[By Matthew Davies for Episcopal News Service] Church bombings, brutal beheadings, forced conversions and mass migration have become the shocking trademarks of extremist factions in the Middle East and Africa, persecuting religious minorities and wiping out Christian populations that in some places – such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt – date back to the first century.
For many in the West who see them only through the gaze of the media, these oppressed communities may seem a million miles away. For others, including many Episcopal and Anglican leaders, they are global neighbours, fellow Christians or interfaith partners, and people in urgent need of a lifeline.
“Jesus is pretty clear that our neighbours are sometimes, perhaps often, those we least expect or wish to overlook,” the Revd Christopher Bishop, rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Radnor, Pennsylvania, told Episcopal News Service. “The only real difference between us and someone in Mosul or Kirkuk, for example, is bad, bad luck. We need to act on their behalf just as – were the roles reversed – we would long for them to act upon ours.”
Bishop and his parishioners have chosen action over inaction and are committed to walking alongside the displaced Christian communities that are living in tents, abandoned buildings and basements in Erbil, Iraq.
The church has launched the ministry and website Stand With Iraqi Christians, and one of its members lives and works in Erbil. Bishop is planning to travel to Erbil in the coming months “to deliver financial, emotional, and communications support and to build relationships with the communities of survivors.”
According to the people Bishop knows in Erbil, “the situation for everyone, particularly the Christian minorities, is simply desperate,” he said. “We know it’s not just the Christians being brutalized – it’s Muslims, it’s Yazidis, it’s basically anybody who is not committed to the medieval orthodoxy of the Daesh,” the Arabic name for the self-styled Islamic State, the extremist rebel group that controls territory in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Nigeria and is attempting to enforce a strict and draconian version of Sharia law.
“The mission at St. Martin’s is ‘to seek God, and be Christ’s body in the world,’” said Bishop. “This crisis transcends religious boundaries and nations, and hopefully can inspire all of us to act. If we are going to claim this powerful and empowering witness to God’s reason for our being, that means reaching out the hand of friendship and support to those near and far who are suffering or in need of loving.”
Americans and Europeans often think of Christianity as being Western, he said. But “its origins, obviously, are in the Middle East. The idea that faithful Christian communities dating back to the first century after Christ will be forever extinguished is beyond catastrophic – it ought to utterly horrify all of us who treasure the gorgeous continuities that these churches represent to our current prayer, liturgical and communal lives. It makes me feel first mournful, then motivated.”
The Revd Bill Schwartz, an Anglican priest based in Qatar and an Episcopal Church missionary since 1993, regularly visits Iraq. Having returned from Baghdad three weeks ago, he said there is a clear sense of dismay among many Iraqis about the exclusively conservative Sunnis called Daesh, and the corruption in the Iraqi government and its inability to protect its citizens.
“The Daesh are intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their perspective, and that perspective doesn’t seem to be consistent,” said Schwarz, whose recently published book, “Islam: A Religion, A Culture, A Society,” addresses the complexities of faith in Islamic contexts. “Many Sunni Muslims are also denigrated and persecuted by Daesh forces … The recent mono-cultural presentation of Islam that Daesh is promoting has created a polarization in Iraqi society between those who are exclusive and those who wish the society to be inclusive.”
While reluctant to condone violence of any kind, Schwarz said that he believes the military offensive against Daesh “is unfortunately necessary for the protection of those oppressed and for the security of the world.”
Schwartz, archdeacon of the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, and manager of the Anglican Centre in Qatar, also acknowledged that the Iraqi government needs to crackdown on corruption in its ranks so the country can begin to function normally and prepare for “re-creation of civil society with secure social parameters so that people can learn to trust each other and live together.” He added that “huge amounts of funding and investment” are necessary to rebuild ruined cities and societies, as well as investment in job creation.
The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council at its March meeting passed a resolution condemning the use of religion for the purpose of advancing political agendas “directed at terrorizing, victimizing, and oppressing individuals and communities and impairing their ability to enjoy basic human rights because of their religious beliefs and social, ethnic, class, caste, gender, and national affiliations.”
The resolution also calls on the world’s governments “to confront the reality of religious persecution, protect religious minorities and civilians within the framework of international and humanitarian law, address political exclusion and economic desperation that are being manipulated by the forces of extremists, scale up humanitarian and development assistance to host countries and trusted NGOs, and accept for resettlement a fair share of the most vulnerable people where return to their countries of origin is impossible.”
