The world watched them march to their death. Twenty young men from Egypt and one from Chad in orange jumpsuits were beheaded by large ISIS warriors in February 2015. The long line of Christian martyrs walking on an empty beach in Libya is an image our generation will never forget. For over ten centuries, Christians in the Middle East have been persecuted, enslaved and sometimes killed. But now the images invade every home, instilling fear in our hearts. Is there still hope for the Middle East? That question is secretly followed by another. Is there still hope for us?
Mosul, Iraq. Summer 2014. Amaar should have switched on his phone earlier. He would have had more time to save his life. The Christian shop owner receives dozens of notifications. Missed calls, voicemails, chat texts. All have the same message: “Why are you still here? You are a Christian? You have to leave the city before noon or they will kill you!”
He looked at his watch. It said 11:30. He didn’t hesitate. He grabbed his ID papers, tucked away his phone, got the car keys and drove as fast as he could. By God’s grace, he didn’t encounter a single IS checkpoint. When he reached a city controlled by the Kurdish troops, he finally stopped. His wife and children had left earlier. She still had a husband. They still had a father. He got away just in time.
Al-Jazeera wrote: ‘Last remaining Christians flee Iraq’s Mosul’. CNN said ISIS had given Christians an ultimatum: convert, pay or die. Amaar words it differently: “I had to sacrifice my life, my faith or my shop. I chose the latter.”
He joined thousands of brothers and sisters, men, women and children who slept under overpasses, in cars, makeshift tents and church yards.
The church bells in Mosul had been silenced. The Nineveh plains were emptied of Christians. In Turkey, Libya and other places, thousands of families trusted their lives to human traffickers and the sea, both equally merciless. More and more countries became actively involved in the battles in Syria and Iraq.
Peace talks and cease fire agreements seemed to be sabotaged by conflicting interests, while women and children were still sold off in houses and market places. If anyone still had any illusions, it was now certain.
Hope had left the Middle East.
“We are plan A and there’s no plan B”
And every Christian – both in and outside of the Middle East – at one time or another will quietly ask where God is in all this suffering. It requires a lot of Bible reading, praying, fellowship and sometimes counseling to realize that Jesus hasn’t in fact abandoned us. In his book The Question That Never Goes Away, Philip Yancey writes (among many other insightful things) that we should replace the question ‘where is God?’ with ‘where is the church?’ After all, we are His hands and feet on this earth. Many have said it before. The church is plan A, there’s no plan B.
Open Doors provided immediate aid and supported churches to reach out to the Christian victims in Iraq and Syria. Together with our partner organizations we also spoke to church leaders to discover their biggest needs. Open Doors and partner organizations spoke to church leaders to find out their biggest need. All said the same. “One of the most difficult struggles is the issue of hopelessness and despair,” an Open Doors field worker explains. “Christians and other communities really need God’s hope. So we started a campaign called ‘Hope for the Middle East’. One of the main goals of this campaign is to bring back hope to the hearts of Middle Eastern Christians.”
Open Doors’ goal is to preserve the Christian presence in the Middle East. “We are God’s ambassadors,” the Open Doors’ campaign coordinator says. “If the Christians leave the Middle East it’s like God’s presence is leaving the Middle East. The presence of the Church is vitally important. And not only from a Christian perspective. Ever since Christianity spread across the Middle East it has contributed to societies through health care, learning centers and literacy education. Besides, research shows that to counter extremism and radicalization, diversity in the society is a necessary element. We need diverse fabric to ensure sustainable peace and lasting stability in the Middle East.”
Four tracks of hope
How does one restore hope to a warzone? What is hope? Instead of giving a philosophical answer, Open Doors identified four tracks we specifically work on:
1. We mobilize the church to pray. Interceding gives hope.
2. We create connections between Middle Eastern Christians and the worldwide church. People can send letters of encouragement. A recently developed encouragement app sends Christians in the Middle East a daily encouragement message from their brothers and sisters worldwide. Our pastor-to-pastor initiative enables foreign pastors to connect with pastors in the Middle East, exchanging prayer and encouragement.
3. We tackle problems causing feelings of despair by providing food and other daily essentials to Christians. We support church leaders who help other Christians. We organize vocational training and other activities.
4. We advocate on behalf of the church.
We do what we can and God will have to do the rest. Away from the cameras, He does amazing things. But you need to see them with the eyes of your heart. In Aleppo, Syria, Pastor Alim continues to run a church. “We are surrounded by death. Every day somebody we know dies. We cannot help those who’ve died, but we can help those who still live. Because of this crisis bridges are built with people we never had contact before. We started visiting families, we organize camps for children, also non-Christians and their mothers come to these. We as a church now have relationships with non-Christians.”
On the one hand, Alim or his wife need to sleep in the same room as their 9-year-old son because of his nightmares. At the same time Alim says, “My church members used to know the Bible. Now they understand the depth of it.” There’s pain and there’s progress. The people suffer and the people grow in faith.
There are Open Doors supported child friendly spaces in places like Damascus (Syria), vocational training centers, cow farms, pharmacies, trauma awareness and leadership seminars and (make-shift) churches in refugee camps. All the practical help we give, should lead to one thing: restore hope. Hope is also found in the children. Muslim children come to the church first, followed by the mothers and eventually by their fathers.
Suffering works out hope
Almost 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul wrote to the persecuted Christians in Rome: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
He teaches us that hope first and foremost is rooted in Jesus Christ’s salvation work. Suffering has a place. In the end it works out hope. Not something that may or may not happen, but a certainty that is not yet a reality.
It’s that hope that took hold of Mathew Ayairga. IS kidnapped him alongside the Members of an ethnic religious group from North Africa but primarily Egypt, where they are the largest Christian denomination in the country. Christians from Egypt in Libya. But he wasn’t Egyptian (he came from another African country) and he wasn’t a Christian. When the terrorists forced him to reject Jesus, he refused. He had seen something in the other men and replied: “Their God is my God”. Because of those words he was forced to kneel on the beach together with the believers from Egypt. Many of the men who died that day repeatedly mouthed ‘Yasoue’.
Jesus. It’s through His name that hope returns to the Middle East.
But it’s not enough if only Christian martyrs utter those words. It’s not enough if His name is only on the lips of Christians in the Middle East. It takes the global church to help God’s ambassadors to survive. We need you to call out to ‘Jesus’ in your daily prayers too.
In fact, we need you to become one in a million. Open Doors has launched a global petition campaign called ‘One Million Voices of Hope’. The petition will be offered to the new UN secretary general on World Refugee Day (June 20, 2017). It calls for legal frameworks in Syria and Iraq that protect equal rights of all citizens, the improvement of living conditions and to give churches and faith-based organizations a role in reconciliation and rebuilding.
Why do we need so many signatures? The field worker explains, “Open Doors is just one, relatively small organization. Why would the UN listen to us? Our voice is soft among the thousands of other organizations who try to influence them. Our voice will only be heard if it’s louder. That’s why we need at least one million signatures. The second reason is that it encourages Christians in the Middle East. They also participate in the One Million Voices of Hope-campaign. Let’s follow their example, come alongside them and show them they are not alone. After all, we belong to the same Father. Jesus really is the hope for the Middle East.”