,000 people leave Eritrea every month. A total of 350,000 people, 10% of the population, have fled: some, having reached Libya, to be beheaded by ISIS.

Every single day, in an orgy of violence, ISIS violates Article 18. It is also responsible for genocide.

In 1948, the same year that the UDHR was promulgated, the newly constituted General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

A few days ago both the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe  passed resolutions stating that the atrocities being committed against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq should be declared a genocide.  75 parliamentarians, from both Houses and all parties – including the former head of our Armed Forces, the ex-head of MI5, and some of our leading jurists, including Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC, wrote to the Prime Minister urging the UK Government to do the same.

These calls have been made as the world has been commemorating the centenary of the Armenian genocide, in which between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Assyrian Christians lost their lives. It is impossible not to see today’s events as anything other than a continuation of that shocking story.

I recently read Franz Werfel’s harrowing and prophetic novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, published in 1933. It was based on a true story about the Armenian genocide. His books were burnt by the Nazis and banned in Turkey, no doubt to try to assist in the process of collective amnesia. (In 1939, the eve of the Holocaust, Hitler famously asked: “Who now remembers the Armenians?”)

Werfel – a Jewish writer who converted to Catholicism and also wrote The Song of Bernadette – tells the story of several thousand Christians who took refuge on the mountain of Musa Dagh (Moses Mountain). The Armenians were a remnant who fought back against the genocide and, without the dramatic intervention of the French navy, would have perished on the mountain.

An Armenian priest, Fr Bezdikian, whose grandfather had been involved in the siege, later remarked: “Franz Werfel is the national hero of the Armenian people. His great book is a kind of consolation to us – no, not a consolation, there is no such thing – but it is of eminent importance to us that this book exists. It guarantees that it can never be forgotten, never, what happened to our people.”

But how quickly we did forget the massacres, rapes, robberies, forced labour, desecrations, and deportation on death marches of women, children, the elderly
and infirm – all of which has an eerily and uncannily familiar ring to it today, as do the heart-breaking reports of Christian children starving to death.

In the same year that Werfel published Musa Dagh, and deeply affected by both the Armenian annihilation and the 1933 Simele massacre of Assyrian Christians in Iraq, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer, began to campaign for what he called an international law against barbarity. In 1943, during the Holocaust, when 49 of his own relatives had been murdered by the Nazis, Lemkin coined the word “genocide”, combining the Greek word genos, (“family, tribe or race”) and the Latin wordcaedere (“to kill”).

In 1948, Lemkin went on to draft the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The signatories declared that they would never again tolerate any “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

Pope Francis has said that a genocide is underway against the region’s Christians

Last month ISIS had obliterated Mosul’s ancient, stone-walled monastery of St Elijah, dating from the 6th century, where monks had etched the words Chi Rho, the first Greek letters of the word Kristos, “Christ”.

This attempt to eradicate memory has been accompanied by the obliteration of Christ’s followers. Last year 200 Assyrian Christians in the Khabur River Valley in Syria were kidnapped. Jihadist websites showed graphic executions of some of the group, warning that others would be executed if the ransoms remained unpaid.

In Iraq and Syria, the Christian population has been devastated. The vicious and seemingly unending violence in Syria has driven more than four million refugees out of the country. At least an additional 7.6 million people are displaced. Most of the Christian remnant, from Nineveh, are struggling to survive in makeshift and intolerable conditions in Kurdistan – supported through the heroic efforts of the charity, Aid to the Church In Need.

Along with the Yazidi community, Christians have been told to convert or die. Children have been seized, propagandised and indoctrinated with jihadist ideology. The United Nations says ISIS is holding around 3,500 slaves, mostly women and children, as hostages.

A House of Commons Motion has been tabled drawing attention to the UN report, to the beheadings, crucifixions, shootings, burnings, other murders, torture, rape and extensive violence. It urges the British Government to ensure that “the provisions of the genocide convention are urgently, legitimately and effectively invoked and implemented”.

The Government should present the evidence of genocide to the UN – the names, the dates, the photographs of atrocities; the numbers killed, tortured, abducted or sold into sexual slavery; the accounts of forced conversions; the churches, shrines and manuscripts destroyed.

Why? So that those responsible are brought to justice.

We endlessly talk of something vaguely called “British values” and talk a great deal about human rights. One value, one belief that particularly marks us out from the ideology of ISIS is our belief in the rule of law.

As a signatory to the genocide convention, it is a dereliction of our duty to uphold international law if we do not take the action that should follow our signature, our voice and our military action.

These examples of human rights which we should uphold and cherish – the right to life itself; the right to conscience; the right to freedom or religion or belief – and the whole raft of other human rights – are rooted in our Christian belief that “imago Dei” we are all made in God’s image. Regardless of colour, class, gender, age, orientation, creed or ability we are each made in His image and, therefore, worthy of protection. Those of us who enjoy freedom and liberty must use them on behalf of those who do not have the same opportunities.

Our first duty is to first educate ourselves, and then to educate society.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga would have been familiar with the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola who said that “Love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words…. if one has knowledge, he shares it with the one who does not possess it.”

Having shared our knowledge we then have a duty to use all the tools available to us in a democratic society:

Pope Benedict, in Deus Caritas Est, his rhapsodic call to arms says that“Love needs to be organised if it is to be an ordered service to the community”.”

We are called to be more than savages.  These two interwoven principles of mercy and justice will not come about of their own volition. They require us to organise ourselves and not to give up at the first obstacle. If we simply dilute our Faith and seek to mimic secular society we will not deserve to be taken seriously.  Being clear about your own faith is good for other faiths and a vibrant public culture needs diverse voices which know what they believe.

Let me end by invoking Blessed John Henry Newman – who passionately believed in authentic Catholic education. He reminded us that there is a unique task assigned to each one of us and that the challenge is to discover what the task is. And Cardinal Newman also gave encouragement to those of us who feel less than ready or less than perfect: “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”

Pope Francis constantly reminds us that although we are far from perfect but that should not deter us.

Who knows, we may also discover that by engaging in these acts of mercy we not only make some small change in someone else’s life but we change ourselves for the better too.

Maybe then we will be able to join with the poet, Alexander Pope in saying: “”Teach me to feel another’s woe, to hide the fault I see, that mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me.”

But let me leave the last word to Pope Francis:

Pope Francis Mercy

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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