June 3, 2015

Persecuted Christians: In search of new beginnings and brighter tomorrows

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by Useful Group

My peaceful life in Jerusalem was interrupted by a hectic sequence of airplanes, meetings, interviews and speaking engagements in the United States from early April until mid-May.

The focus of all this activity was twofold: My first concern was highlighting the ferocious Christian persecution in today’s world – particularly in the Middle East. Second was discussing the terrible devastation persecution inflicts upon millions of innocent victims and determining what to do about it.

Of course I enjoyed visits with family and friends, which made for some heartwarming reunions.

But another blessing also emerged. For a writer like me, there is a big difference between public appearances and working in virtual anonymity behind a computer. As uncomfortable as “visibility” may be, my journey provided me with a number of opportunities to hear from real people in real time – face-to-face. And that was invaluable.

Some of those I met were hard at work in congressional offices or researching on behalf of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. A few operated alongside Christian relief and development NGOs. Some were lawyers or lobbyists – or both.

Others were busy, well-informed Christian and Jewish professionals – concerned women and men I might otherwise never have heard from except for the occasional Facebook like or Twitter retweet.

Without question, there is something to be said for listening. And hearing their thoughts and ideas was indispensable.


Christian Persecution: Tragedy in Today’s World.

To begin with, here is an all-too-brief summary of the issues Middle East Christians are facing:

Globally, the persecution of Christians has been on the upswing since the 20th century. But it has increased exponentially in the Middle East since the upheaval that followed the Iraq War in 2003, and – far more dramatically – since the so-called Arab Spring erupted in 2010 alongside the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.

Today, the Syrian civil war and the emergence of the Islamic State have not only caught indigenous Christians in the crossfire, they have made these Christians primary targets for Islamist terrorists. Untold thousands of believers have died or disappeared, and millions more are refugees on the fringes of various nations or displaced persons within their countries of origin.

This is happening right now a region that, for 2,000 years, have been known as “the cradle of Christianity.”

During my trip to the U.S., I listened to various perspectives about Christian persecution – sometimes alongside the similar abuse of Jews that often preceded it. And the typical response I heard went something like this:

“I really care. In fact I’m deeply troubled by what I’m hearing. But I have no idea what to do about it!”

Naturally there were other, less encouraging responses, too.

One of the most distressing for me – an American Christian – is the rejection of Christian refugees by the U.S. government. I attended several meetings with Faith McDonnell in Washington, DC; she has detailed some hard facts in a powerful article published May 14 by The Philos Project. Faith wrote:

Evidence suggests that within the [Obama] administration not only is there no passion for persecuted Christians under threat of genocide from the Islamic State, there is no room for them, period. In fact, despite ISIS’ targeting of Iraqi Christians specifically because they are Christians, and, as such, stand in the way of a pure, Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East (and beyond), the U.S. State Department has made it clear that “there is no way that Christians will be supported because of their religious affiliation.”

Please read Faith’s entire article here.

Those of us who have had the opportunity to speak with Christian refugees know all too well their depth of despair. They have lost everything, including their loved ones, their personal identity, their past achievements and all vestiges of their personal possessions – much like the millions of Jews who were displaced in the 20th century.

As the saying goes, “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People…” But alas, there is no Israel for Christians. And the U.S., as it did with many Jewish refugees decades ago, is refusing to receive them.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Those beautiful words were meant to welcome émigrés seeking to enter America and gain freedom, by the light of Liberty’s glowing torch. Emma Lazarus’s poem is sometimes quoted to include undocumented “immigrants,” but it no longer seems to apply to persecuted Christians.


“Deep Despair Everywhere…”

Robert Nicholson, the executive director of The Philos Project, visited Christian refugees in Jordan just last week. He wrote,

I sat in a crowded living room and listened to Ban, a young mother of two whose husband was kidnapped by ISIS and never seen again. I met Bashar, a doctor from Mosul, who had to flee with his children in the middle of the night when the church bells rang, warning of ISIS’s imminent advance into their city. I visited a church-school in Marka where almost 200 young refugee children are doing their best to make a life for themselves amidst the chaos.

