In conjunction with the Philos Project and the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, Terror & Hope: Christians of the Middle East provides a comparison of the lives of Christians living in the Middle East.
Religious freedom is an integral part of any individual’s basic human rights. Yet many Christians throughout the world are persecuted for their beliefs. This collection of photographs reveals the clear distinction between the treatment of Christians in Israel and those in the surrounding Middle East countries. As Christians living in free, Western societies it is our responsibility to be educated on this persecution, to share their suffering and to make our voices heard.
During the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to participate in the Philos Leadership Institute. I traveled to Israel and Jordan to explore what it means to be a Christian in the Middle East. While in Jordan, I visited multiple groups of displaced persons, most of which were coming from Syria and Iraq. I was shocked and appalled by the comparison between Christians living in Israel and those living in other Middle Eastern countries.
The Syrians placed in Za’atari Refugee Camp are given refugee status and work permits where possible. They live in terrible conditions, but the United National Higher Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) provides them shelter, food, hygiene facilities and educational opportunities. They can sustain a certain standard of living. The people of the camp are hopeful. They were smiling and expressed their gratitude for the camp. The people of Za’atari are all members of the Sunni Muslim faith.
The Iraqi Christians do not have the same fate. I met many and heard stories of hard working and successful families fleeing ISIS persecution. Currently the UNHCR is not providing the same protection and support to the Iraqi Christians as they have to other groups, such as the Sunni Muslims in Za’atari. The majority of this vulnerable community is not granted refugee status and they are not accepted as refugees by the United States, Canada or Australia. They are waiting, uncertain about their future.
Unfortunately, this is not new. In the first century A.D., the Middle Easterners accepted Christianity through St. Thomas the Apostle, Thadeaus and Bartholomew. These people, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs, are indigenous to the ancient Mesopotamia for over 6,700 years. They repented through the preaching of Jonah and turned to the Hebrew God, wearing sackcloth and fasting for 40 days and 40 nights—a tradition that continues today, once a year for three days. Mesopotamian, Middle Eastern Christians are known to be the first Christians to meet Muslims during the 7th century AD and ever since, have faced subjugation and persecution. The Iraqi Christians have faced harsh treatments and periodic massacres for generations, but the most modern persecution began in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq. The population of 1.5 million Christians is now just 180,000 people. They have been threatened, massacred, raped and evacuated from their homes. When the Islamic State attacked in 2014, many fled their homes and sought refuge in church courtyards, parks or school classrooms. Some slept on pews and classroom floors for months. As winter approached, they were forced to live in the worst conditions imaginable. They were moved to unwinterized tents in Erbil (in the Kurdish region of Iraq), then they found themselves living in shipping containers with no hope of return. Many left Iraq entirely and attempted to take refuge in the slums of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. In October 2016, the US military, Iraqi forces, and Peshmerga, along with Nineveh Plain Protection Unit (NPU), fought to defeat ISIS. Their mission was to liberate an area in Iraq controlled by the ISIS caliphate.
Upon escape to Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, Iraqi Christians found yet another challenge facing them: discrimination by western countries. Upon arrival, UNHCR officials interview all and are given the status of asylum seekers; however, the majority are not considered as refugees. This distinction is imperative to receiving UN aid, a work permit and ultimately the opportunity of resettlement in one of the Western countries. Meanwhile, they cannot rebuild their lives; they cannot return. Many have no home in a “free” Iraq.
There is a community of Maronite Christians in Jish, Israel who for centuries have been able to practice their faith freely. Their lives are roughly the same as before ISIS’s rise in 2013. Jish is located within short rocket range of the Syrian and Lebanese borders, making the community vulnerable. Despite threats of attack, Israel protects its citizens’ freedom. The Maronite Christians live without the fear of persecution.
But the devastation caused by ISIS in neighboring regions generates fear among these Maronite Christians that the movement of radical Islam will come to Northern Israel. In 2014, cars drove around Israel proudly boasting the flag of ISIS. Police and Mossad have cracked down on any propaganda related to terrorist organizations, calming concerns.
Christians of the West are largely not aware of the Iraqi Christians’ situation. Or worse, they are choosing not to act on it. Some Western Christians struggle to relate to the Christians of the Middle East and therefore ignore the horror stories that exist. Some say there are problems just as horrifying in our own country. They turn a blind eye to the shared history and beliefs and instead focus on the cultural differences. Western Christians are citizens of the world’s largest and strongest nations. They are pushing Middle Eastern Christians to the side and not helping. Countries in the Middle East and Eastern Europe who are willing to help, such as Jordan, are reaching their capacity of aid.
My hope for this project is to bring awareness to this centuries’ old issue and raise funding for a better life for these individuals. A specific story that touched my heart is that of a three-year-old Iraqi girl named Berta who suffers from Leukemia. Because she and her family are not granted refugee status, her father cannot work and thus, cannot afford treatments. Unfortunately, cancer is a rampant problem among the Iraqi Christians living in Jordan. None have the means to pay rent, let alone cancer treatments. This heart-breaking issue must be addressed. Because of this, all of the proceeds from this collection, including the book and the exhibition, will go to Berta and other Iraqi Christians like her who cannot afford the treatment they need without our help.
Thank you for supporting this issue by purchasing Terror & Hope: Christians of the Middle East. I encourage you to go to the Iraqi Christian Relief Council website (iraqichristianrelief.org or click on logo below) for more information about the conflict and the Philos Project donation page (philosproject.org/donate or click on logo below) by selecting Terror & Hope: Christians of the Middle East to make a contribution toward the cause.