Christian Exodus in Iraq and Syria Reached 'Biblical Proportions,' Open Doors Says on Day of Prayer for Persecuted Church

Persecution watchdog group Open Doors warned that the exodus of Christians in Iraq and Syria fleeing terror group ISIS reached "biblical proportions" this year, and called for Christian unity during the International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church on Sunday.

(Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter)A woman holds a cross during a rally organized by Iraqi Christians in Germany denouncing persecution by the Islamic State terror group against Christians living in Iraq, in Berlin, Aug. 17, 2014.

A number of Christian leaders and commentators spoke during the webcast, raising awareness and encouraging prayer for believers around the world who have faced persecution this year.

Mike Gore of Open Doors Australia highlighted what he called the "unprecedented focus" in 2014 on the persecuted church, and recalled a number of the most prominent stories that made headline news.

He said that the targeting and exodus of Christians from Iraq and Syria can only be described as "an exodus of biblical proportions," referring to the rise of ISIS, which has captured a number of cities in those two countries.

"Christians, not just in their hundreds, Christians in their tens of thousands [are] fleeing Iraq and Syria with little more than the clothes on their backs, because of increased pressure from the Islamic State," Gore pointed out.

Another major focus has been on Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group in Nigeria which has also targeted Christians and waged war on the central government for over five years.

The story that has captivated the world's attention the most has been the kidnapping of over 200 girls from the town of Chibok in northern Nigeria in April. Despite an international effort calling for their release, Boko Haram has refused to return the girls to their families, and instead has continued with killings and kidnappings.

"One of the things most people don't realize is that in northern Nigeria, on any given Sunday, five churches are attacked in a similar fashion," Gore noted.

Another prominent story of persecution, but with a positive ending, was the release of Christian mother Meriam Ibrahim from prison in Sudan. Ibrahim had faced the death penalty for refusing to identify as a Muslim and for marrying a Christian Sudanese-American, but after heavy international pressure, Sudan cleared her from the charges and eventually allowed her to leave the country.

Gore said that "She was sentenced to death in Sudan for refusing to recant her faith. And now through a global media outcry, she has received refugee status here in the United States."

He argued that there is one church body, and that when one part of it suffers, the entire body suffers — recalling the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians.

"The apostle Paul says that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer," Gore added. "When one part of the body rejoices, we all rejoice. There isn't a free church, or a persecuted church. There is one church."

The webcast event included other speakers, such as pastor Ellie Davidian, the founder of He Sets Free Ministries.

Born a Shia Muslim in Iran, Davidian converted to Christianity and moved to California, where she now pastors two Farsi-speaking churches with her husband. She is also involved in broadcasting Christian content back into Iran, something which she said is vitally important for sharing the Gospel to people who have no other means of hearing it.

After sharing her personal story of coming to Christ, Davidian answered a number of questions from social media users following the webcast.

She affirmed that Christianity is illegal in Iran, and believers are heavily oppressed by the government.

"Basically, if they find out that you are a Christian, they are going to stop you, you are going to face harassment and imprisonment, and torture," Davidian revealed. She added that women are also often imprisoned for their faith, not just men, and that the government forbids all Christian evangelical activities.

As for reaching out to Muslims to share the Gospel, Davidian stressed that it is important to consider the specific type of Islamic believers one is dealing with.

"There are different types of Muslims, some of them are nominal, like Persians in southern California," the pastor said. "You need to find out first what type of groups you are dealing with, and the best thing is just sharing the Gospel, because the Gospel is the power of God onto salvation."

Responding to a question about how her family in Iran responded to the news that she had become a Christian, Davidian admitted that her family was "shocked."

"Especially if you are the first born in the family, you have to set an example for the rest of the family. And if you are coming out of faith, it's not just basically rejecting the religion, but it's rejecting the society, rejecting their values," she said.

The He Sets Free Ministries founder said that prayer is greatly needed to help Christian leaders in Iran who are trying to minister to the people, but are facing persecution.

Open Doors CEO and President David Curry, who provided a preview for the Day of Prayer to The Christian Post in a phone interview last week, concluded the webcast by expressing hopes that Sunday's event is only "the beginning of the conversation, not the end."

"We need to be praying every day for the persecuted church. You need to take action, to find where your passion lies and connect in ways to serve the persecuted church like you've never done before," Curry addressed viewers. "I believe that this is going to be the issue that we are challenged with in the next decade."

Full streams of the webcasts from both Saturday and Sunday's event are available on the Open Doors website.