Standing with the Desolate
On nights like this one, when I find myself enveloped in alien darkness in an alien hotel room in a faraway land, I hear crying that the silence carries. The faces of all the people I know who are suffering in this country float before me in the stuffy air. As I try to make sense of the day, I flip through graphic pictures of kidnapped and tortured monks from a desert monastery I visited this morning.
As a human-rights advocate and researcher, I travel to people who are persecuted for their religion or ethnicity. I love traveling to distant lands, but I also dread the visits—there is a significant difference between going as a tourist and going as a researcher. I feel drained, as I do every time I come here.
A Muslim-background Christian, I have often found myself believing we are each alone. That's why I knock on all the doors of politicians, diplomats, and international bodies when I find out others are in danger because of their beliefs.
I still vividly remember the look on a church leader's face in Tehran as he told me, "I know that I am completely alone. Anyone can attack or arrest me. Anything can happen, and nobody will run to help me."
I know that feeling all too well.
When I received news in August 2008 that two Muslim-background Christians in Iran faced the death penalty for apostasy, I closed my eyes and thought of all the great people I knew in that land. Alongside another Christian in prison, I looked at the pictures of the men awaiting their verdict, to make sure I didn't lose sight of what I was doing and what was at stake.
As I set out to raise their cases, I also spoke for Baha'is in Iran, who have suffered much more than Christians have since the 1979 revolution. All seven leaders of the Baha'i national coordinating committee remain in the notorious Evin prison, simply because they are Baha'i.
Last autumn, as the international community started reacting to the apostasy cases, I received the good news that the three Christians had been released. I rejoiced solemnly, as safety is a long way off for others like them; the Iranian Parliament is working on a new law that would mandate the death penalty for those who leave Islam. With every e-mail and every phone conversation, I pray that this will not happen.
A long time ago, I stopped asking where God was in the midst of torture, indefinite detention, isolation, ostracism, and the denial of social and economic opportunities. He was with those whose dignity had been taken away. He was present in their suffering, and their sufferings were his.
The question was, where were we who were called to share their pain, to give food and water to Christ's thirsty and hungry representatives, and to comfort them during their ordeals?
So, even though every now and then I wonder how I end up in random places and difficult situations, I know why I am there. I am there as a response to an ethical imperative to love my neighbor as myself.
When Nietzsche said that he who has a "why" to live for can bear almost any "how," he was only partially right. A profound sense of smallness always haunts us in the face of giant ills, and the emotional effects of seeing the dark side of humanity up-close and personal every day are often quite disempowering.
This brings a constant internal clash. On some levels, we continue to stand firm and speak courageously; at the same time, we want to run away from all of it, away from traumas and coNFLicts, to find inner peace.
Whenever I find myself in such a dilemma, I start reciting Dietrich Bonhoeffer's poem "Who Am I?" He wrote it while in prison for standing against the Nazi machine; it reflects my struggle also. From outside, Bonhoeffer was a brave man fighting a dark evil, and everyone sees him as an unshaken hero. Yet when he reflected on his state of heart, he realized how fearful and weak he was.