The Middle East erupted in June and July, with war breaking out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and an Islamic militant group taking over large portions of Syria and Iraq.
And in many Middle Eastern countries, Christian believers and other religious minorities are facing brutal persecution for their faith.
The Middle East has had a large Christian population with deep roots in culture and society since the time of Christ. But radical Muslims want to eradicate all non-Muslim groups from the region.
A recent report from the U.S. State Department warned: “In much of the Middle East, the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self.” The report cited examples such as intimidation, arrests, imprisonment, forced conversions and the demolishing of churches. It noted that many Christians have fled persecution; the Christian population in Homs, Syria, which was estimated at 160,000 before the three-year-old civil war, has dwindled to as few as 1,000.
In June, the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) began a rampage through large portions of Syria and Iraq in its attempt to form a caliphate, or Islamic state, with a supreme political and religious leader. The group issued a chilling ultimatum to Christians in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city: Convert to Islam, pay a tax (that most could not afford), leave the area or be killed. Those who chose to flee were allowed to take only the clothes on their backs; their homes and other belongings were confiscated by IS. On July 19, Christian leaders reported that virtually all Christians had left Mosul.
Canon Andrew White, vicar of the only Anglican church in Iraq, told the BBC: “The Christians are in grave danger. There are literally Christians living in the desert and on the street. They have nowhere to go.” He added, “We are committed, come what may. We will keep going to the end, but it looks as though the end could be very near.”
The outrage continued as IS thugs beheaded and even crucified those they consider apostates. They destroyed gravesites, including the grave thought to be that of the biblical Prophet Jonah. And the group ordered all females under age 49 in and around Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation—some 4 million females were at risk of being subjected to the barbaric procedure.
“ISIS control over Iraq’s territory presents an enormous threat to the region,” wrote Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, in a Fox News article. “The religious cleansing of Mosul’s minorities is only part of the problem, but it is a grave crime against humanity, as well as a humanitarian catastrophe, that should no longer go overlooked in U.S. policy.”
At press time, the threat appeared to be spreading to Lebanon, as thousands of armed men aligned with IS were fighting the Lebanese army. Lebanese church leader Sami Dagher told Decision that all the Christians who live in Baalbek, in eastern Lebanon, received a threat from the armed group. It said: “We are coming to you. Run for your life.”
Dagher, who has founded five churches in Lebanon and two in Iraq, asks believers to pray. “Pray for the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of the Christians in the Middle East,” Dagher said. “They are not really doing a good job of living the Christian life in front of others. Maybe God is trying to wake us up. In Amos 4, all the problems God sent to the people of Israel were to make them return to Him, but they didn’t. And every catastrophe happening here, it is God saying: ‘It is time. Come back to Me.’”
Meanwhile, what began as a kidnapping in June became all-out war in July between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip.
Following the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas militants, and the retaliatory murder of a 16-year-old Arab boy by Israeli extremists, Hamas began daily rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza. Israel responded by pounding Palestinian targets, but in spite of efforts to warn the civilian population of impending attacks, innocent lives were lost, as Hamas stores rockets and other weapons in civilian buildings. Hamas leadership, it was later confirmed, also directed people not to evacuate, even after Israel’s warnings.
In addition, Hamas had constructed scores of tunnels from which they could obtain weapons and launch attacks into Israel. On July 17, Israel sent ground troops into Gaza to destroy the tunnels and degrade Hamas’ military capability.
As the fighting raged in Gaza, Christians United for Israel (CUFI) held its annual summit in Washington, D.C., with an elite lineup of experts presenting briefings on the crisis there and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Regarding civilian deaths in Gaza, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said: “If you look at how Israel is responding to these rocket attacks, in the history of mankind there has never been a military response that has gone further to prevent civilian deaths.”
He added: “It is Hamas that is putting women and children next to and on top of rockets, because they value their rockets to murder Israeli civilians more than they value their own civilians.”
Christians in the region applauded Israel’s efforts to avoid innocent bystanders and civilians.
“Still, our hearts are broken for the many innocent men, women and children who are daily paying the price in all this chaos,” said Steven Khoury, who pastors churches in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem.
Khoury has visited with both Israelis and Palestinians, explaining God’s love, telling them that church members are praying for them and offering modest financial assistance to those in need.
The Iranian Threat
Although Israel’s war with Hamas and the rapid spread of IS dominated world news as this issue of Decision went to press, experts at the CUFI summit warned of a far more dangerous long-term threat—Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism and financial backers of both Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah. Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons that could reach both Israel and the United States, and it continues to persecute those who do not embrace Islam.
Sept. 26 marks the second anniversary of Pastor Saeed Abedini’s imprisonment in Iran for his faith in Christ. “I have seen how Saeed’s chains are bringing the Body of Christ together,” said his wife, Naghmeh. “The church is uniting even in our brokenness to remember those who are in chains for Jesus Christ.” ©2014 BGEA
GLOBAL PRAYER VIGIL FOR SAEED
Naghmeh Abedini and the American Center for Law and Justice are coordinating a global prayer vigil for Saeed and the persecuted church Sept. 26. Nearly 220 individual vigils were planned in the U.S. and in 15 other countries and territories. Franklin Graham will speak at a vigil launch in the nation’s capital on Sept. 25.