Christians have had a presence in Iraq for 16 centuries. Some have even argued that the Apostle Peter’s reference to “she who is in Babylon” (I Peter 5:13) is Biblical evidence that Christianity was present in the region of present-day Iraq as early as the first century. There are ancient church traditions that attach the Apostles Peter, Thomas and Thaddeus (also known as Jude) to the beginnings of the church in Babylon. And while that’s not certain, what is certain is that the Christian Community of Iraq is one of the world’s oldest, and, as of last weekend, it is now nearly completely gone.
Told by ISIS – The new Caliphate Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – to evacuate or face immediate extermination, it is believed that 99% of the Christian Community in Mosul has fled in recent weeks to neighboring Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous northern Iraqi region. And as they have fled, ISIS has burned their churches and destroyed their sacred places. One observer explains that ISIS seems intent on destroying anything that has a Biblical reference or that might hold some kind of spiritual significance for the Christian community. The picture above is of the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Nineveh. ISIS soldiers and sympathizers are said to have recently destroyed it with sledgehammers
Now, the irony in this should be apparent to all who are conversant with the Biblical narrative. Jonah is the Hebrew prophet of the Biblical God’s global concern. Reluctantly, Jonah was sent to Nineveh, present-day Mosul, with a message of repentance, reconciliation and restoration. God’s covenant with the children of Abraham was for the blessing of all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). It is the original version of John 3:16’s sentiment that – “For God so loved the world…” When the scope of God’s purpose was forgotten or got ignored by God’s people, dramatic consequences followed. The book of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible is a spiritual cautionary tale. Whenever people try to narrow the field of God’s concern by systematically excluding some group of people from gaining access to God’s presence, promise and provision, then God steps up to straighten things out and to set things right. Reducing Jonah’s tomb to rubble has the feel of spitting into the wind and tugging on Superman’s cape to me (Thank-you for the reference Jim Croce!). Jonah’s God is not One that I would particularly want to mess with.
As foreign as persecution is to our experience as American Christians, it is time that we in the west opened our eyes and hearts to the suffering of our brothers and sisters in those parts of the world where being a Christian is a crime and where the practice of Christian faith makes them the targets of ridicule, oppression and sometimes outright violence.
Biblically, we are repeatedly told that persecution just naturally comes with the territory of Christian believing and behaving. Paul told the new Christians of Southern Asia Minor after the first missionary journey that it is only “through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Peter warned the Christians of the Eastern provinces of Asia Minor that he didn’t want them “surprised by the fiery ordeal” that was about to come upon them to test their faith as if “some strange thing were happening to them” (I Peter 4:12). And Jesus told His disciples in the Upper Room that just as the world had hated Him, so now the world would hate them too (John 15:18). Consistently the response that Christians were told to make to those who persecuted them was to bless them, to love them and to pray for them (Matthew 5:10-12; 5:38-42; Romans 12:14; I Peter 2:21-25; 3:13-17; 4:12-19). That’s the counsel that the Scripture gives to those who are being persecuted. But what’s the duty of those of us who live in abundance and safety while our brothers and sisters in other places are suffering mightily for their commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Biblically I can think of three things –
1. Pray for them.
Calls for prayer for the Christians of Iraq have come from every church leader from the Pope in Rome to our very own Global Ministries team in Indianapolis. The Anglican Vicar of Baghdad has asked that we pray for some very specific things in his recent call to prayer –
• That the Christians of Mosul will know the close presence of Jesus, the guidance of the Spirit and the protection of the Father;
• That those who have chosen to remain in the city would not be subjected to violent or unjust treatment;
• That humanitarian assistance would reach all who are in need, whether having been displaced or remaining in Mosul;
• That Christians throughout Iraq will know the peace and presence of Jesus each day, and will remain faithful to him and clear in their testimony;
• And that Iraqi authorities will act decisively to improve security for all citizens of Iraq.
Randy Hurst, the World Missions Communications Director for the Assembly of God Church has been in touch with church leaders in the Middle East and Iraq. He writes –
Today I received a copy of a prayer that an Assembly of God pastor in Baghdad sent to his congregation this week to help guide them in their prayers during this time of crisis. His prayer touched me deeply. It communicates so wonderfully the commitment and love this pastor has for the people of Iraq and the work God has called him to do. The prayer reads, in part –
Thank You for Iraq, our country that You have placed us in. Lift up our eyes from all the events around us and direct our eyes to You. Let us see Your glory and greatness so that we won’t shake because of the storm. Lord, You have put us in this country to pray for it, not to run away and leave it.’
Understanding the incredible pressures and constant threats the church faces on a daily basis, a prayer like this leaves little doubt that the Christians remaining in Iraq are men and women who have fully entrusted their lives to Christ. It is our honor to pray for these heroes of the faith.
As I read the things that Iraqi Christians are saying in the midst of their frightening and dangerous circumstances, I am reminded of the early church’s prayer upon the release of Peter and John from jail in Acts chapter 4:23-31 –
After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:
“Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.”
For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant[j] Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants[k] to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
2. Support them financially.
Every stewardship instruction and example that I can find in the New Testament relates to the support of the suffering church. The Offering for the Jerusalem Church (Romans 15:22-33; I Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9) and Paul’s thank-you note to the Philippians for their financial support of him while he was in jail (4:10-20) make it clear that one of the things that we must do in support of our suffering brothers and sisters in Iraq is to give from our abundance to help them in their deprivation. Our global mission partner in this work is Church World Service. Our Week of Compassion offering goes to them, and you can channel any designated gifts for Iraqi Christians through them.
3. And make their testimony known.
Finally, the suffering of Christians has always been part of the credibility of the church’s witness to the world. It was Tertullian, the early 3rd century North African Church Father, who said that “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” And while this is not meant in any way to minimize the magnitude of the very real suffering that many Christians face today by wrapping it up in the mist of some kind of super-spirituality, it is nevertheless part of the very real recognition that historically the heroic willingness of Christians not to recant their faith or deny their Lord in the face of persecution has been one of the most powerful and persuasive aspects of the church’s witness to the world.
An important subset of this point is the importance of we who are Christians not bearing false witness to Islam or Muslims in these trying times. What’s happening in Iraq today is no more reflective of mainstream Islam than were the atrocities perpetrated in the name of Christ by people like David Koresh and Jim Jones reflective of mainstream Christianity. And just so you know, the actions of ISIS in Iraq against Christians in recent days have been publically and clearly condemned by world Muslim scholars and leaders.
“The International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) condemns the forced expulsion of the Christian brothers of Iraq from their homes, cities and provinces,” the group said in a statement posted on the website of its leader, the influential cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi on Tuesday. “These are acts that violate Islamic laws, Islamic conscience and leave but a negative image of Islam and Muslims.” The IUMS urged the Islamic State to allow Christians to return to their homes, saying the forced expulsion amounts to “spreading discord”, a serious crime in traditional Muslim law. http://news.yahoo.com
A much truer picture of how Islam has traditionally viewed Christianity and treated Christians is the letter that Mohammed himself wrote to the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of My Sinai in 628 AD. In English Translation it reads –
This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world). http://www.yursil.com/blog
Standing as a perpetual witness to this historic arrangement is the cross-topped bell tower of the church standing side-by-side with crescent-topped minaret of the mosque on the grounds of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai wilderness.
As this has been the reality there in Sinai for more than 1400 years now, let us pray that it become the reality for Christians and Muslims living in Iraq in the coming days. DBS+