The news coming for Mosul in Iraq over the last few days is yet another tragic reminder (not that we needed one) that to be a Christian in many countries is to be treated as a second class citizen – or worse. Even for those who are aware of this reality, the evil and downright inhuman treatment of Christians by ISIS as they enact a religious cleansing is shocking in its brutality. Few if any Iraqi Christians could pay the 550,000 Iraqi dinar (about $470) ‘jizya’ tax demanded of them, but with their homes being marked and targeted, there is no viable option, but to flee if they want to stay alive. For many who have done so, every possession has been stripped from them except for the clothes on their backs. A decade ago Mosul had a Christian population of around 100,000. Now reports are saying there are no Christians left at all.
Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, has been relaying painful news about the disastrous situation in his country to the rest of the world and Archbishop Cranmer has been doing his best through his blog over the last few days to broadcast what has been happening.
When the main news channels pay so little attention to these abuses, this sort of coverage is even more important. The ongoing drum-banging for sake of persecuted Christians that groups like Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide perform along with commentators – including this blog – may come over as a scratched record at times, but whilst the West is mostly ignorant or apathetic to what are considerable human rights abuses, the need is there. This is about the freedom for all of us to believe and have a faith as much as it is about one particular religion bearing the brunt of oppression and discrimination around the world.
It’s quite easy to wonder where God is in all of this if we believe in Him. Has He given up on those who are paying a heavy price for their faith? On the face of things it’s hard not to despair especially when those countries who could intervene choose not to. Does our government here in the UK have no interest in what is happening in Mosul? Timothy Stanley writes this powerful piece in today’s Telegraph:
‘It could be that no Westerner wants to return to Iraq, that politicians fear that even discussing the country will lead voters to fear yet another invasion and yet another bloody occupation. Or it could be that we feel embarrassed about the very idea of Christians as a persecuted minority. The reporter John Allen argues that Westerners have been trained to think of Christians as “an agent of aggression, not its victim” – so we’re deaf to pleas for help. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has compared the suffering of Middle East Christians with Jewish pogroms in Europe and reminded everyone of the words of Martin Luther King: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It would indeed be awful to think that the West might remain silent as violence rages purely out of a failure to recognise that Christians can be victimised, or out of a reluctance to cast aspersions on certain brands of Islam. It would make this the first genocide in history to be tolerated out of social awkwardness.’
Yet despite an apparent indifference from our politicians, there are signs of hope behind the scenes. At an event aimed specifically at engaging more Labour MPs with international religious freedom earlier this month, Douglas Alexander MP, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, spoke passionately to a room packed full with members of civil society, the clergy, local councillors and politicians. Mr Alexander clearly asserted the need to ‘awaken people’s conscience to the plight of Christians around the world today who face persecution in more countries than ever before in our history’. He made his feelings clear:
‘The plight of Christians today could go down in history as one of the most brutal periods of our common history. But although the persecution of Christians is one of the most prevalent forms of human rights abuses in the world today, it is also one of the least known in the West, and least discussed in politics. I think that needs to change, and I think that we need to be the pioneers of that change. We need to help awaken people’s conscience to the plight of Christians around the world today who face persecution in more countries than ever before in our history.’ (full text here)
Archbishop Cranmer, who has his ear close to the ground wrote at the weekend:
‘We must ensure that our new Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond makes religious freedom and the persecution of Christians an absolute priority. William Hague never seemed to be overly concerned, and the sacking of Alistair Burt from his team at the last reshuffle dealt a blow to those who knew of his immense background efforts. But (and take it from His Grace) there are now those within government and very close to the Prime Minister who have every intention of bringing this issue to the fore, and we, too, must make our voices heard.’
Two people who have made their voices heard are Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh – two Iranian women imprisoned for 259 days and threatened with death sentences for their faith in Christ.
Last Wednesday Maryam and Marziyeh, met with a number of parliamentarians at a meeting hosted by Naomi Long MP to share about their experiences of persecution and highlight the importance of the right to freedom of religion. They shared that the actions of those around the world who called on the Iranian authorities to release them and uphold their freedom to believe, were crucial in addressing this injustice. Lord Anderson of Swansea was one parliamentarian who agreed and intends to touch upon some of the issues Maryam and Marziyeh spoke about at an upcoming debate in the House of Lords on 24 July, which will focus on the extent to which freedom of religion or belief is upheld internationally.
MP Anna Long described how having Maryam and Marziyeh there in person brought the issue of religious freedom ‘from the abstract to the practical and personal’. So often it is hard for us living our comfortable western lives to have any idea what this must be like, but their testimony brings to life the feelings and experiences of those who face severe persecution because of their beliefs.
As well as speaking at the Houses of Parliament, Maryam and Marziyeh were interviewed by Nicky Gumbel at Holy Trinity Brompton on Sunday the 13th of July. The video of the interview at the end of this post is utterly compelling and more than anything demonstrates that even in places of extreme pain and anguish God is there giving strength and comfort where there should otherwise be none.
Maryam and Marziyeh were born into Muslim families in Iran. Through miraculous encounters with God they both became Christians as young adults and met while studying theology in Turkey in 2005. Deciding to work together, they returned to Iran and began sharing their faith despite knowing they were putting their lives on the line. Though Islamic laws in Iran forbade them from sharing their Christian beliefs, in three years they had covertly put New Testaments into the hands of twenty thousand of their fellow Iranians. They started two secret house churches, including one for prostitutes – many of them women who had been abandoned by their husbands and had no other way to support themselves and their children.
During this time, Maryam and Marziyeh had almost been caught on many occasions. Finally in 2009, they were arrested in Tehran and charged with apostasy, anti-government activity, and blasphemy, for which they were sentenced to execution by hanging. They spent 259 days incarcerated in the notorious Evin Prison, a place where inmates are routinely tortured, and executions are swift and sudden. But in the face of chilling interrogations and intimidation, and despite a death sentence, something remarkable happened: Instead of succumbing to fear, they chose to take the dangerous step of sharing their faith inside the very walls of the government stronghold that was meant to silence them with dramatic results.
Over that period many around the world heard of their plight and began praying for them and international pressure for their release grew. After months of interrogation and abuse, they were freed in November 2009. They have since written a book telling their story.
Suffering is endemic in this world, but that is not good enough reason to believe that God does not exist or care. In the life of Jesus, we see God suffering with us and for us. International pressure and prayer will change situations in places like Iraq, Iran, Syria and Palestine. The worst thing to do whether we be Christians, non-Christians government ministers or average members of the public, is to give up on what we see happening and turn our backs. At least, as Maryam and Marziyeh found, God is still at work even in the depths of our suffering.