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Thoughts on the Crisis in Iraq and Syria

What do you do? Your world is invaded and taken over by zealous terrorists. They tell you to denounce Christ and convert to Islam by tomorrow. If you refuse, you must pay an exorbitant cash offering. Otherwise, your choices are to run or be executed. And if you run, you can take nothing but the clothes on your back. Everything you own belongs to the terrorists.

You see your door is marked with the letter “N”; which stands for “Nazarene” and identifies you as a Christian. It also means your house and family are marked for destruction. You decide to brave a long, hard journey on foot (because you don’t have a car any more). It is the peak of the hot season as you enter the open desert to escape.

You pass mutilated bodies of the police and soldiers who were your only hope of defense. You hear stories of Christian women raped and murdered; of children cut in half because their parents are not Muslims. As you walk past small bands of armed men, you hear shots and screams of people randomly assaulted or killed.

Finally a menacing radical stands in front of you, brandishing a blood-stained broadsword. He stops you in your tracks and asks, “Are you a follower of Jesus Christ?” Your whole family is with you. What will happen to them if you are killed? What will happen if you say no? What will happen if you tell him you will convert?

I pray every day that my faith would stand up to a challenge like that. I have this fantasy that I would turn the question around and wind up converting the terrorist to Christianity. I would really like to think that my answer would come out quickly with enthusiasm and conviction. I hope I have enough time to tell the guy I forgive him.

Of course it’s easy to think like that when the biggest challenge to my Christianity is whether or not to fast-forward past a racy love scene. Sometimes I wrestle with whether to attend Sunday services or stay home to watch a football game. This makes me worry about how I would hold up to the sword. Will my professed love of Christ falter under the threat of terror? Could I gracefully and lovingly accept martyrdom; or will I buckle under and deny Christ?

The stories coming out of Syria and Iraq are harrowing. Many Christians could not run away and are most likely dead. Others paid the offering price, but watched their wives and daughters taken and claimed as “wives” by the IS leaders. That allowed their captors to rape them and then kill them if they did not convert to Islam as required of any Muslim’s spouse. There are reports (and photos) of crucifixions, babies brutally hacked to death, of women with their throats slit and then held upside down so they can see their own blood filling a bowl as they die.

So the Christians, as well as the Yazidis and other non-Muslim and peace-loving Muslims, run.

There was relatively little said about what this meant until the Yazidis became trapped on a mountaintop. The inference previously was that there were plenty of safe places to run to; like the Christians just jumped on buses and drove to another city. There was no desert, danger, or brewing humanitarian disaster. The cities that accepted them would have plenty of apartments and hotels for all 400,000-plus of them. It was a bad situation, but nothing that warranted any kind of response. They could start over a few miles down the road.

The reality: It’s a disaster on many levels. This week, Yesenia received a copy of e-mails written by a missionary from the Haggai Institute based in Atlanta. This missionary was in an Iraqi city for a Haggai training conference when refugees started arriving by the thousands. The conference turned into a massive prayer vigil and support group. “It was no mistake we were here at this time”, he wrote.

He described how the town is trying to help. There are stories of extra-ordinary effort to supply food, shelter and hope. It crosses religious lines, with Christians, Mormons, Yazidis and even Muslims helping refugees. But the town is overwhelmed. The official shelters are filled way beyond capacity. Thousands of families are sleeping in the parks and gardens desperately looking for shade from the sweltering summer sun. One pastor opened his home to five families. Another man has 65 people sleeping in his flat each day. A church pastor has hundreds of people lined up daily for a quick shower. Doctors collected supplies to start a refugee clinic but the volume is impossible. Hundreds are dying of exposure and thirst every day.

Things are bad enough, but then there is the fear that the Kurdish military won’t be able to hold off the Islamic State assault much longer. The refugees know they may need to repeat the journey again before this nightmare is over.

How evil is the Islamic State? When is the last time you heard the Vatican endorse military action? That happened yesterday as the Holy See’s UN representative announced their support for airstrikes in support of the Kurdish and Iraqi armies. “This is genocide and the people need to be defended.”

So what can we do from here? Paul gives us a good option in 2 Corinthians 1:6-11. He writes to the Corinthians about the troubles he and his companions experienced in Asia; so much that they were near death. He does not ask why the Corinthians did not come. He does not ask why they did not send money or goods. Instead he thanked the Corinthians for sharing their suffering through their prayers. Paul was sure that the prayer of the Corinthians and others is what helped him survive the Asian trip and continue his mission.

So Pray. Pray hard. Pray alone. Pray in groups. Call for prayer services dedicated to our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria. Pray for strength and respite for all of them. And pray for strength for yourself, too.

If you have the means and want to do more, you can donate to an established Christian aid group in the area. Open Doors USA is a group dedicated to fighting Christian persecution and has a special fund for Iraq. Christian Aid was started 20 years ago to assist Iraqi Christians and other religious groups after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Most major charitable organizations can funnel funds to Iraq. Be wary of new groups without a track record as these may be fronts for scams. Keep informed. Finally, let your government officials know this is an important issue for us. Your voice may help steer government support and relief supplies to more refugees.

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