Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Persecuted Church: Iraq - Part 1

As I sit and stare at the 2009 Persecuted Church Global Prayer Map that The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) sends me each year, it seems to me this year's map is much darker and ominous than previous years. What struck me even more was that the areas that are hostile to Christians appeared to have grown and spread, encompassing all of northern Africa, the Middle East, China, North Korea, SE Asia and parts of the old Soviet Union. As my eye wanders down the map, the Indonesian Islands and Malaysia are also predominately red and dark gray. The Mexican state of Chiapas, Cuba and Colombia stand alone in the Western Hermisphere, a glaring reminder that the cancer is spreading around the globe and is only a heartbeat from our shores.

The color
red indicates that it is a "Restricted Nation". They have "policies or practices which prevent Christians from obtaining Bibles or other Christian literature...government-sanctioned circumstances or anti-Christian laws that lead to Christians being harassed, imprisoned, killed or deprived of possession or liberties because of their witness."

The countries which are labeled in
gray "have large areas where governments consistently attempt to provide protection for the Christian population, but Christians are victims of violence because of their witness." These are considered "Hostile Areas".

As I gaze at the map, the
red appears to be running, as a drop of blood will run when it falls on a watery surface, spreading out and becoming thinner. It is a indication that where it is faded, persecution is escalating. The Sudan. Darfur. Nigeria. Ethiopia. Creeping down the continent of Africa and consuming the nations within.

Perhaps the hatred for Christians hasn't grown as dramatically as my mind perceives it to be. Perhaps it's only the darkness of the map that makes it look like the world is being overtaken by those whose objective is to silence the Gospel by persecuting with vehemence and hatred. After all, Christian persecution is nothing new. History is overflowing with statistics that defy any common reasoning, sensibility and compassion. It is estimated that since Christ, 70 to 80 million souls have died bringing and defending the Gospel. Next year's map will tell whether I am correct in my assumption.

But the most troubling to me is that there have been more Christians killed in the last century than in any other previous century combined. And very few of us have really noticed or paid close attention. They are names in past and recent history that have become data and statistics that are rarely used, except by a small few who faithfully remind us of the sacrifice these people made to further the message of hope and salvation. They are the "souls" beneath God's throne "who had been slain because of the Word of God and the testimony they had maintained" and who cry out to Him for justice (Rev. 6:9-11, NIV). And they should not be forgotten.

I originally thought I would start this section of the Persecuted Church with the nation of China because of their appalling and obvious human rights issues. But as I opened the 2009 Global Report provided by VOM, it became clear to me that the best place to start would be with those the United States is currently closest to in relation to current events. Not that we aren't closely tied with China during this global economic turmoil, (they now own over 40 percent of the "paper" borrowed by the U.S. and Hillary Clinton is begging for more) but there are other nations that stand out more vividly with which the United States has spent historical resources. Therefore, the first nation that will be profiled here will be Iraq.

Geo- and Demographics

Located in the Middle East, Iraq is not a large country in the general scope of the world. It encompasses only 437,072 square kilometers - which is roughly twice the size of my home State, Idaho - and has a population of approximately 28.25 million people. It is bordered by the Persian Gulf, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. However, relationships with some of these nations have become strained over the exodus of more than two million Iraqis who have fled the conflict in Iraq, with the majority taking refuge in Syria and Jordan.

It is interesting to note the Biblical history of Iraq and its location in relation to God's plans for His people and the nations. It is believed by some the Garden of Eden was located in what is now Iraq. God sent Abram to the land of the Caananites - Iraq, as we know it. God empowered the Babylonians to carry His people into exile. The Babylonian Gardens, which lie in prophetic ruins, were situated in Iraq. One of Saddam Hussein's pet projects was the restoration and rebuilding of the Gardens and relocating the capital there. Although I believe the use of the word "Babylon" in the Book of Revelation is metaphoric and refers to all of the Muslim Arab nations comprised of the ancestors of Ishmael and Esau, it will rise in the end times bent on the destruction of God's chosen people, Israel. And I believe we are seeing this era unfold before us.

