Christians in Iraq

(By Andrew White)
Many Christians in the Middle East are under attack.
In Iraq we have been under attack since the beginning of the war in 2003, but the past month has seen an escalation in our situation. Over the past year, 93 Christians were killed in my church. This month alone over 100 have been killed in Iraq. Some 59 were killed in a single massacre in the Syrian Catholic Church on the 31st  of October 2010. Since then many more Christians have been targeted, blown up, told they no longer belong in Iraq and were advised to leave now or be executed. Things are so hard that many Christians are fleeing, or at least are trying to. I have personally been under attack many times, but was is not always clear if it is because of who I am and what I am doing, or because of my faith. As far as I am concerned the two cannot be separated: I do what I do because I am sure that my Lord has called me to do it. Some of this work is seen as a direct threat to those who are causing violence, and they attack anyone who is seen as a hindrance to their methodology. Some of the attacks on me have been because I am a Westerner and oppose their ideology.
Some attacks have been clearly targeted at me. I will not forget the day when I was thrown into a room with chopped off human toes and fingers. I thought my digits would be next. My response in such an incident was not well thought out: I simply wanted my Lord to aid my release and preserve me - and He did. On another occasion there were pictures of me plastered on walls around Baghdad, the words with the pictures were simple: I was wanted dead or alive. On that occasion my Embassy had me leave the country. Fortunately it was not long before I was able to return to the people and land that I love. My security now is very intense and far greater now than in the post war year. It always used to amaze me when I went to church each week with body armour on, in armoured cars and surrounded by Iraqi Military. I don''t think that there were many other ministers in the world who would go to Church like this. Nowadays things are very different. I now live in the Church Compound, and the security of the Church is now completely different than before. Not only are we surrounded by bomb barricades, the number of police and army security is phenomenal - and they are all provided by the Iraqi Government. Not long ago I went to Kurdistan with my board chair Lord Hylton. We were given over 120 military security to get us out of Baghdad. Then we reduced to our normal 35 soldiers when we left Baghdad. The children of our Church came to me and, pointing at the soldiers, told me they were my children. So from that day I call my security my children.
Whilst I am aware that I am constantly at risk and have to listen to my security, at the same time I am acutely aware that the members of my congregation have no security. They may not have my profile, but they are all at risk because they are all followers of Jesus of Nazareth. They were so at risk that those who had money fled soon after the war. Those who are left behind tend to be the seriously poor who have nothing. Our Church has to provide them with food, health care and rent. We are the only church I know that in our compound have a large clinic with doctors, dentists, a pharmacy and laboratory. It is a service that is provided for everyone in our community - independent of their faith background.
It is difficult to just provide lists of how our people have suffered. They have been killed, kidnapped and tortured. To even write about these cases is so painful. As I stand at the front of church each week I think of those who have been killed or kidnapped. I remember those who are no longer with us when I see their families. I have often tried to think of ways of protecting them, but I cannot. When they are with me I have certain ways of protecting them with my security. Bombs can always hit us from below and rockets from above, so there is no way of providing total protection. Easter Sunday 2010 was not a safe haven for anybody - we were all under attack. I am regularly asked about the suffering church, the persecuted believers and the destroyed Church. I think about these subjects much, as it is at the heart of my very being.
I have tried to ascertain why our people are under attack and have come up with what I call the Three P''s: Perception, Proclamation and Practice.
The first is perception. The way people are perceived. The other day in Baghdad I sat down with some Muslim and Christian friends. The subject of knowing the other came up. They were all sure that they knew who was a Muslim and who was a Christian. They went into great details of how the other looked. To be quite honest I cannot tell the difference between Iraqi Christians and Muslims, but they are sure that they can. What is clear is that the perceptions are very real. They are sure they can perceive who the other is. The perception of the other is real and held to also by those radicals who are involved in the persecution of the other.
Then there is the issue of Proclamation. All Christians I have met in many different countries feel that their Christianity is something they should not keep quiet about. This is also so in Iraq, where I spend much time. The Christians are careful and not missionary about their faith, but they do constantly proclaim it. Their faith is something for them to be proud of. They do not hide their faith, and most will visibly wear a cross around their neck. It is very interesting talking to those who have been kidnapped. They all say that they were told to say the Islamic words of conversion. Most of the Christians I know have not. To them their faith is the most important thing in their life. A few I know have said they did say the words because they feared being killed. They were returned, but came to me fearfully and confessed what they had done. I have always told them they are forgiven, and God will not hold it against them. They always have been even more severe in their faith on return. There are many others who have never been returned, and to be honest, they have always been the people who I knew would never say the words of conversion.
Finally there is the issue of practice. Christians in Iraq always practice their faith. There is no concept of being a nominal Christian. If you are a Christian you go to church on Sunday. Friday is not the main day of worship even if Friday is the main day off for the weekend. You go to church each Sunday and at every festival. The Christian''s have days off of school or work for key Holy Days, and the fact that they are Christians is seen and known. They do things different from the Muslim majority. It is very difficult to hide what you do, and everybody knows who the Christians are in each community. With the increasing violence, many people fled from Iraq.
Those who did not have enough to leave, fled to the town of their origin where they all originate from: Nineveh! To this day 2700 years after Jonah arrived by whale in the town the people are still followers of the Almighty. Nineveh once the city of the evil Assyrians. It is still the city of the Assyrians, but now they are all Christians. Seven hundred years after Jonah arrived, another person turned up who also did not have a great reputation. To those in the West he is Doubting Thomas. To those in Iraq it is Mar Thoma. He stopped off in Nineveh on his way to India, saw all the people who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and told them their messiah has come. They all believed, and to this day Nineveh is still the home of the Assyrian Christians. So Nineveh is mainly Christian. Many of the Christians fled there to the homes of their grandparents. It was not long before Al Qaida also moved there. They targeted Christian''s, kidnapped them, killed them, tortured them and now are telling them all to leave. The place that was safe has become a place of great attack and danger. Many of the Christians fled back to Baghdad, but that has now become too dangerous. So the Perception, Proclamation and Practice are there.
