Iraq (MNN) — The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, shortened their name to Islamic State over the weekend, declaring victory.
Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for The Voice of the Martyrs USA, explains the significance. “They have now declared a Caliphate across this region. They have declared the leader of ISIS as the new Caliph, who essentially is taking the title as the leader of the world’s Muslim people.”
Over the last 1,400 years, Muslim extremists have tried recreating the Islamic state that ruled over the Middle East and much of North Africa. It appears that in taking the world by surprise, they’ve finally succeeded. The potential is unnerving. “If every Muslim accepted this, he would have over a billion followers. Now, this is a self-anointed title. This is something that they’ve just declared.”
On the first day of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, the group not only declared the establishment of a new Islamic state, it also demanded worldwide Muslim allegiance. Nettleton says, “We will see how this affects the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria. It will also be interesting to see how other Muslims around the world respond to this.”
A Caliphate is an empire governed by Islamic principles, an aim noted as one of al-Qaeda’s stated goals. However, while al-Qaeda says they want to unite Muslims of all sects under a new supreme Muslim ruler, ISIS considers only Sunni Muslims to be true, while the Shia and any groups like Christians or Muslim-Born Believers are considered heretics, deserving of death. “This is something they’ve had in the works for a long time, but the world really has been taken by surprise,” Nettleton observes.
Already, their presence has been marked by a grisly trail of gore. In Aleppo, Syria, pictures appeared of three new crucifixions. In Mosul, Iraq, penalties were exacted on a Christian family that couldn’t afford to pay the poll tax (jizya). The new Sharia regulations have stilled every church bell in the city.
There’s not a lot of options for the non-Sunni. “Those who are from these traditional Christian communities, they have a chance, in some cases, to sign the jizyah agreement, to agree to come under the control of Islam but to stay alive. An apostate, on the other hand–a Muslim convert: they don’t even have that option. They only option is ‘return to Islam or die.'”
Nettleton warns that it’s going to get even harder for those who stay behind. “Once they (I.S.) take over territory, they put in government; they start to choke off their opponents. We’ve heard stories of the electricity and the water being cut off to Christian neighborhoods or Christian villages outside of the cities.”
VOM is supporting families of martyrs and actively equipping indigenous evangelists in all areas of Iraq. VOM distributed 4,000 Bibles to the Kurdistan region of the country in 2012. Right now, Nettleton says, it’s too dangerous to do much. “As far as open ministry, that is not something that ISIS is going to tolerate, particularly outreach evangelism–sharing the Gospel with Muslims.” There are thousands of the displaced inside Iraq, particularly in Kurdistan. Even there, “Any gospel work that’s going on in these communities is far underground, is secretive, and is something that we should be in prayer for.”
Pray for a stable democratic government in Iraq that respects the rights of all Iraqis. Pray for protection for Christians during this time of upheaval and danger. Pray for ministry opportunities for churches and Christian relief organizations working in Iraq.