During August the UK remembered the outbreak of the First World War and recalled words attributed to Sir Edward Grey on the eve of that crisis: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life’.
In a very different war 100 years on, the lights of Christianity are being stamped out in Iraq and Syria, through a powerful resurgence of Islamic militancy. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Canon Andrew White warned that centuries of Christianity in the region are on the verge of being wiped out.
Canon White, who works at St George’s, the only Anglican church in Iraq, said that Christians and others were ‘trapped in the desert with nowhere to go’. Likewise, those fleeing over the border to war-torn Syria find no resting place, as the terror follows them there.
Although warnings about the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria have been made repeatedly over the past few years, the violence of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) — often known as IS (Islamic state) — has stepped up hugely in recent months.
In July, Christians remaining in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and one with a large professedly Christian population, were told to convert or submit to Islamic rule and pay protection tax.
Those who refused faced execution if they remained in the city on 19 July. Many thousands of Christians took refuge in open fields as they abandoned urban areas. Those who were caught escaping were stripped of all their belongings. Several Christian-owned farms were taken and seven people kidnapped.
Church properties in the city, including historic sites, were seized and destroyed. Reports from Barnabas Fund said, ‘Those fleeing were robbed at IS checkpoint. The militants stole the believers’ cars, money, food, jewellery, mobile phones and anything else they were carrying, even medicines. More than 85 families reported having all their possessions taken’.
The Times reported that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ordered all women and girls in the Iraqi city of Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation, issuing this fatwa as ‘a gift to the people’.
Speaking to the AFP news agency, Orthodox Patriarch Louis Sako said, ‘For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians’. Also persecuted is the minority Kurdish group called the Yazidi.
While the United Nations debated on what action to take over these outrages — bearing in mind the simultaneously unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza — US president Barak Obama, backed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, pledged that America would help.
On 8 August, Obama announced that US military cargo planes had dropped vital aid, including food, water and medicinal supplies, to the estimated 50,000 remaining members of the Yazidi who were stranded on Mount Sinjar in the desert and facing extreme temperatures, without food or water.
If the Yazidi had gone down from the mountain, they would have been slaughtered by IS, which has declared this ancient group, with its elements of Islam, Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, as unclean and an enemy of true Islam.
As for the Christians, the largely Muslim Kurdistan (where the US has a significant presence) has declared that they are welcome in its borders. However, families leaving it too late to escape from Iraq found themselves cut off as IS blocked their paths.
One Iraqi, speaking to Release International, said, ‘There is no hope, no future. All we have is war and killing and fighting’.
The same fate threatens Syria, which has already been torn apart by years of civil war. Barnabas Fund’s campaign, ‘There is a Church in Syria’, aims to bring help to the thousands of displaced Syrian Christians.
Many Syrian Christians are now in refugee camps. In 2013, the BBC reported that they had been ‘chased away by the threat of violence’ and were living in refugee camps in neighbouring Turkey.
According to the Telegraph, nine people were nailed to crosses in the city of Al-Bab, Syria, near the Turkish border. One survived. They were reported to be rebels, fighting against both President Bashar al-Assad and IS. The Huffington Post reported that IS crucified them for ‘belonging to more moderate groups’, ‘controlled by Western powers’.
While we cannot be sure these men were believers, the terms used to describe them are often accusations thrown against Christians. The fact that they were crucified suggests they may have identified themselves as believers.
Christ called us to be lights in this world and Paul told the persecuted church to ‘shine like stars’ (Philippians 2:15), but many believers in lands gripped by a fierce Islamist agenda are facing dark times.
Their light is being extinguished and, as Paul Robinson, chief executive of Release, has said, ‘The terror is palpable’.
Barnabas Fund has called on the international Christian community to ‘pray that our brothers and sisters, who have endured such terror, will find safe havens, where they can recover from what they have experienced, and that the Lord will meet all of their material needs.
‘As many must now deal with the loss of all their possessions, pray that they will find comfort and peace in the knowledge that in Jesus Christ they have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, fade (1 Peter 1:4), or be taken from them’.