Let us face it: We simply do not know how good we have it in the United States when it comes to religious freedom. Just ask the Christians fleeing from Northern Iraq.
My wife and I recently attended a family gathering where several people there affirmed having a Christian faith. We enjoyed a good time together, catching up with one another, having a lot of fun, but much of the experience seemed like such a stark contrast with what is going on in the rest of the world. We never once as a family took the time to thank God for all of the blessings that we have when compared to the suffering of believers across the globe, as with Christian families in Iraq.
In our celebrations, we missed a crucial opportunity to stand in solidarity with those who suffer for their faith.
The Rapid Decline of a Once Vibrant Church
As of the summer of 2014, the world has been stunned by the persecution of Christians in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has reportedly levied a tax of about $470 per family for Christians in ISIS controlled areas of Northern Iraq. While most modern societies of Islamic origin have done away with such dhimmi status, or the granting of religious protection for non-Muslims in exchange for the payment of a tax, groups like ISIS have sought to revive the older custom. Along with other persecuted religious minorities, families of known Christians must pay the tax, convert to the ISIS brand of Islam, or leave. But conditions for the Iraqi Christians and other groups have deteriorated quickly. Most Christians have since been exiled from these areas, leaving behind nearly all of their material possessions.
The human tragedy is terrible, but the loss of Christian witness in this part of the world deals another devastating blow, as we learn from church history. Tradition has it that Thaddeus (generally known as Jude, Luke 6:16, and Acts 1:13) and Thomas (John 20:24-29), two of Jesus’ original disciples, preached the Gospel in Iraq in the first century A.D. We have firmer knowledge about the growth of Christianity among the Assyrian people in this region during the period of the Nestorian crisis, when bishop Nestorius (428-431 A.D) rejected the title of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as the theotokos, or the “mother or bearer of God.” Nestorius, whose legacy has more recently been vindicated by a number of theologians, was concerned that the theotokos title for the Virgin Mary represented a confusion of the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. In the theological conflict that followed, the Assyrian followers of Nestorius became somewhat isolated from the rest of Christendom. However, the Nestorian Christians were able to spread the Gospel message all across Asia within a few centuries. The Nestorian Christians beat the Western Christians in their missionary outreach to China by many centuries, arriving in China by the 7th century A.D.
Later, the rapid growth of Islam in the Assyrian region cut short the growth of Christianity. However, the Christian church continued to remain a vibrant community of faith in Iraq as late as the beginning of the 21st century. Many of these believers, known as Chaldeans, have largely resolved their ancient theological differences with the Western church and have joined in communion with other Roman Catholics, but they still remain mostly estranged from evangelical Protestants. The church has survived many hardships over the years… until recently.
By 2003, some have estimated that nearly 1.5 million people in Iraq were Christians, about 5% of the population. Admittedly, a number of these people only have had a nominal faith, a shallow spirituality based solely on family tradition, but I have known folks who tell me that there are many Spirit-led Iraq Christians who are great advocates for Christ and His Gospel. What a remarkable testimony!
Sadly, since the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the size of the Christian community has dwindled rapidly due to persecution, some in terms of deaths but mostly through emigration. Some reports suggest that there are less than 200,000 Christians left in Iraq by 2014, clearly less than 1% of Iraq’s population.
That is an 80-90% rate of decline in only about 10 years.
The situation is dire.
It is even worse for those Christians who grew up Muslim, only later to become followers of Jesus. From the perspective of ISIS, these Christians are apostates. They do not have the option of paying the tax: they must either return to Islam or die.
The plight of the Iraqi Christians is yet another example of what University of Chester’s Paul Vallely says is an established fact: Christians are the most persecuted people in the world today. In Baylor University’s Philip Jenkins review of Catholic journalist John L. Allen Jr.’s book The Global War on Christians, Jenkins concludes by saying that the situation like those in Iraq is “stirring, infuriating, and heartbreaking.” Jenkins, who was highlighted in a Veracity blog post last year about Christians in neighboring Syria, reflects more on the profound history of the church in Iraq and the unfolding tragedy here in this essay.
An Opportunity to Be Thankful… An Opportunity to Respond
Some might think I am putting a damper on all of the “good times” we had at our recent family gathering…. Far from it. The fact that those who consider themselves as followers of Jesus in the United States have such freedom in this nation is something to be celebrated. But “good times” can easily descend into mere frivolity and license for wrongdoing when we neglect to see things from God’s perspective. We must remember at the appropriate times and with sobriety that the freedoms we experience are nothing more than a precious gift from a gracious God who is calling us to come to Him and worship the One who not only grants freedom for many in this world, but who more importantly grants salvation for all Eternity for those who put their trust in Him.
Do we really know this Savior and His generous love on display at Calvary?
In John 15:20, Jesus Himself declared that “if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” In an affluent society that distracts us to the point of being careless about our faith and our freedoms, it is easy to forget that the mark of a true follower of Jesus is one who experiences persecution. So if we are not experiencing some form of persecution, then perhaps we need to check our heart to see if we really truly know the Lord. At the very least, the story from Iraq provides for us an opportunity to pray for the persecuted church, stand with our brothers and sisters, and respond accordingly.
Thankfully, God is still to be praised for his providential care for His church, but the situation in Iraq is a call to prayer, a call to take our faith more seriously, and a call to repentance and action. How do you respond?
Want to learn more about the persecuted church around the world? Visit Voice of the Martyrs for more information and how you can get involved.