Iraqi Christians in Exile
In the sixth century B.C., God’s people were forcibly dislocated from Judea to Babylon, capital of the land between the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates. In one of the bitter ironies of history, God’s people today are being forcibly dislocated away from the land between the rivers. Psalm 137’s lament is being sung again, but with exiles going in the other direction.
Every Christian with a pulse has to be grieving over what a resurgent Islam is doing in the Middle East. We disliked the likes of Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, and Saddam Hussein. Their governments were harsh indeed, but what has succeeded them is far worse. For all their flaws, those three dictators at least chose to protect their Christian minorities. After Hussein’s fall, the much weaker Shiite-led government in Baghdad has proven unable or unwilling to protect Iraq’s Christians. Numbering 1.4 million in the late 1980s, there are probably fewer than 300,000 today. After Saddam’s fall in 2003, the church bombings began, and ISIS has announced its intention to wipe Christians from their planned caliphate.
It is reported that as many as 50,000 Christians once lived in the city of Qaraqosh (roughly between Mosul and Erbil). They are all gone. But where can they flee? To the west is the nightmare of Syria’s civil war, where they are neither wanted nor safe. One hundred thousand refugees have crowded into Erbil, the main city of Kurdish Iraq, guarded by the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia. When Mosul fell to ISIS, ISIS not only looted the central bank of all its assets; they also ended the Christian presence there. A grim headline in a Catholic newspaper: “For the First Time in 1,600 Years No Mass in Mosul.”
Though ISIS was at first a comparatively small group, they played to the grievances of the Sunni region and appear to enjoy at least general support of the Sunnis, so great is Sunni resentment of Iraq’s Shiite-led government. The Christian presence may never be back in anything like its former numbers or at all.
How did there come to be such a large Christian minority in Mesopotamia? Remember that the “lost” ten tribes brought at least some of the Word of God to Assyria when they went into exile, and remember also that the greater part of the second exile, the Judeans to Babylon, also never returned to Judea. The Magi from the east who came to worship the infant Christ were strong believers. Perhaps when Christian missionaries (by tradition led by the apostle Thaddeus) came to the east, they found a significant number of people whom God had prepared to receive and believe the Word.
What is God going to do?
As always, we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime we might ponder:
- How God predicted all of this: Revelation 13:10 says, “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed.”
- How the blood of the martyrs is never spilled in vain: see Revelation 6:9-11.
- How many blessings have been brought by mass people movements, which God uses to cross-pollinate the world with the Word. The Christian refugees will be bringing Christian love, kindness, and witness to places where perhaps the Jesus of the Bible is not known
- How that region’s disdain for God’s Word will bring even worse divine judgment upon it. As Christianity disappears, God’s blessings will too. In Amos 8:11,12 God says, “The days are coming . . . when I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.”
- How little Americans know of this ancient land, its peoples, and its history. Our government should exercise extreme care in how America chooses to involve itself, especially militarily, lest we make a bad situation even worse.
- How we can pray today for the Iraqi Christians, that their sufferings will advance God’s agenda and their plight open the eyes of the world.