By Pamela Nielsen
News feeds stream graphic photos and videos of torture and killings. Fleeing Christians and other religious minorities from the Middle East and Africa tell the horrific story of persecution at the hands of the terror groups Boko Haram and the Islamic State.
As the rest of the world watches, prayers continue to ascend from pulpits and altars, at dinner tables and bedsides. Yet the question persists, “What can we do to help?”
“In Defense of Christians” (IDC), a new organization seeking to answer that question, held an inaugural summit Sept. 9-11 in Washington, D.C. IDC brought together several hundred Christian church leaders and laity from the Middle East and Europe as well as Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Americans. They came to pray and consider how Christians might respond to the relentless scourge against the faithful in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity.
A Reporter Online “Periscope” story here provides an overview of the historic conference.
A colleague and I attended the last day of the conference, where our bags were searched, we went through metal detectors and men in dark suits with earpieces waited to run wands over us. Once inside, we joined a crowd that spoke several languages and gathered from a number of countries, a place where the Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders with their rich variety of liturgical garb were highly visible.
The Greek word martyria, from which the English word “martyr” is derived, was echoed by the many speakers who described the testing and proving of the saints in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine. This testing, they say, has waxed and waned against the faithful in these regions for centuries.
“These Christians bear witness to the meekness of Christ — as a lamb before His shearers, He opens not His mouth,” said Metropolitan Joseph Zahlawi, an Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church archbishop.
“No heart can remain indifferent to the tragedy in Syria, Iraq, Mosul,” said Zahlawi. “We must stop speaking of Western and Eastern Christianity. We are one Christianity,” he implored, also noting that these persecuted believers are facing this threat “with joy and courage.”
Recounting the religious history of the region, Zahlawi made the point that the Middle East has been populated by and benefited for thousands of years from adherents to the three major monotheistic religions of the world (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). Yet the politics of the region are complicated; Christians have and continue to suffer persecution at the hands of both Muslims and Jews. Western political decisions also negatively impact the Christians, he explained, by not taking into account their plight in the region.
Quoting Romans 12 — “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” — Zahlawi said, “There is power in what appears to be a weakness. The Church was established through the cross and it spread through martyrdom and death. We must apologize and repent when we stop living and proclaiming as Christians.”
One of the day’s themes included the knowledge that many of the faithful in the Middle East do not desire to flee their homelands despite persecution. Instead, they work tirelessly to be light in that darkness, and speakers urged Christians to support them, noting that darkness dissipates quickly in the light of Christ. Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syriac Orthodox Church told the crowd: “Be on the way of the cross. We suffer with those who suffer. … We are not children of death; we are children of the Resurrection!”
A warning was also sounded to those not living in the Middle East. “Christianity in the Middle East is on verge of disappearing where it has existed in harmony for centuries,” said His Holiness Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the See of Cilicia in the Armenian Apostolic Church. “This would be a terrible blow for the whole region.”
Beyond the theological needs, there is also a call for humanitarian aid in the area. “Look back to Christ, who was expected to respond in kind to the violence against Him … He responded with healing, peace and loving care,” said Nina Shey, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.
Stressing the need for advocacy with Western governments, Shey put forth a different strategy for those in the Middle East. The Christians there, she said, “must continue what they have for centuries provided: quality schools, medical care, hospitals and other forms of human care through so many openly Christian NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in the region.” These NGOs “care for the most vulnerable people,” whether Christian, Jew or Muslims.
The president of the Arab American Institute, Dr. James Zogby, also noted: “Our defense of Christians is about the defense of the whole region and all of its faiths. We have to defend the common humanity of all.”
Rising above the cacophony of the many speakers was the comforting and certain message of Christ and the cross, and the call to serve all because of the Gospel. It is also clear that the persecution of Christians in the Middle East is self-defeating for the region. Yet as so many confidently shared, in Christ, the people of God are already victorious.
The Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms was unwittingly articulated with requests for prayer, unity and acts of mercy by the faithful and the acknowledgement that secular world powers have both a God-given authority and duty to protect, preserve and provide for all who suffer in the region.
It is a rare day when Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and a couple of Lutherans come together. The assaults of the devil have a way of cutting to the chase and focusing God’s people on first things, on the thing that can unite us to one another: Christ.
This brings us back to the question, “What are we to do?” God’s Word teaches us to repent and eagerly receive Christ’s gifts of Word and Sacrament. Pray for this region and its people, governments and world leaders. God promises to hear and answer our prayers. Support the humanitarian aid groups bearing mercy to all in the region as God provides the means. Reach out with Christ’s love to the Muslims and Jews in our own communities. And when the cross is ours to bear, remember that Christ, on the cross, has defeated sin, death and the power of the devil for you.
And when our hearts are filled with sorrow and fear at what we are hearing and seeing and may one day ourselves experience, recall the words of St. Paul in Romans 8: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:35–37).
Deaconess Pamela Nielsen is associate executive director of LCMS Communications.
Posted Oct. 1, 2014