Two-hundred ten years ago this Sunday, on August 3, 1804 at half past two o’clock in the afternoon, Commodore Edward Preble raised the signal for his squadron to commence the bombardment of the harbor of Tripoli. His second division of gunboats was commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, who had won international renown for his earlier daring exploits rescuing the crew of the U.S.S. Philadelphia. The bombardment of the city would culminate with the surrender of the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, in June of the following year.
Stephen Decatur was a charismatic and daring leader. The legendary British admiral, Lord Nelson, is supposed to have called Decatur’s recapture of the Philadelphia “the most bold and daring act of the Age.” Pope Pius VII declared, “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble and humiliate the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Later, during the fight for Tripoli, Captain Decatur was the first to board an enemy vessel and once again put his life at risk to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of cowardly pirates who had feigned surrender.
The Barbary Wars which are immortalized in the opening stanza of the Marine Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma/To the shores of Tripoli…” marked the beginning of the end to centuries of enslavement of Christians by the Barbary pirates. By the nineteenth century, the numbers of Christians being captured had already started to fall, but only because many of the coastal villages along the Mediterranean Sea had already been completely depopulated. The practice would not be completely eradicated until the 1830’s when North Africa came under direct French and Ottoman control.
We are taught to think of conflicts between Muslims and Christians as belonging to some distant mediæval past, but in truth these same battles were raging just 80 or 100 years ago in places like Armenia, Bosnia, and of course, Libya. If anything, the idea that Islam and Christianity can peacefully coexist is at best an occasional anomaly which has interrupted centuries of bloodshed. Recent events confirm that anti-Christian violence today is not a fluke or an exception, but is a continuing problem with a long history. Radical and extremist groups will never be content until they have totally eradicated Christians and Jews from Muslim lands, and perhaps not even then. These exponents of radical and violent Islam may be a minority for now, but their influence continues to grow.
President Obama began his term confronting Muslim pirates off the coast of East Africa in April of 2009. In one of history’s great ironies, the destroyer which carried the U.S. Navy SEALs who rescued Captain Richard Phillips from the Somalian pirates was named for Stephen Decatur’s friend, Commodore William Bainbridge who had commanded the U.S.S. Philadelphia against the Barbary pirates over two centuries before. In 2011, your humble columnist was among the many people around the world who watched with excitement and hoped that moderate secular governments founded on principles of liberty and human dignity might take root in the Arab Spring that swept across the region. Instead, the Arab Spring has become a raging torrent of blood that has washed away those hopes.
Three and a half years into the Obama presidency, our ambassador to Libya was slaughtered and dragged through the streets of Benghazi as a trophy on September 11, 2012. Since then, we have only seen a tragic escalation of atrocities. In Nigeria girls as young as 16 are being forced into concubinage. In Syria, rebels are being crucifed. In Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, holy places are being burned and sacked when they are not destroyed outright. In Sudan, the persecution of Christians is not limited to Miriam Ibrahim, but has been happening in Darfur for years and continues today. Most recently, this past weekend, our embassy in Tripoli has been forced to evacuate entirely. The situation across the Muslim world is growing worse by the day. Oh, and lest we forget, Iran is still enriching uranium so they can make a nuclear bomb.
Looking across the wasteland and desolation of two world wars, J.R.R. Tolkien eloquently summarized Catholic teaching of just war in his epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” Our innocent brothers and sisters in faith across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia face a daily struggle for survival. As Christians, this is also our struggle. They need our prayers and our efforts to raise awareness of their plight, but they also need protection from evil men who seek their total destruction.
War is perhaps the most terrible thing imaginable. Most Christians and Muslims seek peace and charity towards our fellow men. Violence cannot heal the wounds of history. Destruction cannot build a place for things to grow. Nevertheless, war is here. From the Nigerian schoolgirls to the Tomb of Jonah, it will take more than our prayers–although they are much needed–to defend the lives of hundreds of thousands from the outright genocide which is now taking place. If we do not match our prayers with deeds, the gates of Heaven will be opened for many martyrs and it is they who will be praying for us.