Ethnicity and Religion

The Iraqi population consists of a mixture of Arab, Kurdish, Turkoman, Assyrian and a small percentage of "other". The languages are indicative of the population, with Arabic and Kurdish as the main dialects.

Ninety-seven percent (97%) of the population of Iraq are Muslims who follow Islam. But there are two political factions within the population who are considered militia groups and are divided on their interpretation of the law of Islam. The Shia comprise 60-65% of the population and adhere to the belief that direct descendants of Muhammed, or "Imams", have exclusive power and political rule over the Iraqi community. Sharia Law is considered to be the most oppressive and brutal, insisting on strict obedience to Quranic law. At odds with the Shia are the Sunni, who comprise 32-37% of the population. Their interpretation of the successor of leadership maintains that any "devout" Muslim could succeed the Prophet Muhammed if accepted by his peers. This vast difference in beliefs has led to brutal conflicts and the death of many throughout history, and continues today.

Within the ethnic mixture of the 75 to 80% Arabic population are the Kurds who comprise only 15 to 20%. It is widely known that the former President of Iraq, Suddam Hussein, performed mass murder by experimenting with bio-weapons, killing over 100,000 men, women and children within the Kurdish population.

Although there are differing viewpoints within the Muslim community on the interpretation of the Quran, it is my opinion (and substantiated within their "Holy Book") that all Muslims should acknowledge and agree Muhammed directed his followers to pursue and kill all "infidels", meaning those who would not submit to Islam.
To not do so is tantamount to blasphemy and heresy. Their intent then was to "convert" the entire world. And their intent today remains the same, regardless of the labels "radical" and "fundamental" that are placed upon them - and Christians are their major target.

Iraqi Christians

It is estimated by VOM that Iraqi Christians comprise only 1.55% of the population. Considering the influence of Islam, regardless of the differences of political opinion within their sects, this number doesn't surprise me. Although conversion is currently occurring at unprecedented numbers, they "are doing little more than replacing emigrating Christians" who fear for their lives. It's not so much the on-going Iraqi war that is causing them to leave. Persecution has escalated over the last five years, thus the conversion numbers appear to be low. Because of the intensity of the persecution, that which VOM considers "severe", churches have been attacked, bombed and closed, mainly in the areas of Kirkuk and Mosul, kidnapping has escalated and many have fled in attempts to escape it. Unfortunately, those who have sought out safety elsewhere often find themselves in nations that adhere to perhaps the same or stricter religious laws that prohibit openly practicing Christianity and evangelizing and conversion of Muslims. The intensification of persecution has forced some of those who remained in Iraq to worship in secret or in house churches.

In spite of the increase in persecution, many Iraqi Christians remain, faithfully taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to their war-torn nation. They bear their cross with boldness, knowing that to suffer is to gain. As VOM points out, "One of the few churches that remains reports of a ministry to Muslims that began when one person came asking about Christianity". From that "one person" who knows the consequences he could suffer under Islamic law, a light still shines brightly in what may appear to us a hopeless and dark nation. He risks everything: family, job, home, and life to bring honor and glory to our Lord. Although we may think he is alone in his work, I am reminded of Elijah's complaint that he was the last of the prophets as he ran from Jezebel, and of God's response: "Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel - all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him." (1Kings 19:18, NIV)

Our brothers and sisters who suffer for Christ are not alone. The Lord is with them every step of the way. Please join me in praying for those who boldly take His message to the lost. As we do, we also walk with them and share in their burdens, their grief, and their trials. They do so to further God's Kingdom, for the glory and honor of our Savior Jesus Christ.


I invite you to return next week for the second part of this post. I will profile a few of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering greatly, yet remain faithful to the Lord and steadfast in their desire to draw others to salvation. I will also introduce you to some who have completed their work and are now at home with the Lord.

Thank you for your continued prayers.

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