Returning from a recent visit to Iraq, Regional Manager to the Middle East Aiden Clay explores the work Christ is doing in the Church.
The truth of I Peter 5:10 is evident in the Middle East today: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace…will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” Despite war in Syria, Islamists rising to power in Egypt, and ongoing tension with the Islamic state of Iran (just to name a few), God is strengthening and establishing His church. And He is doing it the same way He has promised in Scripture—through suffering. God has not forgotten His Church. In the midst of grave persecution and uncertain times, the hands of God will keep and bless His Church, and a remnant will always, always remain.
The Middle East is undergoing a period of great turmoil and transition. We read reports weekly of Christians fleeing their ancient homelands throughout the Middle East for a safe-haven in the West. However, we must remind ourselves that the Church will persevere. The Church’s fate is sealed—not by war and revolution ignited by man—but by the will of Christ.
Having met with the faithful routinely in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the region, ICC has seen men, women, youth, and children put their trust in Christ and minister to their countrymen in war-torn regions, no matter the cost. Through their suffering, they are coming to understand the true meaning, to “take up their cross” (Luke 9:23), a decision to follow Christ and to suffer, as He has suffered, even until death for the sake of the Gospel.
“As a Christian, a part of my faith—a very sensitive part—is hope,” an Iraqi pastor who survived two bomb attacks on his congregation in 2011 and lost many of his flock to brutal persecution, recently told ICC when asked why he has chosen to stay in his homeland. “If we don’t have hope in our Christianity then whatever we preach, whatever we teach, is nothing. The church here in this land has faced many troubles, many hard times, but survived. And, it still exists. And, I believe it will exist until Jesus returns back.”
The church does not merely exist, but is being welded into a precious jewel, refined by fire. Moreover, the Gospel is spreading. Muslims throughout the region are turning to Christ in significant numbers. For example, ICC ministry partners in the region reported that 461 people have turned to Christ this year as a result of Christian radio and satellite television broadcasts. Many of these salvations occurred in Middle East countries considered “closed” to the Gospel. These new believers are connected to underground fellowships and are learning to boldly share the Good News with their families and friends.
Though we often only hear of the church’s suffering in persecuted lands, God is faithful in establishing His church beyond our expectations or understanding. Persecution has followed Christianity throughout the ages; it is nothing new. In fact, it is a promise which comes with great blessing and results. Suffering builds character and establishes the truth of the Word in our lives. So, have hope and take courage. While the Lord’s servant may only see hardship around him and say, “I have toiled in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing…” remember that justice is “with the Lord, and My reward with My God” (Isaiah 49:3-4). Our persecuted brothers and sisters need our prayers as they carry on, not in vain, but that God may be glorified through the suffering church.
It took thirty years for Jasem (whose name has been changed for security reasons) to surrender his life to Christ, but when the decision was made, there was no turning back. For Jasem, and his devoted wife, Rabiha, following Jesus in war-torn Iraq would result in years of isolation and hardship. Denounced by family, shunned by orthodox churches, and watching a daughter barely survive an attempted murder because of her conversion, they fled their homeland, but only to live in dire poverty as refugees. All the while, their faith could not be shaken as they sought to obey Scripture and fulfill the purpose God has for their lives.
Over thirty years, Jasem had steadily developed a close friendship with a Chaldean priest in Mosul. The priest, familiar with Iraq’s religious tensions and the cultural stigma against conversion from one religion to another, did not pressure Jasem to convert, but simply brought to light Gospel truths and encouraged Jasem to read the Bible for himself. “You should study all religious texts, including the Bible,” Jasem recalls the priest telling him. “Or, how else do you know where truth lies?”
Over the years, Jasem’s admiration of Christianity grew, which was more a result of the Christ-like example of the priest than anything else. For the most part, however, he kept his interest in Christianity to himself. Being from a Sunni Muslim background, he was afraid of the accusations he would face if caught straying from Islam. But, it would not be long until Jasem would have to decide if he and his family would remain Muslim or defy cultural norms and put their very lives in danger by accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
In 2003, Rabiha, Jasem’s much younger wife from a Shia background, had a dream that she was sick. She longed for water, but nothing could quench her thirst. There she lied for three days waiting for death. When all hope was lost and her last breaths were upon her, a Christian approached and offered her a drink. “This is the Living Water which only Christ can give,” the Christian said. Rabiha drank and was healed.
Rabiha explained her dream to the priest and learned that Jesus called Himself the Living Water in the Bible. Jasem, who had been shying away from fully committing his life to Christ, viewed his wife’s dream as an undeniable sign from God. Soon after the dream, Jasem, Rabiha, and their eldest daughter, Ala’a, decided to follow Jesus.
