Barnabas Edit: Iraq – Is the international response too little, too late?

August 23, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

IraqIraq, August 15, 2014: In the year 363 AD, a very holy man by the name of Mattai, fleeing persecution under the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, founded the monastery of St Matthew’s. Lying 20 miles from Mosul in northern Iraq, it became a place of refuge. In 1850 Presbyterian and Congregational missionaries entered Mosul and there they established a mission. In time the evangelical Church in Iraq was born, with congregations in northern Iraq situated at both Mosul and Kirkuk.

In 2003 the Christian population of Mosul was an estimated 60,000. Today it is fewer than 200, made up mostly of the poor, the weak, the sick and the elderly. Last week, in a phone call, the pastor of the evangelical church said that he and his entire congregation were preparing to leave. In another phone call, St Matthew’s Monastery reported that its people were doing the same.

Before the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, it was estimated that there were 1.4 million Christians in the country. Today the figure is thought to be around 300,000 and the prediction is that this may dwindle to just 50,000.

Christians in Iraq face a bleak future. Perhaps this is an understatement. In the face of ISIS, they are called upon to convert to Islam or pay jizya or leave or be killed. Their options are very simple. Given the Christians who have already died, given that they will not contemplate converting to Islam, given that paying jizya implies subjugation and a despised second-class status, they have perhaps no option but to leave. And so they have fled in vast numbers to the safe havens deep within Kurdistan. Earlier this week, many thousands converged upon the airport in Erbil, begging for planes to take them to countries of safety. There are plans to set up a tented refugee camp where they will be able to stay. But what of the future?

In 1999 when I first went into Iraq, then under Saddam Hussein, Christians were suffering, like everyone else, from the effects of sanctions. Their economic condition was poor but they were safe. For Saddam Hussein did not deliberately persecute the Christians and on the whole Christians lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbours. Religious extremism and interreligious conflict were not then a reality. Today they are. Iraq has been torn apart by the ethnic divide, and by religious extremism, bringing with it the worst form of intolerance. The American and British experiment in Iraq, far from bringing democracy, stability and economic growth, has produced the absolute opposite. It is now a land of division, of hatred, of alienation, of death on a phenomenal scale – a land at war with itself.

In 2008 Barnabas Fund ran an Iraq petition, calling on governments, not just in the UK and US but across the world, to recognise the plight of the Christian communities and to address it. When I visited the UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to present the petition, the person at the meeting who was responsible for human rights said to me that Christians in Iraq were not the responsibility of the British government, but rather they were the responsibility of the Iraqi government and I should therefore go to Mr Maliki, then Prime Minister of Iraq, and put my plea to him.

In 2010 Barnabas Fund took a delegation of senior Iraqi church leaders to Washington to plead the cause of the Christians and to urge American intervention. We were given a sympathetic hearing by the Obama administration, the State Department and leaders in both Congress and Senate. But we were told the tragedy had not happened on their watch but under former President Bush. Whilst they understood, there was nothing they could do, they said. So the countries that initiated the conflict that has led to this seemingly final elimination of the Christian presence not only denied responsibility but refused any degree of compassionate involvement.

From the worldwide Church, as well as the media, there was initially a mainly silent response with occasional patches of concern. Today, the plight of the Christians occupies many pages of the press and fills the radio, television and cyberspace. Political leaders now voice their concern and Christian leaders are making statements. There are marches on the streets and shows of solidarity. Yet all this sounds hollow to the Christians of Iraq. When action could have been taken nothing was done. When concern could have been expressed nothing was said. Today, they face the abyss.

What of the future? No one is able to predict how fast and how far ISIS will advance. Whilst Kurdistan remains a relative safe haven, it is not the long-term future. Christian leaders and ordinary Christian people alike have lost all confidence in the leaders of Middle Eastern countries giving them justice and an equal place in their societies. Likewise, they face a world where many countries in the West, already inundated with refugees and immigrants, are not necessarily sympathetic to them. France may take in Christians from Mosul, the US may accelerate entry visas, but UK seems strangely silent.

And what of Syria and other nearby countries? As ISIS now focuses on Syria again, with Damascus in its sights, Western governments are not united as to their response. Many still support the anti-Assad movements and what they term the Free Syrian Army, and are calling for the removal of President Assad. They have not learned the lesson of history; that is, if Assad falls, the powerbase of ISIS and other radical Islamist insurgent forces will very quickly fill the vacuum and another period of killing and mass exodus will follow.

In all this we can but pray and seek God for His help, for He is not removed from the sufferings of His people. He sees their suffering, He hears their cries, and His heart is filled with pain. May we also care as He does, and never cease to work for justice for our beleaguered and suffering brethren in Christian communities, as well as for the other vulnerable minorities of the Middle East.

– dr. patrick sookhdeo

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