When the world’s attention shifted to Ukraine and Israel last week, the Islamic leaders in Iraq capitalized on the distraction. For weeks the functional government in central Iraq (ISIS) had told Christians they had to make one of four choices by this past Saturday: forfeit their property as a “Christian” tax, convert to Islam, leave, or die. But a week ago ISIS revised their list, and said paying the “tax” was no longer an option.
When Friday came around, residents awoke to an Arabic “N” spray-painted on the houses, property, and farms of all suspected Christians. The government had come during the night to demonstrate that they knew who the Christians were, and the spray-painted N’s were a not-so-subtle reminder that the deadline to convert, flee, or die was only 24 hours away.
Why the N? Because in Arabic Christians are often simply called Nazarenes. And when this week began, so did the flight of the Nazarenes. All Christians were forced out of central Iraq, including Mosul, an historic city with several churches 1700 years old. One church there had practiced communion every Lord’s Day for 1,600 years…until last Sunday.
As Christians left Mosul, ISIS set up checkpoints outside the city, robbing the fleeing masses (although ISIS points out they weren’t robbing them, but by their law they had a right to “confiscate” all of their property as part of their Christian tax).
ISIS controls much of central Iraq and Syria. According the New York Times, which had a reporter embedded with ISIS, they took a church in Syria and converted it into a theater to show films of suicide attacks.
Ten yeas ago, Iraq had about 1.4 million people who identified as Christians and 300 different registered churches. Today there are only 50 churches left, and the number of Christians is probably closer 140,000 than 1.4 million. There are almost zero Christians left in Central Iraq, which used to be a hub of historic Christianity.
This decline not only signals an end to a Christian presence in central Iraq, but it also marks a profound turning point for Islam, which for over 1,000 years had as its goal the establishment of an Islamic state in the cradle of the Euphrates River. Despite their intense effort, the possibility of completely eradicating crosses and churches from the area never seemed like a real possibility, until now.
In fairness, the Shari’a Law form of Islam that has now gripped Iraq is not looked upon favorably by most Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, or Turkey. So ISIS seems hedged in geographically. But it is the form of Islam embraced in much of Africa and Asia, especially in Pakistan. It is violent, and has as its goal the complete obliteration of Christians.
The term Christian in Iraq is used to cover a small percentage of Roman Catholics, some Baptists, and some Orthodox Christians (very similar to Egyptian Christianity). But most of the churches were Assyrian Orthodox, which trace their roots to before the schism in Europe between East and West; in other words, they predated the Rome split from Constantinople, thus are not affiliated with either group.
And for that reason, this devastation of Christians does not garner much attention in the Western media. Many Evangelicals are slow to sympathize because they think “those people in Iraq are Christians by ethnicity, not by faith.” I’ve heard some believers say that as a way to guard their hearts—as if to think, “I don’t need to be grieved by what is happening there, because they don’t believe the same gospel I do.”
But remember, ISIS doesn’t understand nuances of Christian theology. They are not distinguishing between Catholics, Assyrians, Orthodox and Baptists. They are persecuting people who meet for worship in churches with crosses on the wall. They are exiling and executing those who at prayer time do not bow on rugs facing Mecca. They are killing people who refuse to say that Mohammad is greater than Jesus.
For the most part, the US government has remained silent about the elimination of Christianity in a place that was under American control only a few years ago. Ostensibly this is because drawing attention to the persecution there would only increase ISIS’ publicity, and make life even harder for Christians there (although it is difficult to imagine how that could possibly be the case). There are also obviously political and philosophical factors in play as well. The result though is that an entire religious group woke up last week to find a letter sprayed on their property, and then had only a day to flee for their lives or be slaughtered.
What can Christians do? There are several missions organizations in Turkey that minister to these Christian refugees (like this one, for example). We can give to those groups, we can give to missionaries who are trying to reach the Muslim world, and we can train up missionaries and send them to this part of the world. We can support political strategy that can protect religious freedom. But mostly, we can grieve that part of the church is under profound and unprecedented attack, and be moved to pray that the Lord would use this for his glory.
Pray that even in this persecution, many people would come to faith in Jesus.