For us faith is under attack in a very violent way. We cannot hold debate and discussion regarding religion - that does not exist here. It is simply murder, kidnapping, torture, rape and the forced payment of jazeera tax (an Islamic tax forced on non-Muslims simply in order to be allowed to exist). We never know who will be targeted amongst our people. I live with many threats, along with my people, but our place is not sad but full of joy. Despite the constant tragedies, our people are not sad and our church is not despondent. What disturbs me is that much of the violence is in God''s name. Continually I am aware of the words of Archbishop William Temple "When religion goes wrong it goes very wrong." Religion has indeed gone very wrong. Violence is often justified as being the work of God amongst the infidels. Almost every religion I know has been guilty of committing violence in God''s name - even in Christianity. During the crusades, while it might have been a long time ago, there have been many other occasions when violence happened in the presence of Christian''s and the majority have done nothing.
The most awful example of this is the Holocaust. It was not a Christian event. It was not done in the name of Christianity, but it happened in the heart of Christian Europe. The majority of the Church of all denominations did nothing when millions were being killed innocently around them. There were a few who objected and suffered the same terrible death. We will never forget the words of Martin who said Niemöller''s "In Niemöller''s first utterance of it, in a January 6, 1946 speech before representatives of the Confessing Church in Frankfurt, it went (in German):
THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn''t speak up because I wasn''t a Communist.
THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn''t speak up because I wasn''t a Jew.
THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn''t speak up because I wasn''t a trade unionist.
THEN THEY CAME for the Catholics,
and I didn''t speak up because I was a Protestant.
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
They are words that challenge us to the core. They are words that remind us that none of us are beyond guilt or able to do the most awful things. That most of the attacks have happened at the hands of those who are Muslims does not mean that we are in any way against Islam. None of my Muslim friends would ever consider doing this or anything awful in God''s name. The sad fact is that for some attacking the other because they are considered infidel''s is justified.
According to those attacking us, our people are infidels for the following reasons: They do not accept Mohammed and he is not seen as the final Prophet; They are seen as being connected with the west; and they are not seen as being properly Iraqi, For Christians Mohamed is not accepted in any way. He is not only irrelevant, but to accept him is seen as a denial of their faith in Jesus as the anointed one of God, and is always referred to as the anointed one. Mohammed is not seen in anyway as a prophetic figure. Apart from Mohammed, Islam''s other prophets are also accepted by Christians, such as Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.
The other thing the Christians are often accused of is being connected to the West. The fact that the Christian faith started in the Middle East is not known by many. It was very interesting to me to hear from some of the young people in Iraq that they did not even know that their were Christians in the West. When the Americans came in 2003 they were so surprised to see that some of the soldiers wore crosses. One person said to me that he thought Christians were only in Iraq. To many of the Islamic terrorists, everything about the West is negative and Christian. The promiscuity, radical liberality and lack of virtue are seen as a Christian phenomenon. It is the Christians who are seen by many as those who have attacked Iraq. Some have even compared it to the Crusades. For this reason the Christian''s are often not seen as being properly Iraqi. They are connected to those who have invaded them.
Whilst there have been many of our people murdered and kidnapped, when it is your own staff taken it is particularly difficult. In the Summer of 2008 one of my two lay pastors was kidnapped. Majid was taken from his house. The family fled to the Church and his house was also taken. As in the case of most Iraqi kidnaps, Majid was taken for money. What I call an economic rather than political kidnap. We were contacted and asked for a sum of money that we simply did not have. We negotiated the sum down and eventually arranged for the money to be handed over. In cases like this you have to arrange for quick payment, or the people are killed quickly. Majed had a wife and three children, and they were petrified. Eventually, in a very traumatized state, Majed was returned. He moved into the church with his family. He told us of his experience how continually he quoted scripture. The kidnappers told him they meant to kill him but they could not. We were greatly thankful to God for his miraculous return. Immediately he started making plans to leave Iraq. They had lost everything; even their house had been taken from them. Their faith had been under attack. They fled to Syria, and after two years of waiting, they will most likely be sent by the UN as refugees to the USA.
Soon after Majid left we had a church council meeting. We only have one church for our Iraqi Church, and for the coalition chapel. They were only one thing on the agenda. How could we prevent Faiz, our other pastor, from being kidnapped? I was acutely aware how different this was from any church council meeting in the West. Our US Army representatives spoke of how Faiz must not allow any habits to develop regarding his movement from the church to his residence. Eventually there was one conclusion: There was in reality nothing that could be done to ensure the safety and security of Faiz. All we could do was to move from the temporal to the spiritual. It is the Lord that we turn to for his protection. In all cases of faith under attack there is no guarantees of safety what we do is turn to the Almighty for his help and protection.
As you can see, our faith is really under attack. The risks are real, but there is no systematic approach to prevent this torture. There is no way of preventing the presence, proclamation and practice of faith. It is this that is at the heart of our faith in the Almighty who promises never to leave us or forsake us. In the midst of the difficulties we know without doubt that our God is the only way through. We know that our Lord has informed us that our faith will indeed be under attack and as we get closer to His return this will not get better but worse. We take hope from the fact that we are under attack because we believe and know that we are trusted by our Lord to persevere, and we will.
Written by the Reverend Canon Dr. Andrew P B White  of Baghdad.