Not surprisingly, the oldest Christian communities in the world are found in the Middle East. From Iraq through Egypt, there are Christians, many of whose ancestors were converted by the Apostles themselves. Some of them still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Yet, if trends continue, many of these communities will become distant memories within our lifetimes.
The community in most danger is the one in Iraq. A recent New York Times article described the newest dangers faced by Iraqs already-shrinking Christian population. A 1987 Iraqi census put the number of Christians at 1.4 million. Today, the number is estimated at between 600 and 800 thousand.
As the Times puts it, during Saddams reign, Iraqs Christians for the most part coexisted peacefully with Muslims. They formed a disproportionate part of Iraqs business and intellectual elite.
The Christian exodus from Iraq began during the sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War, but the events of the past few years have turned that stream into a torrent. Thats because, as Lawrence Kaplan of the New Republic put it, Sunni, Shia, and Kurd[s] may agree on little else, but all have made sport of brutalizing their Christian neighbors.
Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Christians have been subjected to a steady stream of church bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and threatening letters slipped under their doors.
In the Shiite city of Basra, Christian women . . . often wear Muslim head scarves [in order] to avoid harassment from religious zealots trying to impose a strict Islamic dress code.
While the furor over Pope Benedicts recent comments about Islam have died down elsewhere, in Iraq they still are cited as a pretext for yet more violence against Christians.
As a result, those Christians who can get out are leaving as fast as they can pack. As one Christian told the Times, we cannot practice our rituals and we cannot bring food home to our families . . . thats why I want to leave the country.
None of this, I suppose, should come as a surprise. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, Nina Shea of Freedom House called for the creation of safe havens for Iraqs Christians. Without them, Shea warned, there would be no future for Iraqs indigenous Christian population. Sadly, events are proving her prophetic.
This upcoming Sunday is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Its goals are to increase awareness of the persecuted Church worldwide and promote ongoing and appropriate action on behalf of the persecuted Church.
I can tell you about the plight of Iraqi Christians and others who suffer because for their faith. And we can and must pray for them. But theres something else we need to do, and thats to take appropriate action on their behalf.
Thats why I want you to visit the links below to learn more about the plight of persecuted Christians and, more importantly, what you can do to help them. Standing by while the voices that most directly link us to our Lord are silenced is not an option.
From BreakPoint®, November 7, 2006, Copyright 2006, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. BreakPoint® and Prison Fellowship Ministries® are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries.