Followers of Jesus Christ have been in the land that is now called Iraq for almost as long as there has been a Christian church. The current chaos there, however, is accelerating their departure at a rate that may leave the war-wounded country of 31 million people bereft of gospel witness.
The ongoing advance of the Muslim terror group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has caused Iraqis in its path to flee in huge numbers. ISIS, a brutal import from the dystopic state formerly known as Syria, has carved a swath of terror across much of northern Iraq, through mass executions of opponents, the forced implementation of harsh Islamic law on subjugated peoples, and the distribution of frightening propaganda videos that have caused military protectors to throw down their weapons and flee.
Among the ISIS targets is the ancient city of Mosul, near the biblical city of Nineveh, for centuries a Christian stronghold in the largely Muslim country. Ava Thomas of Baptist Press reports that half a million people have fled Mosul, nominally a city of 1.8 million. Mosul was home to only about 3,000 Christians, most of whom have left. It’s not hard to see why.
ISIS has already shown its colors to Christians in Syria. Earlier this year, the Muslim fanatics in northern Syria, according to Middle East Concern, “forced Christian community leaders to sign a contract agreeing to a set of stringent conditions. These included the payment of a special tax (known as jizya), conduct of Christian rites only behind closed doors so as to be neither visible nor audible to Muslims, and adherence to Islamic commercial, dress code and dietary regulations.”
It’s worse right now in Iraq.
“Iraq is now in its worst crisis since the 2003 war,” reports Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Church in Baghdad. “ISIS … has moved into Mosul, which is Nineveh. It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of the prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets. The army and police have fled, so many of the military resources have been captured. Tankers, armed vehicles and even helicopters are now in the hands of ISIS.”
According to the Christian Post, churches in Mosul have been looted and burned. Women are being forced to wear the veil. Amel Nona, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, said the city is at “the mercy of the attackers.” Nona added, “Now there is probably no one left. We received threats … [and] now all the faithful have fled the city. I wonder if they will ever return there.”
Mosul’s Christians are emblematic of Iraq’s larger Christian exodus, which began in earnest when Saddam Hussein was ousted in the Iraq War. Saddam, though a brutal dictator, provided the country’s Christian minority with a measure of protection against Muslim extremists.
“Iraq's Christian population has shrunk in recent years from 1.2 million in the early 1990s to an estimated 300,000 before the most recent attacks,” reports Christianity Today. “Christian refugees are fleeing to surrounding areas and as far away as Europe…. Displaced Christians within Iraq face high unemployment, poor housing, and difficulty finding education and medical care.”
Operation World, the daily prayer guide, notes that “the Christian community has lived an unbroken existence in Iraq since the first century, but this legacy is at risk of disappearing.” The guide suggests that evangelicals constitute about 10 percent of Iraq’s Christian population, with the rest in historic churches, such as Roman Catholic and Nestorian. Ninety-five percent of Iraqis are Muslims.
Even before the onset of ISIS, the Christian community in Iraq has faced many challenges—including deep divisions between churches and denominations, persistent persecution by Sunni Muslims, and lack of leadership. Evangelicals, however, have been growing rapidly.
“Many are coming from Muslim and even extremist backgrounds,” Operation World says, “touched by the peace, hope and love Christ offers. They are Arab and Kurd, in the north and south, within Iraq and scattered abroad. However, they come nowhere near offsetting the loss endured by Christianity as a result of the ancient confessions from Iraq.”
Bible translations, Christian literature, and films such as “Jesus” continue to make significant inroads among the largely well-educated but economically struggling population. Operation World notes, “Christian satellite TV and radio are huge influences in Iraq.” Such ministries might be even more necessary should the country descend into civil war or if ISIS maintains control over large portions of the nation. Christians have more immediate concerns, however.
Mosul is not the only historically Christian enclave under threat. The nearby town of Bartella, largely Christian, is also vulnerable. When CBS asked a town leader what would happen if ISIS showed up, he replied, “I don't know, but maybe they'll do what they've done in other places and kill us."
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, blogs at http://stanguthrie.com. His next book, God's Story in 66 Verses: Understand the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book, is due out in January from Thomas Nelson.
Publication date: June 19, 2014