By Jeff Brumley and Ken Camp
It’s hardly unusual to hear evangelicals and other Protestants praying for persecuted Eastern Christians these days, especially those fleeing terrorists forces in Syria and Iraq.
But that wasn’t always the case. and if there had been such prayers in years past, they likely would have been for the salvation of Orthodox and other Eastern Christians.
Many Protestants, and evangelicals in particular, “have grown up with biases against Catholics and Orthodox that have been based upon an assumption that their brand of Christianity is more cultural in orientation than it is spiritually vital,” said Rob Nash, professor of missions and world religions at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. “This bias then lends legitimacy to our conviction that they should be evangelized.”
Missionaries have witnessed these attitudes firsthand.
“There was a very strong disconnect with Eastern Christians, just like there was a very strong disconnect between Protestants and Catholics,” said Nell Green, who has lived and worked in the Middle East as field personnel for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
But those attitudes have softened over the past 30 years or so, Green said, as globalization and around-the-clock coverage of persecution flood American television and computer screens. And this greater acceptance by many Protestants is leading gatherings and other events bringing the two groups together for fundraising and prayer support.
Justice over labels
Green said the disconnect between Eastern and Western Christians was due largely to lack of information. She added that Christian persecution didn’t begin with terrorists in Syria and Iraq.
But until recently, the only way to know about the persecution was by closely following organizations like the Voice of the Martyrs. Usually it was only missionaries and others with family or business in those regions who did that.
“Our attention wasn’t overseas,” Green said of American Christians. Even she was unaware, until she arrived in the region years ago, of the persecution Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long suffered.
But globalization and the Internet are what began breaking down the barriers between Eastern and Western Christians, she said.
“It’s a tribute to the church we want to be,” Green said. “People really care and really want to know how to help.”
It’s also helped create a shift in the way Western Christians see their Eastern brothers and sisters, she said.
“Christians in the West identify less with labels and more with justice,” she said.
Seeing that opening, Eastern Christians in the United States are now pleading with Baptists and other Protestants, privately and in public forums, for spiritual and financial action.
‘The same body’
Religious leaders with ties to Iraq and Syria urged a Baylor University audience recently to empathize with persecuted fellow believers in the Eastern branch of the Christian family tree.
“We are all members of the same body,” said Mar Awa Royel, bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East. Royel, who serves the diocese of California, recently returned from a trip to northern Iraq with a delegation of church leaders. “We ought to suffer with those who suffer.”
Royel joined Jalil Dawood, pastor of the Arabic Church in Dallas, and Abdul-Massih Saadi, assistant professor of Arabic and Syriac at Baylor, in a panel discussion sponsored by the university’s department of religion, its office of spiritual life and the Institute for Faith and Learning.
“Ours is an apostolic faith. Persecution is a part of who we are as the ancient Christian church of the east,” Royel said.
‘Christians are hurting’
Christians in Iraq and Syria are enduring hardship and persecution comparable to what first-century Christians experienced, he said, noting between 120,000 and 150,000 Christians were forced from their ancestral homes in Mosul and the surrounding plains.
“They left their homes with only the garments on their backs,” he said.
Dawood, who was born in Baghdad and grew up in Iraq, likewise described the suffering Christians in northern Iraq endured at the hands of Islamic State jihadists.
“Overnight, they were invaded and told to convert, pay a tax or get killed,” he said.
International news agencies reported fighters with the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — told Christians in the region unless they converted to Islam, they would be required to pay jizya, a “protection tax” imposed by Islamic law on Christians who live under Muslim rule. They marked Christians’ home with the letter “N” for Nassarah, designating them as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and confiscated their property.
“They were waiting for help — waiting for America to accept them as refugees, waiting for Europe, waiting for Australia. And it was not happening,” Dawood said. “The situation is expanding. Christians are hurting — people who left everything for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
‘Don’t lose hope’
Likewise, Christians in Syria are suffering at the hands of Islamist extremists, reported Saadi, whose father immigrated from war-torn Turkey to the safety of Syria decades ago.
“Those of my generation lived and were educated in Syria. Nobody questioned our safety,” he said.
But two years ago, his sister was forced to flee their hometown of Aleppo — first to Lebanon and eventually to the Netherlands.
“She left behind all her earthly possessions,” he said. “My brother refuses to leave. He says as long as even one Christian family is there, he will not leave the area.”
Western Christians should not underestimate the threat the Islamic State and other jihadists pose in the Middle East, Saadi said.
“They cannot be dismissed as a band of terrorists,” he said, noting the jihadists do not see terms such as “terrorist” or “fundamentalist” as pejorative. “They believe they are commanded by God to terrorize the enemy.”
ISIS fighters believe “war is the ideal place to be closer to God,” and radical Islamist clerics reassure them their zeal will be rewarded in the afterlife, he said.
In contrast, Christian leaders in Syria and Iraq preach a different message, he said: “Be patient. Endure suffering. Don’t lose hope.”
‘A modern book of martyrs’
In response to a question about Christian groups represented in Iraq and Syria, the panelists painted a complex picture — Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic Church and Armenian Catholic Church among others, along with Protestant Christians.
“But when the Islamic State looks at us, they do not look at us as divided. They look at us as one, and they oppose us as one,” said Dawood, an evangelical who earned his master of divinity degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.
All three panelists urged Christians in the West to speak on behalf of the persecuted Christians of the East, advocate for them politically and pray for them regularly.
“Pray also for those who are perpetrators of persecution,” Royel added. “Pray that the light of Christ’s love and grace will shine on these dark people. They definitely need it.”
The panelists’ call to prayer echoed similar appeals from other religious leaders.
“A modern book of martyrs is being written,” Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd told the SBC Executive Committee. Floyd urged prayer for Christians in Iraq and Syria, calling the situation there “a once-in-a-thousand-year destruction of the Christian church.”
Leaders of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon called the situation in their region a “state of emergency,” warning Christian minorities there face the danger of eradication.
However, the leader of a faith-based nonprofit agency in Iraq noted Christians there continue to minister under difficult circumstances. House church leaders are delivering aid to displaced people, including Arabs, Yezidi and Turkmen, said Jeremy Courtney, a graduate of Howard Payne University and Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary. He founded the Preemptive Love Coalition, which until recently primarily focused on providing life-saving heart surgeries for Iraqi children.
The Preemptive Love Coalition is seeking churches in the United States to help churches across Iraq provide emergency aid to their countrymen, many of whom are not Christian, Courtney added. For more information, visit the organization’s website or email [email protected].