On my 26th birthday, I found myself in the ancient Christian town of al-Qosh in northern Iraq, in a house which ten or so refugee families had squeezed themselves into. Three days prior, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had begun bombing the nearby Christian town of Qaraqosh, forcing 50,000 Christians to flee their homes. ISIS was just beginning a campaign of terror that would sweep through one of the last safe havens for Christians in Iraq, uprooting Iraq’s Christian community – perhaps forever.
As we were taking a break from interviewing Christian and Shi’a Muslim witnesses to ISIS’ bombings and massacres, an older man approached and sat down next to me on the couch. “Arabic?” he asked tentatively. (Like most Iraqi Christians, Arabic was his second language, after Aramaic, the language of Christ.) I told him that I did indeed speak some Arabic. That was all it took.
Immediately, he launched into a speech about all the things his people had suffered in recent years. The bombings. The abductions. The flight of Christians out of Baghdad. The flight of Christians out of Mosul. And now the flight out of Qaraqosh. Nothing ever brought them peace.
I tried as best as I could to tell them that I understood, but nothing would placate him. At last he started shouting, in halting English: “We are. Very! Very! Tired!”
There was no way I could convince him that I had heard what he was trying to say. He was sure that no one in America was listening. He was right.
A New Age of Slaughter
Since 2011, I have been working for Christian Solidarity International (CSI), a human rights NGO dedicated to helping Christian communities survive persecution. Our activities include liberating Christians and others out of slavery, bringing food and clothing to refugees from religious terror, helping persecuted Christians keep their schools alive, and providing medical care for victims of church bombings and other attacks.
Today, the Middle East and North Africa are witnessing a new age of religious slaughter. In my job, I have had the dubious and humbling privilege of witnessing this firsthand. I have held two-year-old Nigerian children whose Christian parents were murdered by Boko Haram. I have walked with Egyptian nuns through the charred ruins of their school, burned down by the Muslim Brotherhood. More than one Christian I met during my stay in Syria has been kidnapped and executed. I have met Iraqi Christian families who fled their homes and livelihoods after men with guns came to their door and said, “You will not get a second warning.” I have tried to explain to a South Sudanese boy just released from slavery that he wasn’t responsible for his slave master killing his father.
CSI issued a Genocide Warning for Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East in 2011. Since then, the death toll has escalated dramatically, as has the number of Christians fleeing their homelands. U.S. policies – from our invasion of Iraq to our support for Muslim extremist rebels in Syria to our role in the overthrow of the governments of Egypt and Libya – have only accelerated this process. It is likely that there will be no Christian communities left in the Middle East within our lifetimes. It is possible that the end will come much sooner than that.
All of which raises the question: why has the American Christian response to this crisis been so anemic?
What Divides Us from Persecuted Christians?
The Lord Jesus calls Christians to be one body – regardless of our sex, our race, our class, our status as slaves or free, our language or our nationality. When one body part suffers, the whole body feels it. What the body’s eyes see informs what the hands and feet do and what the mouth says. Most importantly, the parts of the body protect each other and care for each other.
By this test, the American church is failing miserably. The unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of us – whether conservatives or liberals – have allowed our American nationality to take precedence over our membership in the church in how we see the world.
To understand how big a problem this is, just look at America’s two closest allies in the Middle East: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Palestinian Christian citizens of Israel are mostly safe and free, but Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation suffer tremendously, like all Palestinians, from Israeli bombings, blockades, and restrictions on travel and water use. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, already is the state ISIS wants to build. Christianity is totally illegal, and women are second-class citizens. Religious police force everyone to practice Islamic law, and arrest and torture Christians found having church services in secret. Saudi Arabians who convert to Christianity have to flee the country. Saudi Arabia uses its vast oil wealth to export its violently anti-Christian version of Islam, wahhabism, into mosques and Muslim schools across the globe, and to fund and arm extremists who attack Christians in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Israel is important to the U.S. because it has the most powerful military in the region. Saudi Arabia is important to the U.S. because it sells us oil, buys billions of dollars’ worth of our weapons, and wields huge influence in the Muslim world.
Middle East Christians, on the other hand, serve no useful purpose for the U.S. government. Therefore, if we allow the U.S. government to shape how we see the world, they will not seem important to us. This is all too often the case.
Let me offer a few examples. On numerous occasions, I have heard American Christian pastors, professors and students say something to the effect of, “Anwar Sadat – what a great man he was!” Anwar Sadat was the dictator of Egypt from 1970 until his assassination in 1981. From the perspective of American power, he was a great man indeed. He made peace with Israel, accepted massive weapons shipments from the U.S., and cut off ties with Russia. From the perspective of Egyptian Christians, he was a catastrophe. He wrote anti-Christian discrimination into the Egyptian constitution, encouraged the Muslim extremist groups which his predecessors had restrained, jailed hundreds of priests and exiled the Christian patriarch to the desert. Thanks to Sadat, a new era of anti-Christian persecution began in Egypt, an era we are still living in.
