Iraq (MNN) — “Persecution happens when two kingdoms clash.” – Dr. Hormoz Shariat #iCommit
The Sunni-Shia crisis in Iraq is like a fire that gets loose in a dry forest. Before long, it’s raging out of control and threatens to destroy everything in its path. Todd Nettleton, spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, says, “What we’re seeing is a radical Sunni Islamic terror group that is trying to carve out a territory for itself.”
Division was already evident in the collection of people in Iraq: Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Sunnis, Christians, and Shiites. The removal of a charismatic leader created a power vacuum. Then, add a controversial constitution and a power sharing government as tinder, and the spark of an insurgency becomes a conflagration in a heartbeat. This has the potential to turn into a clear-cut religious war, with the possibility of mass “cleansing” of civilians and brutality on a large scale.
Enter: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Nettleton observes, “The thought that they could mount that kind of an offensive and be that successful as quickly as they have been is a huge surprise to people inside Iraq, also international observers.”
ISIS has moved its jihadist front across the Syrian border and swept along the northern edge of the country south, in an advance toward Baghdad that began last week. According to the BBC, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki fired four senior officers for failing to halt a sweeping advance by the Sunni Islamist rebels.
Civilians are fleeing violence there and elsewhere in Iraq, even as the United States bolsters its manpower in the region while it mulls what action to take. Though Northern Iraq–an area commonly called Kurdistan–has long been known as a safe haven for Christians, even in this region the situation for Christians has deteriorated due to Islamic extremism. However, Nettleton says, “If you’re a Christian in their area, you can convert, you can die, you can get out, or you can sign the dhimmi agreement which basically say, ‘We will pay you a dhimmi tax to spare our lives. We will come under you in subservience to you’.”
It is, in fact, “a humanitarian, human rights crisis that is in the making.” Conflict in Iraq has displaced close to a million people. Nettleton says, “The traditional Church has been decimated in both of these countries. Tens of thousands of traditional Christians have fled to the West, they’ve fled into Lebanon, and they’ve fled into the surrounding nations.” The United Nations warns that Iraq’s neighbors could be overwhelmed. These countries are already dealing with three million displaced Syrians. People are war-weary.
Even as the military and political leaders scramble to find a way to respond to the call to arms, the bloodbath ignited by the generations-old hatred between the Sunni-Shia Muslims threatens to rip Iraq apart. But there are three ways you can pray: “We can pray for safety, we can pray for God’s protection over them,” Nettleton says, and “we can pray for encouragement, that they will not grow weary, downtrodden, and discouraged, but that they will really know the presence of the Holy Spirit and be encouraged by that.”
That’s especially true of the New Church–the Muslim convert church.
In areas where ISIS is in control, they regard a convert to Christianity as an apostate. Under strict interpretations of Sharia law, an apostate’s punishment is death. Nettleton says, “Those are the folks that Voice of the Martyrs works most closely with. Muslim converts who are now in these countries [are] working to help the displaced, to preach the Gospel, and taking incredible risks.”
In the face of escalating violence and uncertainty, the church looks to Christ for strength. Will you hold up their arms?