After the invasion of Iraq, many Christians fled from Baghdad and other major cities to their historic ancestral homes in and around Nineveh, near modern-day Mosul. They thought it would be safer than the cities which were riven by terrorist attacks. Then, three years ago, everything changed with the rise of Isil and the beginning of its campaign against Christians and Shia Muslims.
Rev Andrew White
Syrian Christian girls attend a Good Friday mass at the Syriac church of the Holy Virgin in the northeastern city of Qamishli, on April 14, 2017, during Easter celebrations Credit: Delil Souleiman/AFP
Today there is intense questioning about whether Christianity can even survive in this region. The suffering of Christians has been so intense in recent years – not least in Iraq, the country where I served as chaplain for many years.
Christians’ homes in Isil-controlled areas were marked with the Arabic letter Nun to brand them as Nazarenes: people who followed that man from Nazareth who they called the son of God. Immediately Christians began to flee from Iraq into Jordan, Lebanon, autonomous Kurdistan, and even to Syria. To this day they live as refugees, and are simply known as Internally Displaced People, living in basic camps in intense poverty, having lost everything they own.
With the recent Western-backed onslaught in Mosul, many hope the Christians will soon be able to return to their original homes. But I have never met one who is prepared to do so. Their families have been massacred, their loved ones destroyed, and their homes and churches taken over by the terrorists. And even the defeat of Isil may not make things safe for them.
Things here are still and increasingly volatile, fragile and fragmented. We are likely to witness increased division and sectarianism throughout the region, and perhaps major political upheaval. In the words of Archbishop William Temple, “when religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong”, and in such a climate division will sow new divisions. Nor do I have much hope for help from most Middle Eastern leaders. Their countries are in total chaos, and only Israel and the benevolent dictatorship of Jordan can really offer safe haven.
The West can help, and particularly the US, but it must take the situation seriously and rise to the challenge. On the day Donald Trump was elected president there was great dancing and partying on the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. Yet there are still thousands of refugees who are seeking asylum. America cannot just sit back and expect Canada and Australia to keep their doors open.
Meanwhile, my work has moved from Iraq to Jordan. I have a school of several hundred Iraqi refugee children, alongside a clinic and a major relief programme. Many of the same people I ministered to in Iraq are now here with me. And in the midst of this complex tragedy I have found it important to tell the story of Easter.
To make the story real I gave our children an olive wood cross made by a friend, a carpenter in Bethlehem called Joseph. One little boy called Yuseph started to cry when I gave him his cross. I asked him what was wrong and he said that he wanted a cross for his daddy but Daesh – Isil – had killed him. I gave him another cross and told him that this cross was for his daddy; that he should put it on the altar and one day Jesus would be coming back and his daddy would get his cross. It was a very simplified explanation of the meaning of Easter.
Not so long after this day, I was leaving Jordan to return briefly to England and visit the US. As I always do, I asked the children what they wanted me to say to all the people I met. The story was the same as normal. “Tell them that Jesus loves them and thank them for giving us a school.” Then Yuseph stood up and gave me his cross and said “Abouna” – Father – “will you give the people you see my cross and tell them that we love them?” I gave him back his cross, but promised him that wherever I went I would give away one of the crosses and tell people why I did. This I have done: all over the world, I give out the cross, and all over the world part of the Easter story becomes real. “He who had nothing gave everything so that we might live.”
So here I am, living and working with my Christians in the Middle East. We are an Easter people, but we are living in a Good Friday world. Still, though nearly all have had loved ones killed, persecuted and tortured, yet they are not without hope. And their hope is based, in the words of the great hymn: “on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness”.
The phrase so common to us around the world at Easter is “Hallelujah! Christ is risen.” But among Middle Eastern Christians that phrase is not just reserved for Easter. It is regular and dynamic, and the response in Arabic is loud and dramatic: “Kam, Kam, Kam” – Arisen, Arisen, Arisen.
This is the cry that their Jesus is not dead but alive. They are saying that, though the world may think they are finished, and they may be full of fear about their future, they have true hope. For us the Easter message of resurrection and glory is summed up in one sentence that we say at school every day: “The Lord is here, and His Spirit is with us.”
Canon Andrew White was the vicar of St George’s Church, the only Anglican church in Iraq