Before America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived there, as they had since the Apostle Thomas visited Iraq in the first century. In the chaos of the Iraq War, American forces, worried about being seen as “crusaders,” refused to give the Christians the protection they so desperately needed. Sunni and Shia Muslim militants bombed churches, gunned Christians down in the street, targeted them for abduction, and drove them out of their homes. More than a million Christians fled the country. This eradication of Christians barely registered in America’s debate over the war. From the perspective of American power, Iraq’s Christians were not important, and so they weren’t to American Christians either.
I was working at a Greek Catholic church in Syria when the American-supported uprising against Syria’s secular government began. With my American perspective, I thought my Syrian Christian friends would be excited at the chance to get rid of a dictator. They were not. Syria was a safe country, and a pair of massacres at churches in Iraq and Egypt just a few months before – which went almost unnoticed by American Christians – were very much on their minds. “Joel, we live in a church!” one of my friends yelled at me. “Didn’t you see what happened in Baghdad and Alexandria?”
Today, nearly all of my Syrian Christian friends have either fled their homes to escape violence from Muslim extremists, or are fighting for the Syrian government. The church we were living in has been bombed by rebel rockets repeatedly. When I tell American Christians that most Syrian Christians support the Syrian government, the most common response I still get is, “Really? Why?”
Last September, Senator Ted Cruz told a conference of Middle Eastern church leaders that “Christians have no better ally than the Jewish state.” Most of these leaders were from countries that have been repeatedly bombed and invaded by the Jewish state. When they disagreed with him, Cruz told them they were “consumed by hate,” said, “If you will not stand with Israel, then I will not stand with you,” and stormed off the stage. This was one month after ISIS drove 200,000 Iraqi Christians from their homes.
Imagine if Cruz had told a group of Jewish leaders, in any context, for any reason: “I will not stand with you.” His presidential campaign would have been dead on arrival (and rightly so). The fact that Ted Cruz is now pinning his presidential hopes on support from American Christians speaks to the level of political sickness in the American church.
Had American Christians been better connected to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, we might have been clued in to the savageries of Egypt’s dictatorships; to the possibility that pursuing “regime change” in Iraq and Syria would bring not liberation, but destruction, to these countries; and to the harsh realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Middle Eastern Muslims, Christians, and other religious groups alike might have been spared unimaginable suffering.
Instead, we ignored those who were supposed to be closest to us, and the whole region has paid the price.
What Is Our Responsibility?
If American Christians are to remedy this woeful situation, we have to start by listening better. Here’s my advice:
Learn to recognize the voice of the U.S. government, and apply a critical ear to it. Don’t allow it to dominate. Read websites like morningstarnews.org, aina.org, and mcndirect.com, where persecuted Christians in the Middle East report on their own situations. Familiarize yourself with their needs, their fears, their perspectives. They won’t always get it right. They will sometimes disagree with each other. They’re still our family.
Use their voices to inform our public prayers in churches and Christian schools. Every week, those websites carry the story of more Christians kidnapped, imprisoned or killed in the Middle East/North Africa because of their faith or minority status. Every week, we should pray for those people and their families – by name, in public. Meriam Ibrahim. Jessica Boulous. Father Frans van der Lugt. Christina Khader Ebada. Nauman Masih. These names should be famous for American Christians.
Churches should build relationships with other churches in the Middle East. Christian colleges should make this crisis the subject of courses and events. They should invite speakers from persecuted Christian communities to address the campus. Iowans at the caucuses next year should ask candidates what they will do as president to halt the destruction of Christianity in the Middle East. We should compare their answers to what we hear from our persecuted brothers and sisters. (And on that note – the role of Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the destruction of state and society in Iraq, Libya and Syria should disqualify them from any Christian’s vote.) The goal should be to build a public consciousness on this issue, a consciousness that forces policymakers to address it.
Finally, we must act in faith to help. For the average American Christian or church, that will mean giving money. Last April, when I spoke at Dordt College about slavery in Sudan, Dordt students responded by raising almost two thousand dollars to get people out of slavery. We need more of that. We need to show persecuted Christians in tangible ways that we remember them, that we are thinking of them, that we know what the impact of our government’s policies is on them, and that we’re ready to invest in changing that reality. The Bible’s instructions for the economy of the church are clear: “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” (2 Corinthians 8:14-15).
Are we ready to be equals with persecuted Christians? Economic equals? Political equals? Spiritual equals? Equals with people who speak Arabic or Aramaic or Dinka or Igbo? Who will sometimes have hard words for us?
“If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”