Last week, I had the privilege of attending a meeting on religious persecution that had some excellent speakers who outlined the current situation in the Middle East. Most people are aware of the ISIS public execution of Christians, like the beheading of the 21 Egyptian martyrs who were Coptic Christians. But we are not as aware of the ongoing, everyday persecution of Christians in many parts of the Middle East.
Of course, in countries like Saudi Arabia (one of our supposed allies) it is impossible to carry on any kind of open Christian life or witness. Bibles are forbidden; sharing the gospel is forbidden; and conversion to Christianity is punishable by death. The only real Christians who exist somewhat openly in those 100 percent Muslim countries are immigrants from other countries (like Americans working in the oil fields or Filipinos working as laborers).
But in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Palestine (both Israel and the occupied territories), Christians are persecuted daily. One story came out about a man in Iraq whose wife had breast cancer. She was receiving treatment at a nearby hospital. When ISIS invaded and took over the area, they refused his wife any treatments unless they converted to Islam. They refused to convert, and the wife died of her cancer.
This episode illustrates how one speaker defined persecution. He said persecution is the “systematic, egregious, and ongoing elimination of a faith.” ISIS in particular, but also many more moderate Islamic sects are attempting to eliminate Christianity from their region. Fifteen years ago, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Today there are only 300,000. There are very few Christian churches in the Arab parts of Palestine. What a tragedy it would be if there ended up being no active Christian congregations in the land where Christianity was born!
In Arab parts of Israel, Christians are being forced out by not being able to have churches. The houses are so small that they cannot hold very many people, so some type of building is important to provide a gathering place for Christian worship and education. One speaker told of being the pastor of one of the few Christian churches in Arab Jerusalem. When the church rents a building, the community leaders complain to the landlord, and the landlord eventually evicts the church. This particular congregation had gone through a number of different locations, always being evicted, and had experienced many months without having a building to meet in. It is very difficult to hold a church together that cannot meet regularly for worship and prayer. Just recently, however, God worked a miracle in providing a donated building for the church to meet in, so the congregation will be able to stay in that community. But this is an example of the type of daily harassment that many Arab Christians experience.
Wherever ISIS has taken control, they have given Christians an ultimatum. Often, they give four options: 1) convert to Islam, 2) pay a special tax, 3) flee the area, or 4) die. Most Christians opt for the third option, which means that they end up becoming refugees. One of the speakers told about a village where ISIS came in and forced all the Christians to leave. They came in the middle of the night and did not allow the Christians even to get dressed, let alone take any belongings with them. People who were once businesspeople, doctors, or teachers now find themselves with no job, no money, and no belongings. They were essentially allowed to leave only with the clothes on their backs (in this case, pajamas). Even their cars were confiscated at the border.
This is the plight of refugees, many of them Christians, in Turkey, Jordan, and inside Iraq. They are living in tents or empty buildings with no heat, completely dependent upon others for food and clothing. I cannot imagine what it would be like for my wife and me to be thrown out of our house with nothing in the middle of winter and no place to stay or way to earn a living. Apart from the physical hardship, the emotional trauma must be devastating.
I got a chance to meet Juliana Taimoorazy, a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in Iraq. She is an Assyrian Christian. (I never knew there was such a people group.) The Assyrians are descended from the nation that conquered the Middle East in 700 B.C. They speak Aramaic, which is the language that Jesus spoke. After Assyria was conquered by Babylon in 600 B.C., the Assyrians shrank to a small people group living in what is now Iraq. When the apostle Thomas passed through the area on his way to India in the first century, the Assyrians accepted Christ and became Christians. They have lived as Christians for almost 2,000 years in what is now Iraq. But they are being systematically forced out and killed by ISIS and by other Muslim extremists in Iraq.
If you would like to help with the needs of Christian refugees in Iraq, you can check out the website of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council. Please pray for our brothers and sisters who are in such dire straits. We can also advocate on their behalf with our members of Congress and Senators, along with the President. Unfortunately, many Christian refugees who try to come to the U.S. are denied entry, and U.S. foreign aid is not reaching the people in most need. It is important for us to be aware and stand with our fellow Christians who are in no position to speak for themselves.