‘When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong’

Christians in Iraq are not considered Iraqi because they are viewed as those that attacked the country.

Candles Flicker 521 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Candles Flicker 521
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In Iraq we have been under attack since the beginning of the war in 2003. Some 59 Christians were killed in a single massacre in the Syrian Catholic Church on October 31, 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.
Many Christians are fleeing, or at least are trying to. I have personally been under attack many times, but it 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.
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 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 armor on, in armored cars and surrounded by Iraqi military personnel. I don’t think that there are many other ministers in the world who go to church like this.
Nowadays things are very different. I now live in the church compound. Not only are we surrounded by bomb barricades, but the number of police and army security is phenomenal.
Not long ago I went to Kurdistan with my board chair Lord Hylton. We were given over 120 security personnel to get us out of Baghdad. Then, when we left Baghdad, we were reduced to our normal 35 soldiers. The children of our church came to me and, pointing at the soldiers, told me that they were my children. So from that day I call my security people my children.
While I am aware that I am constantly at risk and have to listen to my security people, I am acutely aware that the members of my congregation have no security. They may not have my high profile, but they are all at risk because they are all followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
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. 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.
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. The Christians are careful and not missionary about their faith, but they do proclaim it.
Their faith is something for them to be proud of. They do not hide it, and most will visibly wear a cross around their neck.
All those who have been kidnapped say they were told to recite the Islamic words of conversion. A few I know have said they did recite 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. There are many others who have never been returned, and to be honest, they have always been the people who I knew would never recite the words of conversion.
In Iraq, there is no concept of being a nominal Christian. If you are a Christian, you go to church each Sunday and at every festival. The Christians have days off from school and from work for key holy days, and the fact that they are Christians is seen and known. It is very difficult to hide what you do, and everybody knows who the Christians are in each community.
For us, faith is under attack in a very violent way. We cannot hold debates and discussions about religion – that does not exist here. It is simply murder, kidnapping, torture, rape and the forced payment of jizya tax (an Islamic tax forced on non-Muslims simply in order to be allowed to exist).
We never know who will be targeted next. 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.” Violence is often justified as being the work of God amongst the infidels.
Almost every religion I know of has been guilty of committing violence in God’s name – even Christianity. This happened during the Crusades, and while that might have been a long time ago, there have been many other occasions when violence occurred in the presence of Christians and the majority did nothing.
The most awful example of this was 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 churches of all denominations did nothing when millions of innocents were being killed around them. There were a few who objected and suffered the same terrible death.
We will never forget the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller in a January 6, 1946 speech before representatives of the Confessing Church in Frankfurt:
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.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
According to those attacking us, our people are infidels for the following reasons: Muhammad is not accepted by Christians in any way. He is not only irrelevant to them, but to accept him is seen as a denial of their faith in Jesus as the anointed one of God.
Christians are often accused of being connected to the West.
That the Christian faith started in the Middle East is not known by many. 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 Christian phenomena. It is the Christians who are seen by many as those who attacked Iraq. Some have even compared it to the Crusades.
For this reason the Christians are often not seen as being properly Iraqi. They are associated with those who have invaded them.
In the Summer of 2008 one of my two lay pastors was kidnapped. Majed was taken from his house. The family fled to the church and his house was taken over.
As in the case of most Iraqi kidnaps, Majed was taken for money – what I call an economic rather than a political kidnapping. 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. Majid has 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. 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 US.
Soon after Majid left, we had a church council meeting. There was only one thing on the agenda: How could we prevent Faiz, our other pastor, from being kidnapped? Our US Army representatives spoke of how Faiz must not allow any patterns to develop in his movements between the church and his residence.
Eventually there was one conclusion: In reality there was nothing that could be done to ensure Faiz’s safety and security. All we could do was to move from the temporal to the spiritual. It is the Lord that we turn to for protection.
The writer, Reverend Canon Dr. Andrew P.B. White, is vicar of St.George’s Church, Baghdad, the only Anglican church in Iraq.