Although they were now Christian, the family could not practice their faith openly. They knew they would be in grave danger if their newfound faith became known. Moreover, no church would allow them to attend services, afraid they would put the whole congregation at risk if they allowed former Muslims to join the congregation.
In 2007, Jasem and Rabiha decided to take another step of faith by pursuing their desire to be baptized before a body of believers. The priest referred them to a church in Jordan, but the journey proved more difficult than anticipated. Unable to cross the border into Jordan, they went to Turkey instead. Even in Turkey, however, churches they approached refused to baptize them. “For fifteen days we didn’t sleep. We were traveling from car to car, bus to bus, searching,” Jasem said. “But, no one would baptize us. We asked for help, but no one took us in.” Tired and defeated, Jasem and Rabiha returned home only to find greater hardships awaiting them.
They soon learned that their dear friend, the priest, had been murdered just blocks from their house only days before. They began hearing rumors that they would be next. Their pictures had been posted in neighborhood mosques denouncing them as apostates and offering a reward for their murders.
Hiding in obscure hotels and plotting their escape, a family relative eventually found them. With a knife and gasoline, he entered their hotel room, but only found Ala’a present. Pinning Ala’a to the ground, he poured petrol over his cousin’s body from the neck down and lit her on fire. “I’m doing this because you’re a Christian and you’re going to have to marry a Christian now,” Ala’a, who was only fourteen at the time, recalls him saying.
Returning to the room from an outdoor latrine, Ala’a’s younger brother Muhammad found his unconscious sister on the floor and sought help. Ala’a was confined to a hospital bed for a month before she and her family could flee Mosul to Erbil and later to Turkey for refuge.
“[Our nephew] would have tried to kill the entire family if we had been home,” Ala’a’s father told ICC. “Thankfully, our 12-year-old son was not in the room also or he would be dead.”
Upon arrival in Turkey, the family finally found a church that baptized them and took them in as their own. The churches they had sought in the past were all Assyrian or Chaldean orthodox, who sometimes frown upon evangelistic activity and converts to the faith. In Erbil, the family was introduced to a Protestant church for the first time and found a home among an Evangelical international community of Eritreans, Ethiopians, Middle Easterners and others in Turkey.
Recently, Jasem, Rabiha, and their four children moved to a western country after waiting three years in Turkey as refugees waiting to immigrate. Not permitted to work in the country, the children at times succumbed to begging on street corners for food. To make matters worse, Jasem has been in a wheel chair since 1987 after he stepped on a landmine while serving in the Iran-Iraq war. He is missing a leg and the other is severely mangled.
In partnership with a local Christian organization that is assisting refugees, ICC was able to help with some of the family’s expenses. When ICC offered to assist with additional medical treatment for the children, the parents said the money was no longer needed. “Yes, that used to be a problem,” Rabiha told me. “But after the pastor prayed over our children, they have not had that problem anymore. We don’t need the money now.”
Please pray for the family as they settle into their new home and begin a new life in a western country.
Who could have imagined in 2003 – the year the U.S. invaded Iraq – that the country’s Christians would be a focal point of the war’s discussion eight years later? U.S. policymakers couldn’t. Procedures set in place to protect religious minorities were characterized by careless oversight, and at times, by outright neglect. Today, the sad realization is that years of failure to protect vulnerable Iraqi Christians has resulted in the near extinction of one of the oldest and most vibrant Christian communities in world.
The U.S. government had received numerous cries for help. By July 2010, Christian leaders from Iraq visited Capitol Hill to beg for the preservation of their communities. They came as representatives of a newly established council of churches. Putting aside denominational differences, the council was formed by the common belief that only together could they avoid annihilation. At the time of the visit, some estimated that only 400,000 Christians remained in the country, a fraction of the 1.4 million who were there before the war.
“We have no militia. We have no way to defend ourselves. We are sitting ducks. And, when we are attacked, no one is prosecuted. How can we survive?” the head of the council told a congressman’s office. However, pleas and policy recommendations fell on deaf ears and the Christian council grew void of hope. “Nothing is going to change,” one council member told me. “Who is concerned about Christians when the U.S. is trying to win a war?”
On October 31, only three months after the Iraqi clergy’s visit to Washington, Christians would pay the ultimate price for government inaction. In a violent siege of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Baghdad, Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists massacred more than fifty worshippers. The attack was the worst since the war’s beginning and triggered a series of attacks on Christians.
Consider the days following the massacre:
- November 10, thirteen bomb raids on Christian homes in Baghdad kill six.
- November 16, gunmen in northern Iraq murder two men in a Christian home.
- November 17, a bomb wired to a Christian’s vehicle in Mosul kills a man and his 6-year-old daughter.
