The collapse of government in Syria and the insurgency in Iraq have allowed Islamic State (IS) to extend its so-called caliphate from Syria to Iraq. IS militants have given Christians the ultimatum: convert, submit, or die. Thousands have been stripped of their belongings and forced from their homes to trek through the desert to Kurdistan.
Religious conservatism and intolerance is spreading to areas beyond IS control. In Basra Christian women have been threatened in the workplace and forced to wear headscarves. Many have been driven out. Lena said: "People were threatening us. My daughter received a letter with a bullet in it." Another daughter, Dahlia, added: "The extremists said we had to leave or we will shoot you. We were very scared." Lena said: "We had no choice. We left." They, too, headed for Kurdistan.
Much the same has been happening in Baghdad. Many of the remaining Christian women have been forced to wear headscarves and up to two thirds of the homes belonging to Christians have been taken. Reports persist of low-level persecution against Christians under the government and its Shia-dominated army.
Another threat to Christians is lawlessness. Kidnapping is now commonplace. "The future looks bleak for Christians in Iraq,'" says Paul Robinson of Release, "as the Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict spreads across the Middle East. Christians are caught in the crossfire."
Shia areas of Baghdad are frequently targeted by IS suicide bombers, who killed more than 280 in a single attack recently. And Sunni Kurdistan is constantly on alert against infiltration from Shia Iran on its border.
Baghdad once had a thriving Christian community. Now most have left. The'ar and his family fled Baghdad after extremists bombed their church, killing 58, including two members of their family. They headed north to the Christian village of Qaraqosh in the hope of finding safety. But they had to flee again when it was captured by Islamic State. "There is no hope," The'ar told Release. "Since the invasion in 2003, we have all this bombing and fighting. We have no future. Our prayer is to leave this country, just to be human and to raise our kids with dignity."
Despite the turmoil, there are some rays of light. One is the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, which has declared itself a safe haven for Christian refugees. It is one of the few areas of the Middle East where churches for Muslim-background believers are flourishing.
In other areas dominated by extremists, Muslim converts are killed as heretics. However, some Christians in Kurdistan complain that their lands and houses are being seized, and Kurds, who are Sunni, fear being caught up in a sectarian conflict with neighbouring Iran, which is Shia. "Kurdistan is a place of relative safety for Christians - please pray for them," says Paul Robinson of Release. "Another encouraging sign is that Muslims, sickened by the violence being carried out in the name of religion, are coming to faith in Christ across the Middle East."
So please, pray that the Christian faith both survives and thrives in this region. Pray also that Christian refugees are afforded the same aid and treatment as others!
Who we are.
We are ones who want to see God move in the Near East and are praying for the people and cities in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.