Not more than two weeks after Executive Council had passed its resolution, the world was mourning the deaths of more than 150 Kenyan students, mostly Christians, targeted in a pre-dawn attack at Garissa University on April 2 by a gang of Islamic extremists claiming to be affiliated with Somalia’s al-Shabab militant group.
In his Easter Day sermon at Canterbury Cathedral, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the students were martyrs, “caught up in the resurrection: their cruel deaths, the brutality of their persecution, their persecution is overcome by Christ himself at their side because they share his suffering, at their side because he rose from the dead. Because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead the cruel are overcome, evil is defeated, martyrs conquer.”
Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of the Anglican Church of Kenya described the attack as “a calculated manifestation of evil designed to destroy our nation and our faith,” but he said that their deaths will not be in vain, just as “Jesus’s death upon the cross was not in vain. By his death, death has been destroyed … We call on the government to do all in its power to protect the lives of its citizens and we call on the world community to recognize that this latest outrage is not just an attack on Kenya, but part of an assault on world peace. The time has come for the world to unite as never before in defeating this growing menace.”
As many in the United States and other Western countries are challenged with how to address extremism and persecution in the Middle East and Africa, Executive Council encouraged all Episcopalians “to engage in prayers, support, education, and advocacy for displaced people and the churches that are providing succour and hope to those displaced people who have been uprooted by conflict and living in refugee camps.”
The West can also show support and solidarity, Schwarz in Qatar said, through generosity in giving to relief efforts; investment, both through large corporations and small mission groups; and through the fostering of political will to look at the long-term problems rather than simply the next election (in the United States and Europe as well as in Iraq).
The Revd Canon Robert Edmunds, Middle East partnership officer for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, said: “We sometimes hear the term ‘Christian presence’ in the Middle East and it sounds passive and lacking in vitality when the truth of the matter for those who live there is quite different. The Christian presence throughout the region is about Christians whose family and religious roots reach back to the time of Christ. These are not sojourners in a strange and foreign land, but people whose lives are an integral part of the landscape, the history, the culture and the traditions which have and continue to shape each generation.”
The presence of the indigenous Christian churches “provides the language of love of God and all neighbours which is in danger of being silenced,” Edmunds added. “We in the West must continue to give these atrocities visibility both in terms of solidarity with our brother and sister Christians, but to encourage political leaders to seek lasting and durable solutions for peace for the benefit of all. To lose the indigenous Christian voice in the region would be catastrophic for the future.”
Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq was home to about 1.5 million Christians – about 5 percent of the population – who trace their roots back almost 2,000 years. Today, fewer than 400,000 Christians remain.
Some of those Christians have fled to neighbouring countries, many of which have their own issues of instability and extremism, and are struggling to meet the basic demands of the increased influx of refugees. Others find their way to more stable countries throughout Europe and beyond.
In July 2014, France responded to the persecution of religious minorities in Iraq by offering asylum to Christians from Mosul, home to one of the Middle East’s oldest Christian communities.
The Association d’Entraide aux Minorités d’Orient (Association to Aid Middle Eastern Minorities), established in 2007 by Bishop Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and Iraqi businessman Elish Yako, assists some of the refugees with their integration into society.
Many of the refugees are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, which dates back to the first century, when the region around Iraq was known as Babylon.
“For them,” Yako told ENS, “the most important thing is their freedom … and to practice their religion without being afraid of terrorists and [of someone] kidnapping their children.”
Yako stays in regular contact with every family the association has helped to resettle, including, for instance, a family of four – mother, father, son and daughter – that lives about 18 miles south of Paris. They moved to France in 2009 after receiving repeated death threats. The children told ENS that they are happy finally to practice their religion freely and they are proud of it.
“These people ought still to be in Iraq,” Whalon told ENS. “A lot of them still own homes. They never wanted to leave them. They lease them out; they expect to return. Of course, today the situation is impossible. So of course we want Christians to stay [in Iraq], but we want them to live.
“The ones that can live to tell the tale, they witness to the power of God,” he added. “It says a great deal to me about the value of what we do and what we are in the world.”
VIDEO: Iraqi Christian refugees find new life in Paris