We've heard of individual villages or individual locations where that has been put into practice. We are doing some additional research to really get to the bottom of that. At this point, we don't have a final say on that but there are enough reports to suggest that something definitely seems to be happening, we just don't know how widespread it is.
What is going on in Iraq? What unique challenges do Iraqi Christians face?
There are Christians in Iraq, I think that's one thing that people need to understand. Over the last decade, thousands have fled and left the country but there are still Christians there. As the overall security situation in Iraq lessens, as it gets worse, it affects the church, it affects Christians there, and that is something they are very concerned about, because they know if the whole security situation falls apart, the Church will be affected.
The other thing they are watching very closely is Syrian refugees coming into Iraq and how that will play out. But they also see that as the mission field. In fact, Voice of the Martyrs is supporting some Iraqi Christians who are serving Syrian refugees. They are providing aid to them, humanitarian support to them. Even as they see the influx of refugees, they also see it as a way to serve and as a way to reach out into that community.
How would you compare and contrast the relationship Iraqi Christians had with Saddam Hussein, with the one that Syrian Christians have with Assad?
When we talk about Christians in the Middle East, in general, we have to separate those with a traditional Christian background with Muslim converts who are now following Jesus Christ.
Muslim converts are always persecuted. They are not trusted by the government regardless of who's in charge and there's always persecution. In some cases in Syria, in the government controlled area, that first line of persecution is your own family. It's your dad, your big brother, who are saying, "You've shamed our family by leaving Islam to follow Jesus. We have to respond to that."
On the side of traditional Christians - whether they be Orthodox and Catholic - some of these Christian communities who have been here literally for thousands of years, there was an element of acceptance, I don't want to say protection, under Saddam Hussein in Iraq, with that traditional Christian community. There are some folks that say Saddam trusted Christians more than he trusted Muslims, so even in his inner circle there were some of those part of his inner circle,
With regard to Syria and Assad, there has been some level of protection that has been there, maybe not protection, but tolerance. Yes we have a Christian community in the country, they should be allowed to meet, go to church, do their ceremonies. But where the line gets drawn is outreach. If you are trying to share the Gospel with Muslims and convert them to Christianity, then there is no tolerance for that. That is absolutely not acceptable in both countries. There would be severe and almost immediate persecution for those trying to do that.
AMERICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
What are the most common incorrect assumptions American Christians have about the situation for Christians in the Middle East and Central Asia?
I think there are a lot of things that Americans understand on kind of the surface level that they need to understand more deeply if they are going to understand that part of the world. First, there is a difference between traditional Christian communities and Muslim converts.
Second, Islam is not all one and the same. The average American couldn't tell you the difference between Sunni, Shia, Alawaite, Sufi, or that there is a difference with how Christians are treated.
A great example is Syria. Assad is an Alawaite, and has provided some protection for the Church. Rebels trying to take power are Sunni Muslims who do not want Christians in that area. Islam is not a monolith that is the same on every side.
How can American Christians help?
The first thing we can do, and this what the Middle Eastern Christians would say, is pray. There are things that God can do when we pray that we can never hope to do ourselves. We can never hope to change countries. We need to pray for the Church, we need to pray for persecutors, we need to pray that Muslims will come to know Christ.
Secondly, if you are going to pray, in order to effectively pray, you also need to educate yourself so you understand these different issues; you understand the difference between Sunni and Shia, and what is happening in this country and what is happening in that country.
There are ways we can get involved directly. We can send letters to some of these countries and say, "Please let this person out of jail. They're not harming your government."
We can write letters to our own government officials and encourage them to take an active interest in the Middle East and what is happening in the Church, letting them know that this is a significant thing to us as American voters. We want to see Christians have religious freedom. We want to see Christians not have their Church bombed on a Sunday morning when they are going to worship.
There is influence that America can have because of our place in the world, and we want to remind our government authorities that we want America to play a role for religious freedom. We want America to be a beacon of hope to these Christian communities.