When Christ told his disciples to go out to the ends of the earth and proclaim the Gospel, the apostles Thomas and Thaddeus followed his commands by heading to modern day Iraq. The Assyrian Christian communities there can trace their origins back to the 1st Century A.D. as a direct result of the missionary work of the original twelve apostles. Today, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world is on the verge of extinction.
As The Economist recently estimated, prior to the 2003 Iraq war, Christians accounted for about five percent of the Iraqi population, numbering at around 1.5 million. Today, that number is likely to be under 400,000. While Christians—and Iraqi Christians, in particular—are no strangers to persecution, the current state of affairs have led the head of Baghdad’s Anglican church, Canon Andrew White, to predict that “the end of Christianity” could be very near within the country.
Throughout this summer the growing wave of terrorism brought about by Islamic extremists have targeted Christians, Yazidis, and other minority groups with the threat to either convert or face death. The swift growth of ISIS and its particular hatred of Christians have led numerous world leaders to label its brutal killings and violence as nothing short of a genocide.
In a recent letter to the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Prince Charles of Britain wrote that “You have no idea how heartbroken I am to hear of the truly unbearable and barbaric persecution being suffered not only by Christians in Iraq but also by some of their neighbours of other faiths, alongside whom they have lived for hundreds of years.” The foreign minister of France, Laurent Fabius and interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve issued a joint statement that “France is outraged by these abuses that it condemns with the utmost firmness…we are ready, if they so desire, to help facilitate asylum on our territory.” And in his weekly general audience, Pope Francis addressed the plight of the Iraqi Christians by noting that the Church is like a mother who will “defend her defenseless and persecuted children.”
These strong words and sentiments have brought hope to those directly facing persecution—and the courage of such leaders to be willing to confront this evil is laudable. Yet at the same time, the desperation and the immediate needs of our fellow Christians have left many of us feeling helpless and too distant to effectively aid their needs. Such a spirit loses sight of the great Christian virtue of hope, which should steer us all into action.
For starters, we must pray for our fellow Christians in Iraq—and throughout the world—that are persecuted. We must do this individually, in our private devotionals and personal prayer lives, and also collectively, as families, community groups, and churches. Those that are physically able might also consider fasting—a once common, now mostly neglected, spiritual discipline that allows us to spend special time and attention considering the suffering of others.
For those that are able, financial giving is a real and immediately tangible way to participate in the relief efforts to aid Christians and other minority groups that are in harm’s way. Due to the number of displaced families that have lost their homes, access to shelters, clean water supplies, and food, the United Nations has placed Iraq at its highest levels of need. Groups like World Vision and Aid to the Church in Need have trustworthy giving programs that directly benefit relief efforts on the ground in Iraq.
Education and activism remain vitally important tools to keep the focus of the world on the dire situation at hand. Resources, such as social media, letters to editor of your local newspaper, and church bulletins remain prime places to inform friends and neighbors of what is going on and how we can help. For those that might remain skeptical of such efforts, the recent case of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her faith, should be proof positive that this these types of grassroots initiatives can have real force. Thanks to the relentless petitioning of religious groups and churches around the world, the case finally received national and then international attention, with U.S. leaders successfully negotiating for her release.
The general turbulence of the Middle East throughout history might cause some of us to become numb to the reality on the ground there—instead, its history should be cause for some optimism. As noted earlier, the Christian communities in Iraq have deep ties to that region of the world and have consistently been the target of aggression and attacks. There have been countless massacres of Iraqi Christians over the centuries—including 70,000 Assyrian Christians beheaded in Tikrit, and 90,000 in Baghdad during the fourteenth century—but each time Christian community has survived, despite all improbable odds, to serve as a living testimony of their faith.
As we lament such suffering and atrocities, we should also be reminded of the example of St. Paul who was once Saul of Tarsus, the greatest persecutor of Christians of his day, who went on to become one of the greatest missionaries of all time. His conversion is proof that even the most depraved sinners can become saints and a testament to the fact that sometimes the grimmest of circumstances can provide cause for hope.
May that hope now stir us to action.