Category Archives: Middle East

Syrian Christians Blamed for ISIS-Like Atrocities

An article in The Times newspaper, alleging atrocities by Christian militia in Syria, has sparked some “I told you so” posts on social media, from people claiming that Christianity is inherently just as violent as Islam.

Titled “Christians Give a Display of Savagery among Saints and Candles,” the article is by Anthony Loyd, a veteran war correspondent who has previously reported from conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Africa and Iraq.

Loyd wrote that he encountered two dozen Christian refugees in a church in the Syrian town of Darbasiyah, near the Turkish border. They were apparently sheltering from the fierce sun outside.

At first they were “warm and welcoming,” he reported, but then one of the men – a former bank employee now fighting with a Christian militia group – started berating him for alleged British support for Islamic State. This, said Loyd, is the lie that President Bashar Assad has been persistently telling his people.

But what happened next came as a shock, as the man exclaimed: “We cut off the terrorists’ heads as they tried to enter the medina in Hasakah.” He pulled out his mobile phone and showed photographs of a military commander holding two severed heads, while resting his foot on a third.

“Cutting heads is not a good thing,” the man insisted to Loyd. “But if what was done to us was done to you by the Daesh [Islamic State], you would cut heads too. We are taking our revenge for what has been done to us.”

Loyd, a good reporter, did seek further confirmation. A Christian woman inside the church said the heads had more likely been severed from their bodies after a bomb explosion.

Later, another Christian told him it was probable that the dead men were actually killed by the Syrian army, and the mutilation was then carried out by tribal militia.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it has not stopped some commentators from using social media to berate Christians.

Here is one comment that I found: “So now everyone is cutting off heads??…How could you not see this coming? Irrespective of recent happenings historically basically all religions or demographics have gone through their phase of beheading people right?”

Another person wrote: “Well false messiahs will always gather/shepherd new blood, especially the young lambs towards the flames…??”

Four months ago in Pakistan suicide bombers attacked two churches during Sunday worship, leaving 15 dead and scores injured. Subsequently some Christians went on a rampage, blocking roads, attacking police and then seizing two suspects who were being held in police custody, and beating them both to death.

I wrote at the time: “I suspect we are going to see more of this.” Then I added: “When your churches are being bombed and the authorities do nothing, it is difficult to turn the other cheek…. And sadly, as violence against Christians escalates, particularly in the Muslim world, I believe that we can almost certainly expect more such retaliation.”

Those Pakistani rioters may not really have been Christians. Certainly they were not at all behaving in a Christian manner. And we will probably never know the truth about who committed the atrocities in Syria.

But unfortunately, as the war on Christians continues, and in particular as Islamic State revels in the most grotesque depravity, it is difficult to expect that some Christians will never retaliate in kind.

I can only sadly repeat what I wrote four months ago: “I suspect we are going to see more of this.”

A Christian Twitterstorm

I found myself in a mild Twitterstorm the other day, if Christians politely disagreeing with one another can be called a Twitterstorm.

It started with a tweet of mine: “Christianity under threat from ISIS. We must understand the issues. A new book is invaluable.” I then linked to a review I had written on my website of the book “Defying ISIS” by Johnnie Moore.

It is an excellent book, and I had concluded my review with these words: “This is a short book and a quick read (though not an easy read, given the grim content matter). With Christianity under threat of eradication in the land of its birth, it is vital that all Christians understand the issues. ‘Defying ISIS’ is an excellent starting point.”

Anyway, I soon received a response to my tweet: “@AuthorMRoth Christianity is not under threat. Jesus said he will build his church & the gates of hell will never prevail against it. #ISIS”.

Well yes, Christianity as a whole will prevail. We know that. But Christianity in Iraq and Syria is being eradicated by the depravities of ISIS. That was the point of my initial comment. So I tweeted back: “Christianity has already been wiped out in North Africa. Now it is being wiped out in Iraq.”

To which my correspondent replied: “@AuthorMRoth Bible prophesied about persecution. Christians are being displaced not wiped out.”

So I tweeted: “Christianity might be growing in China and elsewhere, but it’s being wiped out in Iraq. That’s my point. It’s a tragedy.”

I then received the reply: “I understand”, and that was the end of the exchange.

But it set me thinking about how we regard the genocide now being carried out by the barbarians of ISIS.

Is it something to be expected – prophesied in the Bible, even – part of the ebb and flow of Christianity? While our faith declines in one part of the globe it rises in another?

Right now Christianity is under attack in the Mideast from Muslim extremists. It is also under attack in the West, and in decline, from the forces of secularism.

Meanwhile it is booming in China and South Korea and parts of Africa, and there is some significant revival occurring in areas of South America.

Of course we express joy, and give thanks, for so many new Christians. But to describe what is happening in the Mideast as, “Christians are being displaced not wiped out,” is, to my mind almost an insult. What we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria is a tragedy of almost unmentionable proportions. Every Christian should be grieving.

