Easter is NOT lost—The church in Iraq is living proof

April 11, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Middle East

For the first time in modern history, the church around the world will not be gathering  together to celebrate the resurrection of our Savior, the founder of the Church, on Easter Sunday. On a global scale, lockdowns and ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic have redefined what life looks like, including the Church’s most important annual celebration.

 

No doubt, Easter Sunday will look and feel different throughout the world. It’s not a small thing that we won’t be coming together to lift hands and voices to celebrate the resurrection of our risen Savior. Internet, big screens and interactive exercises can’t replace the community of the saints. But Easter 2020 is not any less powerful. The cross stood, the curtain was torn, the stone was rolled away—even if we can’t gather with other believers to celebrate it this year.

Persecuted believers understand that important truth. Many, like the estimated 300,000 secret believers in North Korea, have never had the opportunity to freely gather and openly celebrate the resurrection. When Islamic State invaded Iraq and Syria in 2014, thousands of Christians fled overnight and soon found themselves without their homes, familiar church buildings and their church leaders as they crowded into makeshift refugee camps. Slowly, three years later, Christians began returning to their villages to find their homes and church buildings looted, burned and bombed out.

in Iraq (No. 15 on the World Watch List), the lockdown for the country’s 40 million people has been extended until mid-April (it was originally scheduled to end on March 28). The country that survived brutal battles with ISIS is now fighting coronavirus inside a weak healthcare system. Iraqi church leader Father Daniel shares: “The only thing we can do to stay safe is to stay at home. [The coronavirus is] a big crisis here.”

The pandemic is also leaving the country vulnerable to ISIS. To curb the spread of the virus, both the U.S. and France announced adjustments in their forces stationed in Iraq. France will withdraw ground troops stationed in Iraq until further notice but will continue air operations against ISIS, while the U.S.-led global coalition to defeat ISIS announced that the coronavirus pandemic has forced “temporary adjustments.”

The church in Iraq knows firsthand that despite these unusual and unprecedented circumstances, Easter is by no means lost.

Below, we share specific truths that persecuted believers in Iraq have learned and can now teach us—through their lives and their faith—as we prepare to worship and celebrate Easter 2020 in our homes.

The Church is not a place

Mother and daughter Joumana and Jandark fled Qaraqosh overnight. “Who built the Church? It is Jesus,” Jandark says. “The gates of hell will not overcome it.”

The night ISIS came to her home town of Qaraqosh, Jandark was reciting the Lord’s Prayer. She didn’t know that night would be the beginning of three years away from her home and her church. When she finally returned, she saw the destruction ISIS militants had left in both her home and her town. Jandark reminds us that the Church is not a place and that no trial will keep us from being the Church.

“Who built the Church? It is Jesus,” she says. “The gates of hell will not overcome it.”

Yousef, a teen whose family also fled Qaraqosh, brought our team to the church building ISIS used as a firing range—one of the oldest churches in the Middle East. The church walls were filled with bullet holes. Yousef even dug out a bullet with his fingers from the porous stone wall. He knows firsthand that the church is not a place.

“The church isn’t the building,” he says. “It’s the people. ISIS can destroy our church buildings, but they can never destroy the Church.”

We can make wherever we are a place of worship

Throughout Scripture, we see how God’s people built altars wherever they were, in the desert and on mountains, to worship Him. After Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder, he pours oil on the stone he used as a pillow and sets it up as a makeshift altar.

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God,” he exclaims. “And this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17).

Believers in Iraq understand that any place can be a house of worship—even an overcrowded refugee camp or a bombed-out house. Wherever the Bible is opened and God’s people come to Him in prayer. Father Ammar from Iraq reflects on the trials Iraqi Christians have faced both then and now. “[Coronavirus] is not the first crisis the Iraqi church has been through,” he says. “They know who to depend on. In this crisis, we are once again reminded how weak we are as human beings and how much we need the Lord’s salvation.

“We might not have our big church, but we should make our house a small church.”

When he was displaced from his home in Mosul, a church deacon named Martin living in a refugee camp that our team visited clearly had this important perspective. “Of course, I desire to go back to my church—the place I grew up in,” he said while he was displaced. “But if I’m called to serve in the desert, I can still serve there. From sand I can make a church.”

Help persecuted Christians in the coronavirus crisis!

For many Christians already persecuted for their faith, the global pandemic is making live even more difficult. They have less access to healthcare, medicines and community services. Open Doors is committed to standing with the least of these—to ensure that the vulnerable have what they need too. God’s people need our help urgently—will you give today?

Give now

When we gather in our homes to worship, we also gather with millions of witnesses both now and from the beginning of time

Isolation in the midst of a pandemic does not mean we are alone. Instead, we have a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), both here on earth, and those who have gone before us. When we gather in our homes to remember and celebrate Easter, we join our hearts with millions of witnesses.

That truth has sustained the church in the Middle East through persecution and trials and continues to sustain them today. Our family in Iraq tells us that during the years of ISIS occupation, they felt the prayers of the body of Christ worldwide. When our team visited Qaraqosh two years ago, we met Noor, a then-29-year-old architect, wife and mother. Noor shared that she and all Iraqi believers had felt the prayers of Christians around the globe.

“On behalf of me and every single Christian in Iraq, we are thankful for every Christian in the world, for thinking about us, for your prayers.”

Similarly, we are not the first Christians to live and worship in a time of fear. Our sisters and brothers who are persecuted testify to this, as does the long witness of Christians in ages past! We are not alone; we have each other through prayer, and the Holy Spirit to give us courage.

God meets us where we are physically, emotionally and spiritually

Wherever you are today, not only physically but also personally, God will meet you—even in the uncertain times or bleakest of moments. His Word promises that though we will have trouble in this world, we can take heart because He has “overcome the world.” We are never outside His caring hand. He has promised to be with us.

Shlama*, director of Open Doors’ partner organization in Iraq, says that even when ISIS occupied the Nineveh Plain and so many questioned the future existence of the church in the Middle East, she did not doubt that God was with the church, meeting them where they were.

“Being a Christian doesn’t mean an easy life,” she says. “Jesus doesn’t promise us an easy life. He promised to be with us. That is what the church believes.”

Anis, a believer from Iraq who returned to his home two years ago, reminds us that Christ’s resurrection brings us the unconditional promise of His presence and restoration.

“Easter is a message to humanity—a message of new life,” he said. “After torture, after hardships, after tough conditions, there will be life again. This is the main thing that we can expect from Easter.

“Our Lord has risen. This gives all of us great hope, and we try to be just like Him, living a new life with Jesus Christ.”

Nothing can separate us

In Romans 8, Paul writes:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”

You could add “pandemics” to the list of trials Paul calls out. Persecuted believers in Iraq have a front-row seat to this reality.

These Christ followers who faced Islamic State’s “convert, pay tax or die” ultimatum and scattered into refugee camps know that while we may be separated physically, nothing can separate us from each other and the love of our Savior.

Recently, Father Daniel from Iraq shared a short video of encouragement: “The apostle Paul teaches us that whatever the exterior situation is, no matter how painful or tiring the situation is, we have to trust that the Lord is near us and will never forsake us.”

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