Imagine that you’re at church with your family somewhere in Alabama. Maybe you’re singing along with the choir at Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, or listening to a sermon at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, or maybe you’re kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer at Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Huntsville. Wherever you are, you’re in God’s house.
Now imagine that you hear a loud explosion outside, then gunfire. Your ears are ringing, and your nose is filled with the smell of fire and gasoline. You grab your children and hold them close. Their eyes are wide with fear, and they’re asking what’s happening. You tell them “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay,” but you aren’t sure it is. You turn around just as the doors bursts open, and dozens of black-clad men march down the aisle, shooting into the air screaming for everyone to get on their knees. They block the exits and point their rifles into the pews. The man in front of you screams and collapses to the floor.
They behead your pastor, without a word of warning. You look to your children; your little girl has started to cry, and your boy is stunned with terror. You cover his eyes. It all happened in about 45-seconds. You look up, shaking with rage, but mostly with fear, and see the leader turn to the congregation and calmly ask, “Who here is Christian?”
What do you say?
Hard to imagine, isn’t it? We live in the very definition of peace. The only obstacle to Sunday worship is the snooze button, or a football game, or whatever other excuse we come up with. Our cities are safe, our shelves are stocked and our lives are relatively easy. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Christians are being brutalized, raped and murdered for their faith at this very moment in Iraq and Syria.
We read the newspaper articles detailing the atrocities. We watch television reports, too. Some of us have researched the attacks on the Internet, and will forever be haunted by the images we’ve seen. I’ve never compared anything to the unique brutality of the Nazis, but this comes close. Our hearts break, then we shake our heads and say, “Something must be done.”
But what’s to be done? Honestly, what can be done? A thousand years ago when the first waves of jihadists started beheading Christians, the popes issued calls and kings raised armies for the Crusades. Our world leaders are busy trying to formulate a strategy to destroy the Islamic State, or whatever they call themselves. I pray it’ll work, but for some it’ll clearly be too late.
All this touches me in a direct way. I shared many meals and conversations with the Christians who I met in Iraq a decade ago. They were kind, and shared their history and traditions with me as a fellow believer. I came to know and respect their ancient communities. They are tough people who survived some of the harshest periods in history, but I worry that they won’t survive this. I remember driving through areas north of Baghdad and seeing crosses raised high on church steeples, a striking sight silhouetted against the setting desert sun. Not one cross, but many. I wonder if they are there anymore.
With times like these, we may wonder if Christianity can survive in the Middle East. Despite my deep worries, I still believe it can. I’ve seen it. When I lived in the United Arab Emirates, I attended mass at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in the capital city of Abu Dhabi. It was a beautiful church with tens of thousands of parishioners. Arabs that I worked with didn’t mind. They kept their nation’s unique Islamic identity intact, and dominant, but were happy that I had a nice place to worship. I pray their brand of tolerance eventually spreads.
Meanwhile, I’m reminded that the most important thing we can all do – and must do – is pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria. Ask your pastor where you should donate money for relief efforts, as well. Start praying and giving today, and don’t stop until peace returns to that besieged community.