A year ago, I wrote an article challenging the American Church to do more in the face of religious persecution of our Christian brethren abroad. At that time, the kidnapping of 276 young school girls by the Islamist group Boko Haram had captured the world’s attention. I wrote the following:
“That so many Christians in these countries feel forgotten and forsaken by the western church is a shameful testament to the attitude of complacency and apathy that has infected the hearts and minds of American Christians. We should be outraged and horrified by the treatment our fellow believers suffer and we should use every tool at our disposal to counteract it. After all, we are talking about family here, the family of Christ. We are called to be His hands and feet, and called to care for the poor, vulnerable, and needy. This means we must widen our gaze beyond the narrow scope of our own problems and pay some attention to what’s happening to Christians around the world. There will come a day when each and every one of us will have to give and account for our actions, or lack of action, in this life.”
A year later, the plight of Christians around the world has only worsened, particularly in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS has resulted in the systematic targeting, persecution, and slaughter of Christians in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Archparchy of Aleppo, recently visited the United States, where he spoke about the struggle of Syrian Christians in the face of ongoing persecution. It’s a struggle, he tells us, for survival itself:
“Before the war we were around 170,000. We don’t have reliable statistics today, but we may be around 100,000, maybe less. Most [who have left] aren’t very far away, in the southern part of the country or in Lebanon. On the other hand, some have gone to Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, Sweden, and so on. We worry about these people, because we’re not sure they’ll ever come back.
After what happened on Easter, people don’t know what to do. They’re afraid we’ll have the same scenario as Mosul. (Mosul is an Iraqi city under ISIS domination where virtually all Christians have been driven out, and where militants destroyed Christian gravesites over Easter in an effort to eradicate remaining symbols of the faith.)
[I] feel responsible for the survival of a Church founded by the apostles themselves. The first Christians in Syria were baptized the day of the Pentecost in Jerusalem, by Peter and the other apostles. … They spread all over the region and founded the Church. The Lord gave me this responsibility in Syria, and I cannot simply accept that during my mandate, the Christians disappear. I’ll never stop fighting so they can hold on.”
We’ve all seen the gruesome images by now: Merciless executioners poised over the bowed heads of their Christian victims, grandstanding before a global audience, preaching their poisonous gospel of jihad as the blood of their victims spills onto the earth. While these images are shocking and vile, such persecution should come as no surprise. The Scriptures warn of such. The first disciples knew that living out the Great Commission would come at a great price. Martyrdom was routine in the early days, as Christianity’s message clashed with the principalities and powers of the day.
For modern Western Christians, such persecution is difficult to imagine, and the notion of dying for one’s beliefs seems like something from ancient history. For millions of Christians, however, the prospect of martyrdom remains a daily reality, a reality that the world can no longer ignore thanks to the brutal and highly publicized tactics of ISIS.
I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: Christians all over the world have a duty to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters who are suffering. Burying our heads in the sand is not an option. If we are truly all members of one body in Christ, then the suffering of one becomes the suffering of all. When we ignore the problem and fail to act, we are effectively aiding and abetting the persecutors.
Like it or not, we are engaged in a religious war. The motives for the terror worldwide are rooted in religious views. Many of us see the ISIS henchmen as criminal madmen, but they see themselves as soldiers of Allah on a divine mission to exterminate the infidels and establish a religious caliphate. Their ideology leaves no room for religious liberty, consigns women to second-class status, and sees the state as a tool of Islam – empowered to wield the power of the sword in furtherance of the Koran’s teachings.
Whether this view is a perversion of Islam is not the point. A majority of Muslims may well be peace loving and respectful of secular laws and liberties, but this is irrelevant. What matters is that an increasingly powerful and influential group of extremists have declared war on the world, and they are prepared to kill and destroy anything and everything that opposes them.
We must not sugarcoat the reality of the threat we face. Left untrammeled, real lives and real liberties will continue to be lost. Now is the time for the community of nations to unite against terror and barbarism and use all the resources at their disposal to eradicate this global menace to life and liberty. For its part, the Church Universal is bound by its fealty to Jesus Christ to confront honestly the plight of its spiritual brethren, to lobby for intervention, and to aid in whatever way possible those, like the Syrian Christians, who are facing eradication at the hands of merciless persecutors.
I am confident that Christ’s church will endure and ultimately prevail over the powers – both spiritual and physical – that would destroy her. But Christ’s promise of ultimate victory does not mean we don’t have a real role to play in the here and now. We do, and we must honor our duty to defend the faith, wherever it is threatened and whatever the cost.