On Friday, March 4, sixteen people were murdered in a terrorist attack at a nursing home in Aden, the main city on the coast of southern Yemen. The dead comprised four nuns, who served in the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Blessed Mother Teresa, plus eight elderly residents, their guards, and a gardener.
The nursing home was established by Mother Teresa’s helpers in cooperation with the Yemeni government’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, but was clearly marked by a large sign as “Mother Teresa’s Home.” News reports stated that the dead had been separated from the patients and tied up or handcuffed before they were killed. One sister escaped because she heard a local worker shouting, “run, run.”
Yemen is undergoing a proxy war between Sunni Muslims backed by Saudi Arabia and Shia Muslim Houthi rebels supported by Iran. As a port trading with India, Aden was long known for religious and cultural pluralism. That, however, is a memory, not reality. Former president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, recognized by most international governments, has established the headquarters of the pro-Saudi faction in Aden, while the Houthi camp is led by his rival, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Hadi’s taking of Aden was accomplished by Saudi troops last year.
Who could be responsible for the homicidal assault on the Yemeni nursing home? Across the Middle East, Christians are victims of radical Islamist aggression. One consequence of Saudi intervention in Yemen may be the local expansion of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which shares adherence to the radical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam with influential Saudi clerics. But one local Al Qaeda splinter group denied involvement.
Another, and worse factor, is that of the ultra-Wahhabi “Islamic State,” which aims to surpass Al Qaeda in radicalism. Aden was not pacified by the Saudi occupation. For its residents, life is no less dangerous; competing extremist networks continue their terrorism daily. As reported in the London Independent, even the nun who survived the nursing home incident has been turned over to local militia. Last year, a historic Catholic church in Aden was damaged by Islamist radicals. No perpetrators of the raid on the nursing home have been identified; they could come from the ranks pro-Saudi forces, the Iranian-oriented rebels, or free-lance marauders.
The March 4 atrocity illustrated the brutal nature of sectarian violence, revealing lessons for all believers in the monotheistic faiths, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish (the last had a thriving community in Yemen until the 20th century).
The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity who worked in Yemen could not have imagined that their activities there would be easier than their programs of care-giving for the poor and sick elsewhere. In 1998, the Missionaries of Charity had been targeted in the Yemeni town of Hodeida on the Red Sea, with three nuns slain. They accepted the responsibility placed upon them and ended up surrendering their lives to pursue the pledge of their order. Experiencing suffering all over the world, they saw their assignments in Yemen as no more than a new chapter in their commitment. From India, Sunita Kumar, a spokeswoman for the Missionaries, said the dead nuns in Aden had been scheduled to return from Yemen but that “they opted to stay on to serve people.”
In response to the latest crime, Holy Father Pope Francis declared, “These are the martyrs of today! They are not on the front page of newspapers; they are not news. They are the people who give blood for the Church. These people are the victims of those who have murdered them but also of the indifference, of this global indifference of those who do not care.”
The nursing home in Yemen is truly “Mother Teresa’s house” in that it is placed on the front line of the global confrontation between mercy and evil. In the struggle to combat fanaticism and the terrorism it breeds, selfless believers such as those who have flocked to Mother Teresa are indispensable examples. The killers of the Missionaries of Charity did more harm to their Yemeni patients than can be done to the order or to Christianity.
One should not wish for more martyrs for the Catholic Church or any other religious community. But Pope Francis is correct in noting how little attention is paid to the martyrs of the present time. We cannot defeat those who deny our belief in humanity without affirming our values by work and sacrifice. More individuals will be called to the Missionaries of Charity, and more will doubtless be martyred.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He is author of Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook (2005) and Kosovo: Background to a War (2000).