Christianity Doomed in Iraq, Say Experts

Is it now time for Christians to accept defeat in the face of the ISIS genocidal onslaught in Iraq, and admit that our faith has no viable future – in the short term, at least – in that country? Certainly – and sadly – that is the message that is increasingly being heard from many experts.

Nina Shea is an international human rights lawyer and director of the US-based Center for Religious Freedom. She has an impressive record of fighting on behalf of Mideast Christians.

But now she is bluntly calling for, in her words, “a new strategy.”

And what exactly is this new strategy?

In an article last week at National Review Online she writes: “The only achievable strategy under the current circumstances is to prepare for an orderly resettlement of these Christians (and Yazidis) in the West.”

Then she adds: “It is a bitter development for the Church and for them, being discarded after 2,000 years of history, through no fault of their own. But it is the most humane of the alternatives. Otherwise they face indigence and exile or, worse, slaughter at the hands of jihadists.”

Also last week, on the Defense One website, comes an article from Barry Posen, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. Its title: “The Iraqi Army No Longer Exists.”

In other words, there is no remaining force that, realistically, is going to halt ISIS as it continues its drive to subjugate the region’s Christians. Certainly, as Shea notes, the US does not appear to have the will to do this.

Taking a similar theme, Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard University, concedes that ISIS increasingly looks like becoming a real and viable state. His article on the Foreign Affairs website has the telling sub-title: “Live with it.”

All this simply confirms what historian Walter Russell Mead told a Hudson Institute conference last month. Christians and other minorities in the region must either “fort up or flee.” Yet the time to “fort up” has long passed.

Christians might comfort ourselves – as I try to do – with thoughts of how our faith is blooming in many other parts of the world. But let us not delude ourselves. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions.

The Dilemmas of Prayer

It is the kind of news that makes us praise God: a British Catholic newspaper reports from Algeria that Muslims in their thousands are seeking Bibles and turning up in church, wishing to learn about Christianity.

This results from disillusionment with the so-called Arab Spring, as well as a reaction against the rise of violent Islamism.

So praise God for what He is doing in the hearts of these people. It certainly cannot be easy to seek Jesus in a Muslim country where churches face heavy restrictions, where Christian evangelism is banned and where a foreign priest who hands out Bibles can be imprisoned for five years.

But wait! Was not Algeria – home of Saint Augustine – once a Christian country? Yes, like much of Mediterranean North Africa, Algeria in the early days of the church was Christian. But subsequent Muslim invasions wiped out all but a remnant.

So Algerian Muslims in their thousands, in a Muslim nation of 39 million people that was once Christian, are now seeking Jesus. Good news? Of course, but…

I receive monthly newsletters from a missionary in one of the Gulf states. He and his wife both speak Arabic, and for months on end we might be asked to pray for a particular Muslim friend or neighbor who has, however vaguely, expressed some kind of interest in the gospel.

We seldom hear of positive results from these encounters, but still we are asked to pray.

I sometimes want to cry out in despair to this missionary. While we are praying fervently for “Sally” or “John” – his contacts are always given Western names for anonymity – the wholesale rape, imprisonment and slaughter of Christians is occurring on the other side of the desert. Would not his efforts and our prayers be better directed there? Yet I know without doubt that he feels a strong calling for his work.

A church friend says that increasingly when he prays he simply feels like saying, “Dear God. Whatever.” For just as Christianity is being eradicated in the land of its birth, millions and millions have been coming to the Lord in places like South Korea and China.

Knowing how to pray can sometimes be confusing.

 

Defying ISIS – A New Book Urges Christians to Act

Western Christians have been shell-shocked by the ISIS (Islamic State) holocaust against our fellow Christians in the Middle East, and have little idea how to respond, beyond prayer and some giving to relevant charities. That, at least, is how I see things.

So a timely new book is relevant. It is “Defying ISIS” by Johnnie Moore, an American author, business executive and religious freedom activist.

The book spells out in grisly detail some of the ISIS activities – the chapter on how the group has been enslaving girls and women is particularly hard to read – and makes it clear that Christians are a particular target.

ISIS itself may have made the headlines only in the past couple of years, but since at least 2003 Islamists have been targeting Iraqi churches. In Baghdad alone, 40 of the 65 churches have been bombed.

In October 2014 the cover of an ISIS magazine depicted St Peter’s Square in the Vatican with a black jihadist flag superimposed. ISIS leaders have repeatedly proclaimed their intention to march to Rome, which they view as the global center of Christianity.

In the words of the book: “ISIS is unabashed at their desire to eliminate Christianity altogether. This isn’t just a part of their plan. It is the heart of it.”

