Returning to a broken place
Mathi hangs the cross up on his living room wall and steps back. He looks around the room, which is slowly looking more and more like the home it once was. Outside, his daughter and wife are planting seeds for a garden that he hopes they will be in Qaraqosh long enough to see bloom. Father George, who has led the local reconstruction committee, reported that these restoration projects have allowed more than 860 families like Mathi’s to return to this region. These homes are, for many, the only familiar and safe structure that they are returning to.
A Changing Landscape for Christians
When the Islamic State Group (IS) rose to power in Iraq in 2014, all areas of public life became oriented towards extremist views of Islam, and against Christianity. This was especially true in cities like Qaraqosh, which was home to many of the country’s Christians. Militants moved into homes, displacing thousands of people. It wasn’t until 2016, when large parts of Iraq were reconquered, that Christians and other minorities began to come back. Now, even without official state power, violence towards Christians still occurs. The northern semi-autonomous Kurdish region used to be a place of refuge for many Christians, but after their failed attempt at independence in 2017, Islamic laws are now being enforced in Baghdad, and Kurdistan, with increased involvement from Iran.
The 202,000 people who are willing to identify as Christians feel vulnerable to the 17,000 IS militants who have not been prosecuted, and remain in positions of power. Although their reintegration offers some degree of stability to the state, it means that there are people in prominent positions in society, who want to rid the nation of Christians.
Belonging to a group
Christians in Iraq have shared that expressing commitment to one’s group is often held with higher regard than obedience to current laws. The prioritizing of group identity is also present in the church. Christians belonging to a Historical church face threats and opposition if they decide to switch to a Protestant church. Both groups of Christians tend to avoid cross-denomination converts. For Muslims who convert to Christianity, threats of physical harm and the risk of losing marriage and custody rights come from many places. The persecution from their former religious communities are strengthened by their extended family, government officials, ethnic leaders, political parties, and other citizens.
The discriminatory practices that target Christians are often supported, if not encouraged, by the government. For example, the central government in Baghdad has promoted land and housing to be allocated to Shia and Sunni Muslims, to have a purely Muslim nation without Christians and other minorities. The valuing of group belonging has, however, ensured some rights for the church. The 14 state-approved Christian denominations maintain the right to review applications for new denominations.
Cost of staying
Many young Christians are dissuaded from staying in the country, knowing that beyond threats of violence, opportunities in their education and vocations are limited as well. Of Mathi’s six children, three fled Iraq. The others are likely to be automatically registered as Muslims. Once this is documented, they cannot legally change it back. His children will be sitting in classrooms where they are described as ‘sick’, or ‘infidels’, and will need to speak carefully. If they express their family’s faith in this environment, they could be at risk of blasphemy charges. Despite the disadvantages and persecution guaranteed to Christians, many are continuing to choose to live as Christians in Iraq. As Christians begin to reconstruct their lives, Father George remains encouraged by the evidence that, “our hope is stronger than their armies, and their hatred against us”.
Mathi’s family has undergone significant changes in previous years, and the future continues to be uncertain. For now, there is a safe and stable space to rest, heal, play, and worship, which is otherwise difficult to find. Mathi’s home offers a safe place to put his cross up, a symbol that would bring discrimination and danger if shown in public. In a country where group belonging guarantees success in all avenues of life, Christians and other minorities are treated as if they don’t belong. With the support of the body of believers to whom they belong around the world, Mathi’s family will continue to plant seeds of hope, trusting it to continue to grow.
- Pray for those who have left Islam to follow Jesus. They will lose many rights; including the choice in who they marry, and sometimes custody for their kids. Pray for their family’s to be softened to receiving the gospel, and that they would find community with other believers. Pray that they would be reminded of their citizenship in heaven.
- Pray that there would be more integrity in a society which has a lot of corruption. Christians are at a disadvantage in registering weddings, births, deaths, finding work, and selling homes. There are some Iraqi Senate seats allocated for Christians, but are often taken by others. Pray that these positions would be given to people who advocate for different minority groups.
- Pray that churches would welcome, encourage, and disciple new followers of Jesus. Iraqi law allows conversion from other faiths to Islam, but not from Islam to other faiths. If a church is known to integrate converts, it could become a target. Pray that Christians would act with wisdom and boldness.
Christianity has been disappearing from Iraq. Since 2003, the number of Christians has decreased by 87%. And if something isn't done, Christianity could disappear entirely.
Listen in to find out what you can do to help and how you can pray for our Iraqi brothers and sisters.
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