Despite the distractions of the festive season and cutbacks on the horizon, the Barnabas Fund is asking Christians to remember the plight of their brothers and sisters in Iraq in prayer and practical ways.
In the last couple of months, Christians in Iraq have been attacked and killed in their churches and homes and al-Qaida-linked militants have effectively waged war on them. Christmas was, as expected, a muted celebration for many Christians in Iraq who decided to mark the birth of Jesus in the safety of their homes rather than risk their lives attending church services.
Barnabas Fund recently received a letter from an Iraqi archbishop warning that Christians were too afraid to leave their homes. The very real threat of being killed in broad daylight is making it difficult to do the very practical things like shopping and, more importantly, going to work.
"It is like living in a prison camp," said the international director of Barnabas Fund, Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo. "You could leave the house but you don't know what is going to happen. Because of the targeted attacks, there is a chance that Christians venturing out to work or onto the streets will be attacked or killed. The fear is effectively leaving Christians stranded in their homes."
Iraqi Christians not only have the difficulty of getting into another country, but they are also faced with desperate poverty once they get there. Many of them are living in neighboring countries like Syria, where the Barnabas Fund is providing practical assistance. In Lebanon, thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees have just received some funds from the Barnabas Fund to cover the cost of emergency food and schooling for the children.
The difficult question for those still in Iraq is whether they too should now make the move and leave. The question is difficult because in spite of the dangers, the deaths, and the hardship, Iraq is their homeland and a country they love, a country they want to stay in.
Whatever they decide, Sookhdeo said it is important that support is given to those who choose to stay as well as those who go.
"I don't think we can say to Christians in situations where they are facing kidnapping and death that you've got to stay," he said. "If they think it is right for them to leave then we've got to help them. Equally we've got to say to those who want to stay, we will continue to assist and provide for you and argue your case."
There is no question that the situation has deteriorated. When Sookhdeo visited the Christian community in 1999, it numbered around 1.4 million. Saddam Hussein was a pretty evil dictator but Christians were not persecuted, he noted. But since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 the number of Christians living in Iraq has plummeted to around 300,000 to 400,000.
There are various reasons for this, he explained. It was easy for Christians to be seen by militant Islamists and indeed the wider, more moderate Muslim population as supporters or colluders of the Western invaders. Then in 2005, Sharia law was enshrined and the constitution did not embrace Christians or other minorities – effectively classing them as dhimmis, or second class citizens.
Sookhdeo believes the U.S., U.K. and Australia should shoulder the lion's share of responsibility in protecting minorities but the British government, he said, effectively "washed its hands" of the violence against Christians in Iraq and paid little attention to a petition Barnabas Fund presented to it last year raising awareness of the situation and signed by tens of thousands of British Christians.
"The security of Iraq is now at great risk. The government cannot control what is going on the ground. The security and police forces cannot protect their own people," he warned. "But also there has not been the will of the government and the will of the international community to protect them and that has meant that the terrorists and religious extremists can come into play."
He continued, "The British government was complicit in what happened. They failed to protect the Christians in the south and the Americans singularly failed to do it in Baghdad in the north. They've got to accept the responsibility … of engaging in a war that brought about destruction and put the minorities at risk."
In truth, Sookhdeo is disappointed not only with the invading countries or the Iraqi government, but also with the main churches, which have, according to him, pressed ahead with inter-religious dialogue at the expense of Christians living in majority-Muslim countries.
"They are more interested in a dialogical relationship with Islam than caring for and protecting their Christian communities," he noted. "So they always try to be even handed. 'Yes we know Christians are being persecuted but Muslims are being persecuted too so we've got to look after them' and Christians are left scratching their heads and wondering what is going on.
"I think Christians have been betrayed by the West, by the international community, the Christian community and the communities within which they live."
Denominational leaders, he stressed, have a responsibility to speak out against the mistreatment of Iraqi Christians and advocate to national governments to play their part in ensuring better protection.
The festive season may be distracting but Sookhdeo is asking Christians to keep praying for their brothers and sisters in Iraq and, whatever financial belt tightening they may face in the New Year, to continue giving.
"Christians in Iraq still do not want to change their faith," he pointed out. "That causes me to rejoice and that should cause the church to rejoice because which of us in those conditions would not say 'OK, we'll change and be Muslims'?
"They are utterly determined to go on and this sends a message to us in the U.K. particularly at Christmas time to think about what our faith means to us."
He posed, "Would we still continue to be Christians in light of such major disasters, particularly when converting to Islam would mean we would be accepted and our children would be accepted?"
Despite the persecution, Sookhdeo said Iraqi Christians prefer to stay in Iraq because that is where their roots are.
"They are an ancient people with a deep love for their land. They are also Iraqis – faithful, loyal citizens. They feel Iraq is where their future lies. But the question is will they be allowed to have a future in today's or tomorrow's Iraq?"