RLPB 507. Iraq-Syria: Christian Crisis in Mesopotamia
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IRAQ-SYRIA: CHRISTIAN CRISIS IN MESOPOTAMIA
— plus prayer request for unprecedented meeting in Jerusalem (24-26 June)
— by Elizabeth Kendal
RLPB 439, entitled, ‘Iraq: from Nation to Decimation to Elimination’ (13 March 2019) exhorted intercessors to plead with God that he might ‘intervene in Iraq to the benefit of his Church and the long-suffering, severely persecuted Assyrian remnant’. Subsequently, it has been encouraging to see some mainstream media acknowledging the existential nature of Iraq’s Christian crisis. An in-depth feature article in The Atlantic entitled ‘The Impossible Future of Christians in the Middle East’ by religion writer, Emma Green (23 May 2019), delves into issues we have long prayed over: displacement, trauma, ethno-religious intolerance, theft of Assyrian lands, Islamic terrorism, gross insecurity and the West’s shameful betrayal and abandonment of the region’s indigenous Christian peoples. On 11 April the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article on the existential threat posed to Iraq’s Christians by ‘Iran-backed [Shi’ite] militias’ and the ‘Iraqi government’s tolerance of Iranian influence’. ‘Iran has two goals,’ explains the WSJ, ‘First, it wants to build a “land bridge” to Syria through Iraq. Second, it aims to alter fundamentally the demography of Nineveh [the Assyrian homeland] in favour of Tehran.’
Similarly, Christian media — including World Watch Monitor (10 June) and National Catholic Register (7 May) — have reported that Christians driven from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains by the ISIS conquest in June-August 2014 are too afraid to return to their homes despite the region being declared ‘liberated’ in July 2017. Today, as Sunni Kurds compete with Shi’ite Arabs (the proxies of Baghdad and Tehran) for control of Assyrian ancestral lands, the insecurity is palpable. It is also prohibitive, as there can be no rebuilding while insecurity, injustice and impunity reign supreme. The indigenous, Christian Assyrians simply do not have the support required to reclaim their lands and rebuild their communities. Genocide is taking place, in our day, before our eyes.
As if this were not enough, Islamic State (IS) is regrouping and escalating its terror attacks, from the outskirts of Baghdad to Kirkuk to Mosul, including sniper attacks, roadside bombs and even crop fires. In the past month, Nineveh has lost over 37,000 acres of agricultural crops due to fires, some of which were ignited by IS operatives. Over 992,000 acres have been saved thanks to the work of under-equipped but courageous Civil Defence. Some farms were allegedly torched after farmers refused to pay ‘tax’ (protection money/extortion) to IS. Then, in late May, the IS magazine al-Naba’ called for ‘soldiers of the Caliphate’ to ‘burn the farms of the apostates [Shi’ites and Alawites] in Iraq and al-Sham‘ [Greater Syria]. Food insecurity looms.
Whilst Syria’s civil war is essentially over and the Syrian Arab Army has won, there remains much mopping-up and sorting to be done. In the north-west, terror groups (including whole battalions of Uzbeks, Uighurs, ‘Chechens’ etc.) aligned with al-Qaeda and backed by Turkey remain embedded in Syria’s Idlib Province [see RLPB 503 (22 May)]. Meanwhile, in the north-east, the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG) rule al-Hasaka as an autonomous region renamed ‘Rojava’. [The YPG’s subordinate political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist-orientated proscribed terrorist organisation.] While all this is happening, the inevitable ‘end-game’ struggle between Russia (secular and stabilising) and Iran (sectarian and destabilising) for dominance in Syria is just beginning. The Christian crisis is far from over.
PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT GOD WILL
* intervene in Iraq and Syria (and across the region), for the sake of his Church and the long-suffering, severely persecuted Assyrian and Armenian remnants; may they have justice; may they have security and may they have the freedom to live as Christians in their ancestral homelands.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him … According to their deeds, so will he repay … for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the Lord drives. (from Isaiah 59:14-19 ESV) (emphasis mine)
* protect, sustain and bless his Church in Mesopotamia (Syria-Iraq); may local Christians draw close to Christ so they might be healed, comforted and encouraged to be a light to the surrounding peoples, to the glory of God.
* work out his purposes in the Middle East; as nations struggle and as men meet and talk; may the will of our gracious and omnipotent LORD, the Almighty, the Redeemer, prevail. ‘Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.’ (Proverbs 19:21 ESV)
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations … God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him! (from Psalm 67, ESV)
SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
CHRISTIAN CRISIS IN MESOPOTAMIA
Five years after IS swept through northern Iraq, thousands of Assyrian Christians remain displaced and destitute. Sunni Kurds and Shi’ite Arabs are violently seizing control of Assyrian ancestral lands. Christians cannot return and rebuild amidst such gross injustice and insecurity. Meanwhile, Islamic State is regrouping and escalating its terror across the region. In neighbouring Syria, the civil war is essentially over but mopping up — particularly the removal of foreign jihadists — will continue for years. Tensions are escalating between Russia and Iran because of their opposing visions for post-war Syria. Russia’s vision is secular and stable. Iran’s vision is sectarian and destabilising, particularly in relation to Israel. Allegedly, Iran is working to displace Russia and Russia is ready to rein in Iran, which would be to everyone’s benefit. Please pray.
UNPRECEDENTED MEETING IN JERUSALEM (24-26 JUNE)
The greatest threat to Syria remains the entrenchment of sectarian, belligerent, revolutionary Iran. Damascus’ alliance with Tehran has always been a marriage of convenience: Tehran provides Syria’s Alawites (traditionally deemed heretical/rafida to be killed) with legitimacy and security in exchange for strategic depth. In Syria, Russia’s relationship with Iran is likewise a marriage of convenience. Now that the civil war is essentially over and the end game is coming into focus, tensions between Russia and Iran are escalating because of their opposing visions of post-war Syria. As evidenced by its proposed constitution for Syria (2017), Russia envisages a secular, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional Syria. Iran, on the other hand, sees a state totally dominated by sectarian and belligerent, revolutionary Iran. Russia seeks stabilisation while Iran seeks destabilisation, particularly in relation to Israel. Consequently, Russian forces are increasingly coming into conflict with Iranian proxy militias and Israeli air-strikes on Iranian military bases in Syria are escalating. Evidence is mounting that Iran is working to displace Russia and that Russia is ready to rein in Iran.
This is the context for the unprecedented meeting that will take place in Jerusalem from 24 to 26 June, between US National Security Adviser John Bolton, his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev and Israel’s National Security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat.
US-Russia co-operation in Syria is the dream scenario envisaged in chapter eleven of my book, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016). That chapter, entitled ‘A House Divided’, proposes solidarity among Christians across ethnic and denominational lines and solidarity within the dar-al-harb (Islam’s ‘House of War’, or non-Islamic states) in the face of assertive Islam (be it Sunni or Shia). I firmly believe that, if Assad (an Alawite) were to be offered legitimacy and security from an Israel-US-Russia axis that would rein in both Turkey and Iran, then Damascus could be drawn out of Iran’s Axis of Resistance. Russia will want relief from US sanctions. Unreasonable hawks in the US and Israeli administrations could become spoilers. There is much at stake and much to pray about.
At last, the door is opening. Please pray … Monday through Wednesday, 24-26 June: may the Lord’s will and purpose prevail.
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.
She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).