Fr. Frans Van der Lugt prays with fellow Catholics inside a monastery in Homs, Syria.
Fr. Frans Van der Lugt prays with fellow Catholics inside a monastery in Homs, Syria. (Catholic News Service)

Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares of the Diocese of Phoenix will celebrate a Mass Feb. 16 to pray for the persecuted Church in the Middle East.

The birthplace of Christianity, thousands of Christians have fled the region in recent years due to violent persecution, wars and discrimination.

The secular news media have been largely silent as the number of Christians in the Middle East continues to dwindle.

In Homs, Syria, once home to one of the largest concentrations of Christians in the country, the suffering is palpable. Asia News, a Catholic media website, reported Feb. 5 that people there are dying from hunger.

Jesuit Father Frans Van der Lugt, who has been protecting both Christians and Muslims in his monastery, pleaded with the international community for help. Before the civil war, about 60,000 Christians lived in Homs. Today, Fr. Van der Lugt said, there are less than 66. Many have fled to nearby Lebanon.

Rona Ayache, a native of Lebanon, organized the upcoming Mass at St. Anne Parish. She said Catholics must not forget their brothers and sisters in the faith who are struggling for survival amidst a fierce persecution throughout the Middle East.

“Many clergy have been kidnapped and persecuted,” Ayache said. “They need our prayers. Our churches have been burned and destroyed.”

In neighboring Iraq, more than half the Christian population has fled or been killed since the 2003 American-led invasion. Bishop Faraj Raho, the late Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Mosul, was kidnapped and killed in 2008. Fr. Ragheed Ganni, who was once a correspondent for Asia News, was killed along with three subdeacons in 2007.

On Christmas day in 2013, a car bomb was detonated outside a Catholic Church in Baghdad killing 37 and wounding 52. An attack on a Catholic cathedral there in 2010 killed 58. Still, the faith endures.

“St. Paul went to Syria, Lebanon, all these areas,” Bishop Nevares said. “These are ancient churches, united with us, with love for our Holy Father and obedience to him. They are the ones being persecuted and martyred for the faith.”

Both Bishop Nevares and Ayache hope the Feb. 16 Mass will help draw attention to the ongoing struggle of Christians in the Middle East and the need to pray for them.

The Mass begins at 5 p.m. and will be held at St. Anne Parish, 440 E. Elliot Rd., Gilbert.