The Archbishop of Mosul, Mor Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, is warm, jovial and rotund with a bright red beard that you can spot half a room away. For nearly 200 centuries, Mosul was a thriving centre of Christianity in the Middle East. The archbishop’s role had been an enviable one among Christian leaders.
In a widely viewed video recorded last autumn, Archbishop Sharaf lost his typical composure and wept uncontrollably as he said: ‘Today is the feast day of Mort Shmuni, October 15, 2014. This is a very big feast day for our diocese…For 1,500 years we have not stopped celebrating this feast day…In 1,500 years, this is the first year we are praying outside of our church.’
THE ISLAMIC STATE’S ATTACK ON CHRISTIANITY IS NOT COINCIDENTAL…IT IS AT THE VERY HEART OF ITS PLAN
In a personal conversation with him at that time, he spoke about his hurt. ‘People in the West say they don’t know [what is going on],’ he asserted. ‘How can you not know? You either support ISIS or you must have turned off the satellites. I am sorry to say this, but my pain is big.’
Worldwide acts of terror conducted in the name of ISIS in June 2015, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadam, rendered it almost impossible for anyone in the UK to be unaware of ISIS and its associated evils. On the same day, 38 holidaymakers were massacred on a Tunisian beach, a worker near Lyon was beheaded, Shia Muslim worshippers died as a bomb exploded in their Mosque in Kuwait and more than 100 Syrians were executed in their homes in Kobane by ISIS.
Prime Minister David Cameron described ISIS as an ‘existential threat,’ saying on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, ‘...what’s happening here is the perversion of a great religion, and the creation of this poisonous death cult that is seducing too many young minds in Europe, in America, in the Middle East and elsewhere.
‘This is going to be the struggle of our generation and we have to fight it with everything that we can.’
MOSUL’S LOST CHRISTIANS
It has been a year since the last of Mosul’s 60,000 Christians were displaced, killed or trafficked at the hands of ISIS. The only Christians remaining in the entire Nineveh Plain are those held as sex slaves. Nearly all the ancient churches and monasteries have been destroyed or converted into mosques, madrassas or prisons.
In June 2015, the Archbishop of Mosul’s now vacant church was renamed ‘the Mosque of the Mujahideen’. A church that had been a place of continuous Christian worship for centuries is now dedicated to those who took pleasure in spilling Christian blood all over Iraq’s historically Christian Nineveh Plain.
In some places, the ISIS genocide has been so thorough that the militants have taken chisels to the crosses engraved on tombstones in Christian cemeteries. A community that took 2,000 years to build has been destroyed in a matter of months.
WHAT IS ISIS?
Despite these atrocities, ISIS continues to be underestimated. This terrorist organisation is so horrible it was excommunicated from al-Qaeda. As brazen in their brutality as any evil in history, its members now control a contiguous piece of land between Iraq and Syria that is larger than the UK. In less than a year they have expanded into Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Malaysia, with sympathisers in nearly every country in the world.
Meanwhile, the international coalition attempting to push ISIS back in Iraq and Syria carries out between seven and 15 airstrikes a day compared with the 150 a day implemented during the Kosovo War. This is despite the fact that Iraq and Syria cover a piece of land 60 times the size of Kosovo.
As the recent international acts of terror have shown, the threat is not simply contained within the borders of the Islamic State. The FBI has admitted its struggle to keep track of ISIS sympathisers in all 50 US states, and last autumn a study published by the University of Milan identified that as many as one in five Arabic language tweets referencing ISIS in the US and the UK voiced support for the terrorist organisation.
ISIS continues to effectively recruit terrorists by using the Internet to infiltrate the West, dispensing with al-Qaeda’s methodology of forcing trainees to come to countries such as Afghanistan to join its movement. ISIS trains its terrorists exactly where they live, in a language they already know.
The organisation is not homogenous. Its members are from 90 countries and epitomise a combination of radical religious ideologues that represent an infinitesimally small number of Muslims. Many are drawn in by the allure of the establishment of
a caliphate, whether or not they agree with ISIS’ tactics. In Iraq, especially, it includes groups that have found in ISIS an opportunity to remedy their own political disenfranchisement.
