BAGHDAD (BP)–Rahim* took one bullet in the leg, then one in the head while sitting in a church pew. But his death and the deaths of 50 other Christians gunned down with him on Oct. 31 marked more than just the ends of their lives. They symbolized the demise of the entire Christian population of Iraq, said one Baptist worker familiar with the situation.
“This is not the start — it’s the period to a long-running sentence, the end of a tragic novel that’s been playing out for years,” said Nik Ripken*, who has served 25 years with the International Mission Board and is an expert on the persecuted church in Muslim contexts.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida group, took credit for the massacre at Our Lady of Salvation, a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad, plus the spate of bombings and killings that followed. The group claimed the violence was in response to the alleged detention of two women in Egypt said to have converted to Islam.
Major news outlets showed the world the bloodbath, the most fatal single incident of violence since Islamic extremists began targeting Christians, according to Compass Direct News in a Nov. 3 Baptist Press article, http://bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=34004.
But that one highly publicized tragedy doesn’t account for the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have been lost to Iraq one way or another in the past seven years, Ripken said. More than half of the nation’s Christians have fled Iraq since 2003, according to Compass Direct News. Just shy of 600,000 remain.
Most who flee go first to Syria or Jordan then try to find permanent residence as refugees in Europe, Canada, the United States or Australia, according to Bassam Madany, whose ministry, Middle East Resources, offers perspectives on Islam from a Christian viewpoint.
“This is probably one of the biggest flights in recent history, and the world has stood silently by as it’s been happening,” Ripken said, noting that the losses might be even bigger than those claimed by news sources. “It’s been a hemorrhage since the second Gulf War. When Saddam Hussein thanked the Christians on public television for supporting him — even though they were simply being peaceable under his rule — he basically gave them a death sentence. He put a big political target on their backs.”
And, he noted, there was no al-Qaida presence in the nation while Hussein was still in power.
The persecution of Christians in Iraq since his removal has reportedly ranged from crucifixions to rape. The Islamic State of Iraq “seeks the establishment of harsh Islamic law and says all Iraqi Christians are targets for jihad,” as USA Today put it.
As a result, many Iraqi Christians are facing the decision of whether to flee with their families or stay and likely face severe persecution. Church leaders in Iraq and worldwide are voicing concerns this may nail the coffin shut on a Christian presence in the nation.
“They will definitely leave,” Faiz Bashir, curate of St. George’s, an Anglican church near Our Lady of Salvation, told USA Today. “We hope it’s not the end of Christians in Iraq, but if things get worse, if there are attacks on the churches and killing on the streets, this will be certain.”
Christians are soft targets in Iraq, and the world has failed to advocate for them, Ripken said.
The U.S. State Department did not name Iraq as a severe violator of religious liberty when it released its annual International Religious Freedom report Nov. 17. The decision came despite an April recommendation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to add it as a “country of particular concern.”
“They [Iraqi Christians] talk about their persecution as expected, as normal,” Ripken said. “What they talk about with brokenness is being rejected and forgotten by other people. The international Christian community has been silent. Iraq needs the prayers of Christians, for peace to come there so that Iraqi Christians can stay and those who have left can return home.”
A nation increasingly devoid of a Christian witness will also need intense prayer, Ripken added. “Iraqis’ access to the Gospel is at stake.”
Persecution has already stifled sharing between Christians and their neighbors, he said. “Pray for the boldness of Iraqi Christians to share the Gospel in the face of violence. This really needs to be a burden we carry for our brothers and sisters in nations like this.”
Ripken said Christians around the world can be praying for a sense of brokenness for brothers and sisters in Iraq, for an opportunity for Iraqi Christians to return home peacefully and for the Gospel to spread in the midst of suffering.
*Names changed. Ava Thomas writes for the International Mission Board.