Iraq (MNN) — Violence, kidnappings, and attacks on religious minorities are a daily occurrence in Iraq. Although Easter passed quietly, the week began with a deadly bombing in Tikkrit.
It has taken its toll over the last decade, too. In 2003, Iraq had 300 churches and 1.4 million Christians, but now only a fraction of that number remains. Greg Musselman, a spokesman with the Voice of the Martyrs, Canada, cites Andrew White, a vicar of Baghdad with St. George's Church. "In the mid 90s, you had 1.2 million Christians living in Iraq. And now today, you have 200,000. Some that I've talked with say even today there are even less Christians that that. "
The Christian Post notes in a recent article that only 57 churches remain. Those shrinking numbers are seen throughout the church bodies, says Musselman. "There is a church, a Presbyterian church in Baghdad, which, under the time of Saddam (Hussein) was the only registered, legal church that was operating at that time (evangelical church). But that was a church of 1200. Now, you've got about 100 people in the church."
Violence against minority religious groups had already begun before the fall of Saddam Hussein. There was bloody conflict between Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites. Caught in the crossfire of those battles were Christians and other smaller ethno-religious groups.
Musselman has been in Iraq over the last few days. He's been visiting remnant churches and talking to persecuted Christians. He goes on to note that the differences are notable, region to region. "It's a very stark contrast where you have [in Kurdistan] relative freedom up here: there's safety and people living normal lives. You go into Baghdad, [and there's] heavy military police presence."
As to whether the attacks will subside, Musselman thinks that's unlikely. Christians suffer from the anti-Western atmosphere in the country and are seen as collaborators with Westerners. As Western influence in the country dwindles with the pulling out of many armed forces, extremists take their chance to terrorize Christians and other minorities to force them out of the country. During Holy Week, car bombings rattled nerves and sent hundreds into mourning.
According to the Voice of the Martyrs Canada, Christians in Iraq are teetering on the verge of extinction. Large numbers of persecuted Christians have fled abroad or to the (until recently) safer Kurdish region, where they face unemployment, and inadequate schooling, medical care, and housing.
However, Musselman notes an interesting juxtaposition at work in Iraq. "You've still got the ongoing violence, you've got the decimated church, and yet in the midst of that, we have met some amazing church planters, pastors, leaders and Christians that are doing amazing work. God is moving by His Holy Spirit, in spite of a very difficult situation here."
The latest constitution guaranteeing religious freedom isn't particularly trustworthy. Christians feel that the government fails to protect them, with individuals being threatened, robbed, raped or kidnapped, and churches being bombed. "Churches have gone from 300 down to 50, and that kind of thing. It's quite common," explains Musselman. "On the other hand, you have some other churches that come in here [such as] the Christian and Missionary Alliance; they're doing church plants."
The church faces many challenges: members being killed or abducted, and a lack of capable leaders. In central and southern Iraq, traditional Christians suffer as much as Muslim-background believers (MBB), as a result of their visibility. When Musselman asked a pastor if he was discouraged by the number of Christians who have fled, he answered, "‘No, there's still 30 million people to reach for Christ.' On one hand, it looks like every the church has suffered a lot of difficulty. On the other hand, those that are remaining here are getting stronger intheir faith."
The Voice of the Martyrs encourages you to pray for Iraqi Christians, especially for the families of those killed and injured in extremist attacks. Pray that in the aftermath of this brutal violence, Iraqi Christians will keep their eyes on Jesus, persevere in faith, and not grow weary or lose heart.
Pray for peace and stability in Iraq. "There are a lot of physical needs [as well as] spiritual need," says Musselman. Pray also that "we'd have the resources to help our brothers and sisters at this time."