It is shameful that this evil is growing so rapidly, still largely unaddressed, and that Middle Eastern Christians – who have survived the likes of Genghis Khan – have now succumbed to a pre-modern barbarism that beheads ‘infidels’, slaughters children and sells women like animals.
THE ATTACK ON CHRISTIANITY
The Islamic State’s attack on Christianity is not coincidental, nor does it represent a small part of ISIS’ plan. It is at the very heart of its plan.
Take, for instance, the fact that the videos showing the beheadings and executions of Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians were entitled ‘A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross’, and that the cover of ISIS’ official magazine, Dabiq, in October 2014 featured a picture of St Peter’s Square with an ISIS flag superimposed atop the obelisk that adorns the centre of that iconic Christian building.
ISIS RECENTLY BURNT ALIVE AN 80-YEAR-OLD CHRISTIAN WOMAN
In every major written communication given by Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he has declared his intention to march ‘all the way to Rome’. Along the way, he has promised to ‘break the crosses’ of the Christians and to ‘trade and sell their women’.
So far, Baghdadi has done exactly what he said he would do, and every single encounter ISIS has had with Christian communities around the world has resulted in one of four outcomes: forced conversion, slavery, extortion or execution.
STAND WITH PERSECUTED MUSLIMS
My own concern for Christians in the Middle East didn’t begin with Christians at all. It was the King of Jordan – a Muslim considered to be a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad – who introduced me to the present plight of Christians in the Middle East.
King Abdullah II convened a meeting in Amman that included representatives from all the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. Addressing the international media, he said that it was a ‘duty rather than a favour’ to protect Christians in the Middle East. The fact is that ISIS threatens not only the ancient communities of Christians, Êzidî and other religious minorities in the region; it also threatens nearly all of its Muslims. In fact, ISIS has killed more Muslims than anyone else.
Within weeks of ISIS’ lightning-fast advance in Iraq and Syria last summer, the world’s top Islamic scholars issued an open letter to al-Baghdadi, taking him to task on the poor Islamic theology that was dictating the horror he was inflicting upon the world. Signed by 126 of the world’s top Islamic voices, it outlined 24 specific areas in which ISIS’ actions were in direct opposition to Islamic teaching. With regard to Christians, the letter is crystal clear: ‘These Christians are not combatants against Islam or transgressors against it, indeed they are our friends, neighbours and co-citizens.’
PRAYER, NOT FATALISM
Christians often react in one of two ways when they hear of severe Christian persecution. Sometimes they embrace a sense of fatalism, decrying the inevitability of suffering and martyrdom for Christians, as demonstrated throughout Christian history, and resolve that persecution is simply going to happen. They compel us to embrace it, face it and trust God in it. As such, they don’t feel particularly inspired to stop it.
Others who don’t understand the great history of sacrifice deeply rooted in the Christian Church fail to see how this suffering strengthens the Church or causes it to grow. They see only the darkness and never the glimmer of light that shines every moment a Christian, young or old, is willing to die for a faith that so many Christians in the West are barely willing to live for.
The Bible teaches us to live out both realities. We are to embrace the inevitability of suffering and martyrdom even as we cry out for justice and fight to rescue those whose lives are being threatened because of their faith in Christ. We are to pray the prayer the apostle Paul advised a church in Thessalonica to embrace: ‘Pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people’ (2 Thessalonians 3:2).
We are to celebrate the sacrifice of our brothers and our sisters even as we pray that they might be free from the evil people who aim to kill them. This isn’t a season for churches to dedicate the occasional Sunday to the persecuted Church. This is a time for churches to dedicate every Sunday to the persecuted Church. We are to pray until our knees are numb.
We are to pray for them in the way we hope someone would pray for us, and then we are to get off our knees and wage war against ISIS by providing humanitarian assistance to those who have been displaced. We must not allow those who have survived terror to die through lack of food or shelter.
And we must pray for God to turn the hearts of the ISIS militants to him. He has the power to change the hearts of those terrorising the Church as he changed the heart of Saul – on a road to Syria – 2,000 years ago. Maybe a member of ISIS will meet Jesus miraculously tonight. If we know nothing else from the New Testament, we know that former terrorists make fantastic preachers. As you pray, remember that every act of love on behalf of someone ISIS aimed to kill is a dagger in the terror group’s heart.
