In 2006, Islamists kidnapped Father Douglas Bazi, then vicar of the St. Elias Catholic Church in Baghdad. Over the course of nine days, they beat, tortured, and shot him. His teeth were knocked out. His spine was broken with a hammer. He was released only after the church paid his captors a hefty ransom.
To say that Father Bazi’s fate was “fortunate” bespeaks the awful plight of Christians in the Middle East today. Indeed, Father Bazi’s story is but one chapter in a sordid tale of Christian persecution, one that has gone largely untold.
Christians have always lived uneasily in the Middle East. Though they trace their history to the most ancient Christian communities on earth, they have long been minorities in an unstable, intolerant region, where they’re often identified with “the West.” Many of their neighbors view them with suspicion. Some view them with contempt.
That contempt drives ongoing persecution of Christians, and a studious apathy—a calculated indifference—allows it to fester. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians are the world’s most persecuted religious group. Their faith makes them targets of violence. Their commitment to the cross of Christ—to power-in-weakness, to nonviolence, and to peace—makes them uniquely vulnerable.
The State of Religious Freedom Today
In the Middle East today, every trace of Christian civilization is slowly yet systematically being wiped off the map. Nowhere is the problem acute than in Iraq and Syria, where the smoldering fires of contempt have erupted into full-fledged genocide. Sectarian violence and the depredations of the Islamic State (ISIS) have decimated the Christian communities in these countries. The facts are sobering:
- Thousands of Christians have been slaughtered, kidnapped, tortured, raped, and enslaved.
- Over 200,000 Iraqi Christians have been displaced from their homeland on the Nineveh Plain into Iraqi Kurdistan, where they have few rights and depend heavily on the kindness of neighbors and NGOs, and on dwindling government aid.
- Apart from the thousands of Syrian Christians killed, over 700,000 have fled the country since the civil war began in 2011, reducing Syria’s Christian population by more than 60 percent.
- In both countries, hundreds of churches and other holy sites have been reduced to rubble.
Sometimes it takes more than numbers to tell this story. At a press conference in March, Father Bazi—now shepherding thousands of displaced Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan—held up a bloodied shirt to a crowd of reporters. It was his own. The marks of suffering for his faith live on a decade later in the crimson stains. “I look to my blood every day,” he told the audience, gathered there at the behest of human rights activists and church leaders calling on the U.S. government to recognize the genocide against Christians. “And I remember,” he said, “that this is what happens to my people every day.”
A week after that press conference, Secretary of State John Kerry officially used the word genocide to describe what’s happening to Christians and other religious minorities, particularly Yezidis, at the hands of ISIS.
Genocide is a word with political heft. For a government to officially recognize an ongoing genocide is to declare that it’s going to do something about it. And at the national level, there is plenty to be done: an official criminal investigation, increased aid to victims, priority resettlement for those fleeing ISIS, and, in the long term, restoration of minorities to their historic homelands, along with protection of civil liberties (particularly religious freedom) and property.
As critical as these policy goals are, the challenges are bigger than any one of us, and bigger even than the United States as a whole. The road ahead is a long one. Stopping this genocide, punishing the perpetrators, and protecting its victims won’t happen overnight.
What We Can Do
The church has a unique role, and a unique responsibility, in this crisis. As citizens, of course, we all need to be informed, vote wisely, and communicate our views to our elected officials. In addition to that, here are three ways you, your family, and your church can become directly involved in helping Christians and other persecuted minorities in the Middle East.
First, pray fervently. God hears the prayers of the righteous (James 5:16), and He is near to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18). How much more, then, will God hear the prayers of Christians interceding for those who are suffering. Pray for the protection of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, and for peace and perseverance. Pray for an end to violence, for restoration to homes and communities, and for reconciliation with neighbors.
The Knights of Columbus and Archbishop William E. Lori have composed a wonderful prayer for persecuted Christians, which you can incorporate it into your worship or pray with your family at home.
Second, give generously. A number of U.S.-based nonprofits work directly with persecuted minorities in the Middle East. Make an immediate impact by giving generously to Catholic Relief Services, the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund, and Open Doors USA.
Also consider sending Family Med Packs through Voice of the Martyrs, an interdenominational organization serving the persecuted church. I’ve written about the Family Med Pack program here. It’s a wonderful, tangible way to get your family involved in giving and to connect with the persecuted church across the world.
Finally, be a light. Many Americans and many Christians are in the dark about what’s happening in Iraq and Syria today. We can be a light right here at home by raising awareness within our communities—our social networks, our churches, and our political circles. Speak up. Encourage your church to pray more fervently. Encourage your friends to give more generously. Encourage others to be a light in their own communities. It could mean the difference between life and death for our persecuted brothers and sisters.
Open Doors USA, International Christian Concern, and Voice of the Martyrs provide excellent resources for awareness and advocacy. The nonprofit organization Preemptive Love Coalition has a wonderful program called Sisterhood Soap. By sending bars as gifts to your friends and family, you’re supporting Iraqi refugee families and raising awareness at the same time.
The Bible teaches that Christians are all members of one body, the body of Christ. When one member suffers, we all do. The author of Hebrews commands us to “[r]emember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Hebrews 13:3).
For Christians, remembering is not simply an act of mental cognition. It is a way of doing justice. We remember those who are suffering through our prayers, our financial support, and our activism. And in doing these things, we are not simply rendering aid – we’re offering hope. We are reminding persecuted Christians that we see their suffering, and that God does, too. As Father Bazi recently put it, “This makes us realize that we are not alone. We know that we have not been forgotten.”