I suspect a military response is the only real answer, but what can ordinary Christians do? Moore stresses the importance of education. When we understand what is happening we are much more likely to start trying to help. We will also be able to speak authoritatively to others.

He briefly tells the story of “a relatively small group of Christians who educated themselves and cared enough to raise their voices” and helped more than 72,000 refugees, driven from their homes by ISIS, to survive the 2014 winter.

He also urges Christians to speak up on this issue and to pressure their governments, as well as praying and giving.

This is a short book and a quick read (though not an easy read, given the grim content matter). With Christianity under threat of eradication in the land of its birth, it is vital that all Christians understand the issues. “Defying ISIS” is an excellent starting point.

Fighting for Religious Freedom, Fighting to Awaken the Church

The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative is a new organization fighting for religious freedom. According to its website:

The rise of ISIS, the declining freedom of speech and communication globally, and the sheer number of religious prisoners around the world pose a critical threat to all of humanity. 21st Century Wilberforce wants to awaken the church to these atrocities and stir Christians and other religious groups to action. 

Recently I interviewed Elyse Bauer Anderson, Senior Advisor and Director of Special Projects with the organization.

Conditions seem to be worsening for Christians in Iraq and – particularly – Syria. Is this your impression too, or are there some glimmers of hope?

The situation facing Christians in Iraq and Syria is bleak. Increasingly the global community is starting to recognize that what is taking place is in fact genocide and that it threatens to extinguish ancient faith communities from the lands they’ve inhabited since antiquity.

In war-torn Syria the Assyrian Christian community suffered a devastating blow with the recent large-scale kidnappings. In Iraq, the Christian community is increasingly hopeless in the face of prolonged displacement – they are nomads in their own country. We were told that 12 Christian families leave a day. Few can envision a future for themselves or for their families.

But in the midst of the suffering there are glimmers of hope. When we were in northern Iraq we met a young Iraqi priest who implored our delegation, “Help me to stay.” There are courageous men and women who are persevering in the midst of incredible suffering and hardship and in many cases ministering to and among their people. Their faith is unwavering. They have not allowed their circumstances to dictate what they believe. It is an inspiration.

Your organization is quite new. Were you formed specifically to help Mideast Christians, or are you active in other regions? 

Given the crisis facing Christians and other ancient faith communities living in the shadow of the Islamic State, we chose Iraq for our inaugural trip. That said, our focus will be global in nature. Persecution of people of faith is epidemic around the world. From China, to Iran, from Sudan to Pakistan, Christians and other religious minorities are experiencing all manner of hostility, discrimination and abuse.

Your website says you are a “do tank,” not a think tank. What have you been doing so far? What do you hope to do?

We are still in the embryonic stage as an organization, but as we mature we intend to engage in a number of different spheres including advocacy, both at home and abroad, and education, to include training and equipping religious leaders in countries where religious freedom violations routinely occur.  A third area of focus will involve prioritizing access to circumvention technology in closed or restricted societies like China and Iran. Some of these initiatives are already beginning to take shape. 21Wilberforce just participated in a training conference for nearly 1,200 Chinese house church pastors and lay leaders in Taiwan. In the face of massive crackdowns in China against people of faith, the church is vibrant and growing there. In fact, the church in the West could arguably stand to learn much from our persecuted brothers and sisters in China, Iraq and around the world – 21Wilberforce hopes to help forge that connection in tangible ways.

Could Western governments be doing more to help besieged Assyrians?

Absolutely. The humanitarian needs are great and more could be done to assist both the internally displaced populations and the refugees throughout the region, to include healthcare and education. But these are mere Band-Aids. Until the Islamic State is ultimately defeated and destroyed there will be no future for Christians in these lands. The Kurdish peshmerga forces are imperfect but they are on the front lines of the battle and they have been willing to take on ISIS from the beginning, notably in areas they consider Kurdish lands. To date, Washington has insisted on sending military aid through Baghdad. As a result, the peshmerga are fighting with outdated and outmoded weaponry. This is a diplomatic calculation more than it is a strategic military decision – and one that could be easily overturned.

Is military force an answer? Could we in the West be doing something to help Christians build their own defense forces?

Congress has been debating the Authorization of Use of Military Force against the Islamic State. This is a much-needed and long overdue discussion. Military force must be on the table. In the interim, the administration already has the authority to aid what is known as the Nineveh Protective Unit, which is effectively a defensive national guard unit. The Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities were abandoned and left defenseless in the face of the Islamic State’s murderous onslaught last summer. These units are an important first step in these vulnerable communities being able to defend themselves moving forward.

What else can Western Christians, and others, do to help suffering Assyrians?

Of course we in the West can pray for our brothers and sister in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. This is but one way of standing in solidarity with the suffering church. But there is more. We can learn their stories, and we can be their advocates. We can raise these issues with our elected officials, both in Congress and the White House. As legislation and policy comes to the fore which impacts these imperiled communities we can make our voices known so that it is clear that there is in fact a domestic constituency on matters of international religious freedom.