- November 22, militants shoot two Christian brothers dead inside their vehicle workshop. That same day, an elderly Christian woman is found strangled in her home.
- December 5, gunmen murder an elderly couple in Baghdad.
- December 30, a bomb left at the doorstep of an elderly Christian couple’s home blows them apart when they answer the doorbell.
- January 15, a Christian doctor is shot point blank in the head while on duty at a hospital in Mosul. The goal of these attacks: the complete annihilation of Christians from the country.
While it was too late for the U.S. to correct its mistakes, the U.S. could no longer remain silent as the terror unfolded. On January 20 – eight years too late – a congressional hearing was held in Washington seeking a solution to protect Iraqi Christians. An Iraqi nun, testifying at the hearing, repeated the same pleas and recommended the same policies as the church leaders who visited Washington long before her.
“The Iraqi Christian community has been very patient working towards a hope for the new Iraq that will provide a peaceful and secure environment… Yet, year after year, our situation has deteriorated… The people of Iraq need the U.S. to fulfill its moral obligation to help repair the damage that the war has caused.” (Hear her full testimony here.)
Nina Shea, the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), proposed concrete steps to begin a new era of policy to protect Iraqi Christians. “[USCIRF] recommends that the U.S. and Iraqi governments – in consultation with Christian and other religious minority communities – upgrade security, identifying vulnerable targets for terrorists and implementing a plan for Iraqi military protection of these areas… we have a special obligation to render our assistance while our presence remains in that nation. The transition from dictatorship to political democracy must include the protection of religious freedom.”
Until today, the U.S.’s war strategy to stamp out sectarian violence never involved protecting Iraq’s Christians. Leaving Christians out of the U.S. counterinsurgency equation has proven decisive. To continue to ignore the warnings will mean nothing less than the complete and permanent annihilation of Christianity from the region, and the U.S. will have nobody to blame but themselves.
Christianity in Iraq Moves Closer to Extinction
Islamic militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad during a Sunday evening mass on October 31. Minutes earlier, the militants detonated bombs in the neighborhood and gunned down two policemen at the nearby stock exchange. Their final target, however, was the Christian community in Baghdad.
Upon entering the church, seven or eight suicide bombers held more than 100 Catholic believers hostage at gunpoint. The militants – who call themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and are linked to Al-Qaeda – wasted no time in making their agenda known. They immediately sought the church leadership, shooting Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and Rev. Raphael Qatin. Two died instantly, and the third on the way to the hospital hours later.
Four hours after the siege Iraqi security forces stormed the church. The militants immediately detonated their explosive belts, killing themselves and taking others with them. After all was done, at least 50 worshippers were killed. It’s uncertain when and how the Christians died; either shot by militants, blown apart by explosives, or caught in the line of fire during the police raid. Whatever the cause of death, however, the militants had accomplished their objective.
Within days, the militant group took credit for the massacre declaring that all Iraqi Christians are legitimate targets in their strategy to fight the U.S. and her allies. During the crisis, some militants were overheard saying that the attack was in retaliation for two women allegedly held in confinement by the Coptic Church in Egypt because they had converted to Islam. The claim had no basis, but was a mere excuse to justify killing Christians. The militants used any Muslim grievance at hand to legitimize their assault and encourage all Muslims to follow suite in their annihilation of Christians. The statement online read, “The Ministry of War in the Islamic State of Iraq announces that all Christian institutions, organizations, centres, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the Mujahedin [holy warriors] wherever they can find them.”
As religious divisions broaden, and minorities are maneuvered like political pawns, peace-loving Iraqi Christians face the realization that they have been deserted – left vulnerable and defenseless by those authorized to protect them, and not permitted to raise their voices loud enough to be heard. The Iraqi government offers them little – if any – security and the U.S. consistently fails to remember their plight when under pressure to appease or confront the demands of larger, more violent parties. It is safe to say that Christians have been forgotten in the U.S.’s Iraq war initiative.
Today, more than a week after the attack, many Iraqi Christians are as afraid as ever that they will no longer be safe in the homeland they love. Some attending the Sunday mass had just prior returned to Baghdad after living years in refugee camps in foreign lands. They had hoped it was safe enough to return. However, with this latest blow – the largest massacre of Christians since the war began seven years ago – many are once again planning to leave.
Since the war’s beginning in 2003, three quarters of Baghdad’s Christians have fled the city. Moreover, nearly half of all Iraq’s Christians have left the country completely, resulting in the largest exodus of Christians in modern times. Without security or employment, most have no desire to return. If Christian persecution persists at the current pace, and hope of stability continues to be lost, there is grave concern that Iraq’s Christianity will near extinction.
Posted by Aidan Clay