None of these people can work under Jordanian law. None of them can return to Iraq. All of them want to emigrate to the West but few are getting through. There was a deep sense of despair everywhere we went…

Some Middle Eastern religious leaders who represent uprooted Christians cling to the hope that their flocks will quickly be able to return to their homes; that ISIS and other terrorists will be driven out; that a safe haven for Christians will be be created with trustworthy security protection.

Although that is a wonderful vision for the future, considering the dubious results of today’s military operations in Iraq and Syria, a safe haven for Christians is unlikely to happen any time soon.

In fact, the refugees themselves are not optimistic about returning to their towns and villages. For one thing, some of them have run for their lives more than once in recent years. I spoke to several who fled Baghdad during the anti-Christian terrorism in the early 2000s, resettling in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain. Then, last summer, they had to flee again. They managed to reach Erbil, Kurdistan, where most of them are living in squalor and uncertainty.

Tragically, other Iraqi Christians who fled Baghdad during those same upheavals made their way to Syria, where there was, at the time, a measure of protection for Christians.

Whatever Iraqi believers still survive – unlike the 250,000-plus Syrians who have already died in the Assad regime’s civil war – the majority of them are either hiding or hanging on to life in miserable refugee camps somewhere along the borders of Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey.

That’s not to say nobody cares. Several Christian countries, including Armenia, Georgia and, most recently, Poland, have declared their willingness to accept a few thousand Christian refugees. But they are not financially prepared to transport them, or in some cases, even to house them. And it is unclear how to proceed.

This situation is exacerbated by complex international documentation (thanks to United Nations bureaucracy), which is stipulated to make immigration and resettlement legal.


Getting Past Hopelessness.

Like Nicholson, I also encountered despair among the refugees I met in Erbil, Kurdistan in fall 2014. I felt it myself; the problems facing them seem insurmountable.

And recently, as I spoke to gatherings during my visit to the United States, I was asked the same question every place I went: “Why aren’t American Christians doing more to help their brothers and sisters in the Middle East?”

The answer to that question is complicated by several issues.

With a population of around 323 million, 77 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians. That amounts to nearly 250 million people. If they were united, they would be a virtually insurmountable bloc of influence.

However, they are fragmented – sadly so – by denominationalism, theological disputes, political alliances, local church concerns and, unfortunately, disinterest.

What would it take to bring a reasonable number of them together? To galvanize them into activism?

For one thing, most U.S. media does not report Christian persecution frequently, if at all. Just being informed requires a certain amount of effort.

Occasionally, of course, stories break through: 21 Coptic Christian men recently appeared on YouTube, marched to their deaths with knives at their throats and a dying prayer to Jesus on their lips.

For those who foolishly wonder if Copts, Assyrians, Chaldeans and other Eastern believers are “real Christians,” what more can be said? May we all have the faith to demonstrate such courage to the end.

But what to do? The process of bringing together a massive Christian grassroots movement in the U.S. – launching sizeable public demonstrations, persistent Congressional lobbying, media bombardment, etc. – requires stellar leadership, well-honed organizational skills and generous funding.

It’s long been my observation that Jews are far better at this kind of organization and activism than Christians. Sadly, they’ve had plenty of experience dealing with persecution and how to respond to it. Perhaps we should seek their help.


In the meantime…

We can organize or seek out upcoming events in our local areas.

One such occasion is “Justice for Assyrians” on June 6 in Chicago, featuring speaker Juliana Taimoorazy, with an after-party hosted by The Philos Project.

We can keep ourselves as informed as possible.

We can support trustworthy organizations that reach out to the persecuted.

We can pass the word via email and social media.

We can form our own information networks including friends, schools, churches, synagogues or other organizations.

We can write op-eds or letters to the editor.

We can demand action from our government. 

And, of course, last but not at all least, we can pray.

“…The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results.” (James 5:16)

So let us pray. And may the “wonderful results” of our intercession and intervention – genuine hope, new beginnings and brighter tomorrows – soon be evident among far-flung, longsuffering sisters and brothers.