It is a dark abyss for the Church in Iraq and Syria. Displaced, threatened, robbed, humiliated and unwanted – an almost impossible position for church communities with ancient history in the region. Buildings that survived the rise of Islam, colonialism and two world wars have been demolished one after another by Islamic State (IS) terrorists. Robert, Open Doors’ coordinator for Syria and Iraq, sees how the destruction of Christian towns, churches and monasteries is affecting the church in different ways:
“As a westerner, you cannot imagine the alarming mental impact of the ongoing devastation.”
Despite the destruction, this nearly eradicated Church is more relevant than ever before. In regions which repel IS, the Church is the only hope for hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees. In the city of Erbil, for instance, Christian churches of almost all denominations provide aid and shelter to Christians who have fled from the Nineveh plains after IS seized control.
Thousands of displaced Christians are in a difficult position for they carry a double burden. Not only did they flee because of war, but in many cases also because they were a clear target because of their faith.
“That is the experience they carry with them wherever they go,” shares Robert. “Christians stand by their behavior, the language they speak, the food they eat and the clothes they wear. Many of them wonder if they could ever trust a Muslim neighbor in a packed refugee camp.”
Most Christians take care of one another and organize mutual assistance.
“From the very start of the crises in Iraq and Syria, churches spontaneously formed an approachable relief network,” shares Robert. “Displaced Christians asked for help at local churches and monasteries. It was there they met pastors and parishioners who provided them with their essential needs. In most cases they still do.”
In the midst of continuing war and insecurity, churches are increasingly noticing the effects.
“The need is overwhelming and increasing,” Robert continues. “Local churches run out of supplies and money, and volunteers are exhausted. As Open Doors, we have provided aid and support to churches in Iraq and Syria for years now. By doing that, we throw a lifeline to many churches which act as a rare shelter; a last hope for many Christians.”
Robert and his team do everything they can to keep that lifeline intact. “It is a major task,” he says. “The pressure on local workers, pastors and church members is increasingly heavy, both practically and spiritually. In Iraq, for instance, our work with displaced Christians is in the shadow of mainstream international aid operations in massive refugee camps. Some large-scale aid projects for Christian refugees, those in the Ankawa District of Erbil for example, gain some international attention.
In numerous small villages, only the priests, pastors, and parishioners take care of the refugees. The moment Open Doors stops supporting these endeavors, we deprive the people of the opportunity to act as salt and light in the midst of their present darkness. Most Christians have lost their trust in the international community, their government and their own countrymen. Let us work to ensure that they do not lose their trust in the Church, which is a shadow of Jesus Christ.”
The Church in Iraq is experiencing a struggle of attrition which began in 2003. Meanwhile, Syria is entering its fifth year of war. In this fierce battle, Robert witnesses a whole society adrift.
“Syrian Christians are trying to cope with more than seven million Internally Displaced Persons. In addition, we observe a new development best described as an ‘internally displaced church.’ Every now and then we discover complete parishes adrift. Islamic State confiscated their church building, demolished their valuables and burned their Bibles. Despite this, the priest and his deacons continue holding services and celebrating liturgy. Functions are fulfilled and prayers ascend to God. All tangible elements of the church have disappeared, yet the church as the Body of Christ still functions. Arduously and flawed, but it still functions.”
In the coming months, Open Doors needs considerable prayer, labor and gifts to continue and expand outreach.
“We are one of the very few organizations still operating in Syria,” Robert says. “That is not because of our impressive efforts, but only because, in a very special way, we were given access to an extensive network within the country long before the crisis manifested itself. We cannot walk away from the responsibility that we have received. Providing aid to displaced Christians in Syria can only take place through local churches; there are no other responsible methods. The Church in Syria is willing to take on this task, and it is up to us to serve them.”
Open Doors continues to serve Christians who have been displaced by IS. To help feed a family for $50 a month, go to https://secure2.convio.net/ccod/site/Donation2?df_id=7560&7560.donation=form1&_ga=1.43211565.981393229.1378412015.
Compiled by Jerry Dykstra. For media inquiries, contact Christine Cape at 404-545-0085 or Katie Rouse at 678-410-9575.