Iraq (CAM/MNN) — Fears are growing that Baghdad could be engulfed in sectarian violence in the near future.
The civil war that erupted in Iraq last week has placed Christians in great peril and forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The group known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) seized Mosul–a city of two million people, and Tikrit–the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. More northern towns fell to the insurgents over the weekend, as they continued to advance southward toward Baghdad.
The Sunni jihadist group seeks to overthrow Iraq’s Shiite government and impose strict sharia law on the populace. That’s bad news for Iraqi Christians and for the two Mosul-based ministries that contacted Christian Aid Mission (your link to indigenous missions) with grim reports of violence and a mass exodus out of their region.
CAM spokesman Steve VanValkenburg says a ministry they assist saw firsthand what ISIS is capable of. Gunmen attacked one of the churches while a meeting was in progress. “The people in the church rushed downstairs, and as they were downstairs, the soldiers above burned the pulpit and the Cross and destroyed the sanctuary. Then, because of the smoke, the Christians down in the basement had to leave and the soldiers began to fire on them and kill them.”
Shortly thereafter, with Christian Aid’s help, “28 of the families went to Baghdad, and they were flown to another country. They’re refugees and they don’t have any way of making a living.” Although the families connected with other Christian Aid-assisted ministries, there’s a long way to go. For many of the Christian refugees, VanValkenburg says they’re realizing that “it’s hopeless to ever go back to their home in Iraq.So it’s a sad time for a lot of the Christians in that area.”
The ministry reported that soldiers distributed leaflets stating sharia law was now in effect. The leaflets mandated that all citizens are required to pray five times a day, the hands of thieves will be amputated, and women should not walk the streets except during an emergency. If women have to go out in the streets, they must be fully covered.
VanValkenburg thinks ISIS has a bigger game plan in mind. “Their goals are beyond just that one section of Iraq and Syria. They also have their eyes on the caliphate going into Jordan and that whole area there.”
The ministry leader said the group is more fanatical than the one it branched off from: al-Qaeda. “The ISIS fighters are more brutal and bloody,” he said. “They believe killing gets them into heaven quicker.”
Adding to the political chaos, the Kurds in northern Iraq took control of most of the city of Kirkuk last week. The Kurds want to incorporate the long-disputed, oil-rich area into their autonomous region.
In the midst of the turmoil, where is a safe place for Christians? For now there is no clear answer. Many are heading to Kurdistan. VanValkenburg says, “We have a ministry that is helping in the Kurdish area. Then there’s Mosul: the Christians there [have] been receiving help” to leave Iraq.
Why the urgency of flight? There is a clear and present danger for anyone not subscribing to ISIS ideology. “Cars [are] going through the streets with loudspeakers, and the loudspeakers are saying, ‘Look for Christians to kill them and burn churches!’ Also, the mosques have the same kind of message.”
Before 2003, Mosul had a significant Christian population of some 130,000 people. Since then, the number has dwindled to a reported 10,000 due to frequent attacks on Christian homes, businesses, and churches.
The decision to leave is wrenching, says VanValkenburg. “In the past, the Christians in the Middle East would stay there and be sharing the gospel among their own people. Now, I think they just feel like it’s not going to happen; they’re going to be killed if they don’t leave.” The city may soon be emptied of nearly all Christians now that ISIS militants have taken full control. “If that kind of thing happens it makes it harder and harder for open ministry, especially.”
Ministry leaders do see a silver lining in the chaos. Notes VanValkenburg. “The people are very open to the Gospel. There are believers there who are reaching out. Our prayer would be that we would be able to come alongside and assist the believers who are reaching out in those areas.”
Out of a hard story comes hope. VanValkenburg agrees. “I don’t think that ministry is going to dry up. I believe that God is always going to have a way and He’s going to fulfill His purposes there.”
If you can’t give or go, you can pray, he adds. “Pray for the Muslim-Background Believers who are still there, and also for those who have left. Both of them need help.”
It is time to intercede.