Among the first requests should be to urge the president to fill the vacant post of Special Envoy for Religious Minorities in the Middle East. President Obama signed the bipartisan legislation that created this post into law last August, thereby making it the law of the land. While an envoy alone does not hold the key to this complex crisis, having a senior person at the State Department focused exclusively on advocating for these communities and developing policy options aimed at guaranteeing their survival, and ultimately flourishing, is a critical first step.

Elyse, thank you very much.

More Christians, More Peace

When do Christians fight back? It is a question that has generated enormous controversy over 2,000 years. Jesus himself told us to turn the other cheek. He warned the apostle Simon Peter that a person who lives by the sword will die by the sword.

But even the most ardent Christian pacifist would surely struggle to find reasons why Assyrian Christians should not take up arms against an enemy that is murdering, kidnapping and raping their people on a mass scale.

So increasingly we are hearing reports of Christian groups in the region forming their own defense forces to protect their villages and their people.

One of these is the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit, known as NPU. The Nineveh Plains, in north-western Iraq, have for thousands of years been the home of the Assyrians, the original Iraqis. Most today are Christians. They have endured hundreds of years of persecution, culminating last year in the invasion by the terrorists of ISIS, which forced more than 150,000 residents to flee.

I spoke by Skype with Jeff Gardner, Director of Communications for the American Mesopotamian Organization and for its Restore Nineveh Now project, which is helping NPU. He recently returned from his third visit to the region.

“These are defense units,” he said. “It is important to understand that they are not another kind of militia. They are integrated with the community to provide defense.”

He noted that both Kurdish forces and the Iraqi military had fled when ISIS arrived, leaving Christians defenceless.

“In most cases the Assyrian villages were overrun by fewer than 100 members of ISIS. It was not some large-scale invading force. So it is just necessary to establish a defense force that will hold the line. In some smaller towns 20 to 50 soldiers will suffice. The Assyrians are in desperate need of a sense of security.”

However, he believed that it was important to act speedily.

“ISIS is a criminal syndicate,” he said. “They are trying to precipitate a regional war. We cannot dilly-dally while they gather strength.”

But, then, with Christians now fleeing the Middle East, Jeff added something that has set me thinking.

“Do we really want peace in the Middle East? Not just as a platitude, but real peace? Then we need more Christians. Of course, not all Christians are peaceful or law-abiding. But where there are Christians in the world there is more peace.”

Movie Exposes Horror of War on Christians

As a child growing up in Syria, Sargon Saadi loved making home movies with his brother and cousins. It led eventually to his decision to travel to the US to study filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago – famous for its arts and media programs – and then to move to the heart of the movie world, Los Angeles, where he has worked as a cinematographer on many films.

But something happened while he was living in the US. His beloved Syria – the jewel of the Middle East, as he describes it – descended into civil war. Worse, parts of the country were then overrun by the terrorists known as Islamic State. Christians and other minorities became a particular target.

Sargon is himself an Assyrian Christian. He knew he had to do something to help his people. He decided to make a movie.

“Assyrians are the descendants of the great Mesopotamian civilization of 7,000 years,” he told me. “They still speak the Aramaic language that Jesus Christ once spoke. They are the last indigenous people of the region.

“As an Assyrian myself, ever since I was a child I wondered what I would have done if I were alive in 1915 when the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against us. That genocide, which the Assyrians now call ‘Seyfo,’ is hardly recognized or even talked about in schools or in the media.

“Now, 100 years later, the Assyrian Christians are facing yet another genocide and this time in Iraq by the terrorist organization Islamic State. I could not stay idle, and that’s why I made the film. I wanted to let the world know.”

Last September he and two producer friends flew to Iraq and spent eight days documenting the crisis. The resulting movie, “The Last Plight,” though just 10 minutes long, is a powerful portrayal of the victims – Christians and other minorities – and their suffering.

Released only at the end of last year, it is already causing a stir. It has been translated into six languages and shown on four television channels. It was screened at the European Parliament and won an award from the Vimeo video-sharing platform. It is expected to be shown this year at film festivals in several countries.

Meanwhile Sargon is finishing another movie, “Qamishli: Peace At War,” a documentary about the survival of the Assyrian Christian community in Syria during the civil war. It focuses on his hometown Qamishli, and will have its premiere in May at the Mardin Film Festival in Turkey.

I asked him what Christians in the West could do to help his cause. He recommended two websites. A Demand For Action provides information on the crisis. Assyrian Aid Society takes donations and uses them to help the most needy.

“It all starts with us being informed about world atrocities,” said Sargon. “With knowledge we can destroy ignorance, and with love we can conquer hate.”

“The Last Plight” can be viewed online.