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As Christians Flee Iraq, Doors of Opportunity Remain Open

Some six days before the fall of Mosul and seven before the capture of Tikrit by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) insurgents, Baghdad itself—only 87 miles away—already seemed a city under siege.
Any institutions of strategic value—government buildings, TV and radio stations, and banks—were hidden behind ugly blast walls and razor wire.

The streets echoed with gunfire at night after the midnight curfews, and it felt to me like a vision of how a world collapsing into anarchy might look.

Inter-city travel by road was hazardous then; it will be worse now. The electricity supply, telephone and Internet are unreliable and undermined by thousands of illegal hookups.

Many unfinished or war-damaged buildings are occupied by squatters. There is serious poverty and slums, despite the oil wealth. Checkpoints at every turn slow traffic and the whole pace of life. And the country is hemorrhaging talented people.

Those that can leave are choosing to.

And yet, my two colleagues from SAT-7 and I found a country talking and hoping it could return to normality, government officials happy to support the diminishing Christian population as the “historic roots” of the land, and faithful leaders looking to support those who remain and aid others who look to Christians as people of peace in a country that has been tearing itself apart.

SAT-7 has filmed several programs from Iraq, including a documentary and worship services in Baghdad late last year, and has a devoted viewership there for its ARABIC and KIDS channels.

Our four-day visit was an attempt to see how we can better serve this beleaguered country.

One Sunday evening, I spoke at the Alliance Church with 200 worshippers present. This is probably the best-attended church currently.

While some estimate that 75 percent of Christians have left the capital in the past few years, the Alliance congregation has 500 to 600 members and a very active media group, who were keen to explore ways they can cooperate with us in the future.

Archbishop Emanuel Dabaghian of the Armenian Catholic Church was, perhaps, the most optimistic of the leaders we met.

A warm and enthusiastic man, he told us he was “rejoicing that the churches are empty now because there is lots of room for new believers.”

Although there is an open rise in atheism in Iraq—another leader cited statistics that say 32 percent of Iraqis have rejected religion—we learned that there are many new seekers.

Large numbers have been disillusioned by the violence perpetrated in the name of religion and the sectarian brutality between Sunni and Shi’a.

In contrast, we were told that “the Christians of Iraq are innocent. They have no blood on their hands and are respected for their nonviolence.”

During our visit, it was clear that the current Shi’a-led government is eager to do what it can to stop the exodus of Christians from Iraq.

The minister of the interior stressed that Christians were needed and that the security he provided was for all citizens without discrimination. It is this commitment that lies behind 24/7 security and bomb blast walls outside church properties.

The Shi’a official responsible for implementing security at the churches echoed what we heard from many Christian leaders, but it was even more impressive coming from him.

He stressed that protecting the Christians was not doing the Christians a favor because they were the rightful, historic owners of Iraq, and the Muslims are the recent arrivals—the guests.

An example of this openness to the Christian contribution came in an invitation to take part with Pastor Joseph of the Alliance Church in a live radio show on the government radio station, giving impressions of our visit and sharing what SAT-7 is seeking to do in support of rebuilding the country, civic society and individuals’ lives.

A pastor who needs no convincing about the value of media is Maher Fouad, pastor of the New Testament Baptist Church.

Maher was at a conference in Korea in 1995 when I presented the plans for SAT-7 a year ahead of our first transmissions and he thought it was a great idea.

More recently, when most of his 300-strong congregation left Iraq, he took the opportunity to build a radio station, which is on the church premises.

The FM station has a two-kilowatt transmitter, which covers all of Baghdad.

With the rise of atheism, he sees media as a vital tool to share hope with those who are losing hold on their faith—Christians as well as others.

Probably the most moving experience during these four days came while meeting Monsignor Pios Cacha, Vicar General of The Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad.

We prayed together in the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance, where the 2010 massacre of some 47 parishioners (including two priests) took place. Another 60 or so were injured.

The church has been fully restored and is beautiful, but it seems it is used very little, perhaps because of all that happened there.

It seems strange and tragic now that Iraqi Christians should again have come under attack only a week after our visit.

The historic area around Mosul in the Nineveh plain, which has been home to Christians for centuries, was overrun by ISIS militants on June 10, prompting 40,000 people to flee towns and villages in the area.

According to Aid to the Church in Need, the militants’ capture of Mosul prompted the last remaining Christians to evacuate a city, which until 2003 was home to 35,000 Christians.

Qaraqosh, the largest Christian populated city of Nineveh and home to around 50,000 people, was also attacked by ISIS, prompting thousands more to flee and seek refuge in Kurdistan.

At the time of writing, the jihadists have been driven back from the city by Kurdish forces and some residents have returned.

However, ISIS’ declaration on June 29 of an Islamic State in captured areas of Iraq and Syria will increase Christian fears for their future security.

These deeply worrying changes raise the questions of what this increased threat will mean for Iraq’s believers and for SAT-7’s ministry to them.

No doubt the pressure to emigrate will only increase as many have lost homes and businesses and been internally displaced, some for the second time.

Terence Ascott is the founder and CEO of SAT-7. A version of this article first appeared on Ascott’s SAT-7 blog and is used with permission. SAT-7 broadcasts satellite television programming that seeks to transform the Middle East through hope in Jesus Christ and is a partner organization of American Baptist International Ministries and BMS World Mission.