First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
In the 1950s, the Christian pastor Martin Niemöller (who supported the Nazi regime, before being imprisoned by them for his opposition) wrote this poem, which has since become famous for its message of universal responsibility and speaking up for “the other.”
The poem was written in the years following World War II and in the context of the Holocaust. But its message — that minorities (indeed, everyone) cannot just look out for themselves, and that we must not stay silent when others in society are facing persecution — is one that still resonates and, sadly, is as relevant as ever.
Today, Christians, Yazidis and others are persecuted by Islamists in the Middle East and beyond. From Iraq to Egypt, Syria to Pakistan, religious minorities face daily persecution from ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood and other violent Islamist groups.
According to a letter sent to Secretary of State John Kerry from the American Center for Law and Justice, ISIS has killed thousands of Christians and Yazidis and subjected thousands more to rape and enslavement. They have destroyed their places of worship, livelihoods and homes. The letter warns that the Christian population is rapidly decreasing in Iraq and Syria, and that Christians are often forced to choose between converting to Islam, paying a protection tax called jizya, fleeing their homes or being killed.
In a hearing last Thursday before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Carl Anderson said, “The world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II is unfolding now in the Middle East … These communities may disappear in less than a decade. But their fate is not inevitable.” Anderson, the CEO and Chairman of the Knights of Columbus, a major Catholic philanthropic organization, added that, “We have a unique opportunity—and some would say, unique responsibility—to protect the victims of genocide.”
Faithkeepers is a powerful documentary film, due to be released later this year, which will shine a spotlight on what is happening in the Middle East. Using moving personal testimonies, and dramatic original animation, the film paints the picture of what life is like for those facing violence, destruction and oppression at the hands of Islamist extremists, and takes viewers on a journey with the courageous survivors of persecution as they recount their ordeals. The film aims to wake up America, and the whole world, to the horrors of their persecution and banish the silence.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1986, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said:
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
It is incumbent on every human – regardless of religion, ethnicity or nationality – to stand up and speak out against what is happening. Neutrality is not good enough. Silence is not good enough.