RAISE YOUR VOICE
Every day presents a new atrocity. ISIS recently burnt alive an 80-year-old Christian woman who ‘refused to submit’. They celebrated Easter by bombing an ancient church, and their slave markets list their ‘property’ according to age and religion, with Christian and Êzidî girls from the age of one on sale. This is an emergency situation.
IT IS SHAMEFUL THAT THIS EVIL IS GROWING SO RAPIDLY
The United Nations defined this humanitarian catastrophe as the worst in our modern era, and it demands a swift and thorough response. As David Cameron wrote in The Telegraph in June 2015, ‘...we have no choice but to rise to the challenge.’
At another time in history when Christians were being beheaded and crucified, Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘If one member [of the body] suffers; all suffer together’ (1 Corinthians 12:26, ESV). We have an obligation to empathise and raise our voices on behalf of justice and, as King Solomon advised us, to ‘rescue those being led away to death’ (Proverbs 24:11).
Now is the time to speak up, and to do so relentlessly. I wrote Defying ISIS to help educate the Christian community in the hope that people would act. It is also time for us to stand hand in hand with the Muslim community against those who aim to destroy our religions.
In an age when everyone has their own platform on Twitter and Facebook, we have a moral duty to use them for good. So, educate yourself and raise your voice. Now.
The tears of the Êzidî
Caris Dellar, a theology student at Moorlands College, recently returned from working in a refugee camp for Êzidî people on the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi border.
The refugee camp is a truly beautiful place. As I looked out of my window, it was hard to believe that just over a mountain to the west was one of the most dangerous war zones in the world. Just a few months earlier, thousands of people had travelled over one of the mountains to the east barefoot with only the clothes on their backs. Most of their families had been lost to the brutality of ISIS. Many had sold jewellery and even themselves in order to buy passage over the border.
The Êzidî people are among the most despised by ISIS and one of the first to be affected by the violence. During my time at the refugee camp, I was involved in teaching English, aid distribution, children’s activities and helping teenage girls process what they had experienced through art.
Their drawings quickly expelled any disbelief I had of the evil that was quite literally at our front door. Their depictions left me breathless: pictures of ISIS dragging women through the streets by their hair; cutting the heads off children and the elderly; images of people cowering and crying as they watched these fierce, frightening men dressed in black destroy their beloved homes.
One day school was cancelled for a festival. All the children dressed up and Kurdish music blasted out. Then someone arose to sing, and as she sang she began to weep. The rest of the crowd wept with her. Every person there – young, old, male and female – was wailing.
A few children were clutching at my hands and pulling on my clothes, and I asked them what was happening. They told me the woman was singing about all the things Da’esh (ISIS) had done in their hometown; all the things her people had seen and the things those who had not been fortunate enough to escape would have to endure.
I also began to cry, and though I tried to comfort the children and teenage girls around me, I had no words. There was nothing I could possibly say that could bring comfort after such loss. I could only pray to the ultimate comforter.
Every time I prayed aloud in that place I was reminded that this was possibly the first time the name of Jesus had ever even been mentioned there, let alone called upon, and that was an immense privilege. There were no churches in the area. On Sunday evenings I prayed, worshipped and read the Bible with another Christian worker. Outside, guns were fired, Molotov cocktails were hurled, bombs exploded and tear gas was thrown. But for a few hours the sound of praise drowned out the clamour of the world outside.
We were not allowed to actively hand out tracts or preach in the streets, but we were allowed to answer questions, and the people had a lot of questions. Almost everywhere we went people asked us about Jesus.
The people I was working with told me they had met up with one of the militia who claimed to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He explained that the leader of this particular group had become a Christian while in prison, and because the leader had a lot of authority he had demanded that every man under him who came into the prison be given a Bible, so many of these rebel militiamen were coming to know Jesus.
A few days later we saw a news headline in which this leader had stated that after decades of strife he wished to bring the armed struggle to an end.
JOHNNIE MOORE has been called ‘one of the world’s leading spokespersons for Christians in the Middle East’ and ‘a modern-day Dietrich Bonhoeffer’. His new book, Defying ISIS (Thomas Nelson), is available now @JohnnieM