Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a minority of Christian leaders protested the preemptive war. Among them were bishops of the United Methodist Church, President Bush’s church. Many Christian denominations, chose to remain silent.
As the war began in earnest, the 350,000 Christian minority had every reason to be apprehensive. Many feared for their lives when President Bush used strong spiritual rhetoric for the invasion, even using the term “crusade.”
Life for all Iraqis has been anything but ideal. Under the dictator Saddam the Christian minorities, along with the Sunnis and Shias, lived in relative peace.
But with a powerful “Christian” country invading them, their history began to be repeated. The horror of the past was very real. During the infamous Crusades, Mesopotamian Christians caught it coming and going. The European Christian crusaders often saw the Iraqi Christians as false and the Muslims saw them as part of the enemy.
Even earlier, during the fourth century, Persia’s Zoroastrian zeal against the newly Christianized Roman Empire threatened to destroy the Christians living in the Mesopotamian lands of modern-day Iraq.
Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette found it amazing, not that Christianity survived as a minority cult, “but that it survived at all.”
There have been Christians in Iraq since the first century. In the New Testament, The Acts of the Apostles, (2:9), the writer Luke notes Parthians from Mesopotamia in the crowd as the Apostle Peter preached at Pentecost.
The gospel of Jesus spread to modern Syria and southern Turkey and had much to do with numerous thriving Mesopotamian churches. Early Assyrian trading centers became strong missionary-sending towns. The Nestorian (more properly Syrian) monks and traders were the first to set up Christian centers in China during Mohammed’s lifetime. In the beginning the Prophet had no problem with the Christian faith.
Today’s Christian Iraqi proudly speak a dialect of Jesus’ own Aramaic. Last Sunday night, CBS’s 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley interviewed Church of England Canon Andrew White in Iraq. Those in attendance were mainly women and children. Pelley asked White about the men. “Where are they?”
White said: “They are mainly killed. Some are kidnapped. In the last six months things have got particularly bad for the Christians. Here in my church, all of my leadership were originally taken and killed … but we never got the bodies back.”
White went on to say that the situation now is clearly worse than under Saddam. “There is no comparison between Iraq now and then. Things are more difficult than they have ever been for Christians. They’ve never known it like now.” An Iraqi Christian told of warning posters appearing after the invasion: “If you do not leave your home, your blood will be spilled …you and your family will be killed.”
Even in Saddam’s government, there was one Christian: Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Christians lived in miced communities in Baghdad. Many were concentrated in the northern cities of Kiruk, Irbil and Mosul - once a major trading center known as Nineveh in the Bible.
U.S. Army Colonel Rick Gibbs was also interviewed by 60 Minutes and said there had been 13 churches in his area, “none of them are operational now.” For the U.S. Army to circle and protect the Christians would make the situation even worse. It would bring out the worst of the “crusades rage” among the wildly fanatical insurgents.
Where is the cry for the persecuted Iraqi Christians? Some web sites make mention of their plight, but in general little is heard of American churches responding. When China became a Communist state in 1949, Americans wondered if the church there could survive. Actually the number of Christians and churches grew and when allowed to worship openly in 1979 they amazed all of us outsiders with their spirit and growth.
There was little danger of Christianity being erased from China. But Iraq is different. As the war continues and lawlessness prevails, minorities will suffer more. With an unending war can any survive?
Through the ages, persecution has often emboldened the church and has often resulted in growth. Something tells me this time it may be otherwise. I hope I am wrong.
Britt Towery is former pastor and teacher. His e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears in the Bulletin on Fridays.