We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10, NIV).
Hank Hanegraaff: As prologue to an interview with Mindy Belz, let me say this: While Christians are being marginalized in the West, they are being martyred in the East. In Iraq a vast majority of Christians have been either executed or exiled. In Mosul, this is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, almost every Christian in the city fled after the Islamic State offered exile or death. Churches across Iraq now stand empty. We can say the same thing about Syria. Islamic State has almost wiped out Christians in that country altogether. Added to the persecution problem is a very real propaganda problem. Over and over and in a myriad of ways the West is being seduced into believing that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, on the other side of the coin, Christianity is a Crusader religion, and as such the epitome of intolerance. In the midst of the propaganda and the persecution often in the blind spot of the West you need this resource: They Say We are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East
Well, Mindy Belz, you are an incredible human being and you just returned from your travels to places like Iraq and Syria—places that have recently been liberated from the Islamic State. You have seen firsthand the destruction and the challenges for Christians who would deeply love to return to their homes and churches. Tell us a little about that.
Mindy Belz: I get a lot of encouragement from being with the Christians in the Middle East and particularly the Christians who are now displaced as refuges in Iraq. But I have to tell you that this most recent trip I just returned from was incredibly discouraging to me, walking through the cities and towns that have been liberated in Nineveh Provence, which is all the surrounding area outside of Mosul and actually walking through Mosul itself. Seeing the destruction of churches. Seeing the way everything connected with Christianity has been desecrated and the way that lives past, present and future were attacked by ISIS. It is monumental and it continues to be really amazing to me that in the West we are not calling this what it is, were not calling it genocide, were not calling it war crimes, when every time I go there I am confronted with the evidence of war crimes.
Hank: So many people in the West think that we could have established a democracy very easily in Iraq, we failed to do that, but what you experienced, and you have traveled throughout the Middle East, is the very reality that in the Middle East Sharia is state and state is Sharia; therefore, it is very, very difficult to establish a genuine democracy that would keep safe Christians without them having them to pay a gangster protection tax—the jizya. .
Mindy: That is right. I think definitely Christians have been caught in what sometimes is referred to is a war within Islam, there is a lot of debate of what that actually constitutes. I think it is really clear that radical Islam—fundamentalist Islam, whatever you want to call it, Jihadi Islam—is on the rise. I trust the Islamic experts who say that if you trace the origins of violence of Islam back to the original text, they are there for everyone to see. What we are seeing now among Muslim majority countries is this return to a sort of Islam as it originally was, which as we know is a conquering beast that spread out across three continents within less than the first 100 years of the coming of Muhammad. We are seeing violent Islam as we have not seen it—not in my lifetime until recent decades. We are seeing that the victims of it are people that we Christians in the West would consider to be brothers and sisters in Christ.
Muslims are victims too. I meet plenty of people who without wanting to participate in terrorism and without wanting to see their families be victims of this kind of Islam, you know have been caught in the midst of it, they too are homeless. They too sometimes have children—I was in a hospital where a 10-month-old child had lost both of her arms due to an ISIS explosion—these are everyday realities and they do affect Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmens every group there.
The reality that we keep coming back to is that ISIS is really targeting all of these groups and most especially non-Muslims to adhere to and come into conforming to its brand of Islam. It is its stated goal not to stop this kind of fighting, this kind of war, until that happens. We have this tremendous battle that we militarily, culturally, ideologically, and evangelistically, and I fear that we just do not see it quite that way in the West as people in the Middle East are confronted with.
Hank: I spoke in Iran at the University of Tehran and Allameh Tabataba’i University. I walked the streets in the middle of the night, and I was met with one random act of kindness after another. You can say, on the one hand, that Islam has many people, who are adherents, who are genuinely peaceful and tolerant. I have met many of them personally. On the other hand, if I would have taken my Bible out and sat in a public square reading the Bible, or if I have been speaking publicly about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, you would immediately see the lack of tolerance. I think as someone that knows this better than probably most on the planet, Mindy, you can give us a little insight on that distinction. On the one hand, there are peaceful and tolerant Muslims, on the other hand, Islam is anything but peaceful and tolerant.
Mindy: I think what we see is the fear of ISIS and the fear of radical militant groups. Groups that are blowing up children. ISIS is now using drones armed with grenades in Mosul. That is kind of a new thing that has been happening in the last couple of weeks. Those are falling on marketplaces and soldiers and all kinds of places. There is a kind of evil here is really hard even as I have looked at it up close. It is really had to fathom. The fear it instills makes a lot of people want to conform to the brand of Islam, if you will, that they are teaching, and that is having an effect all across the region. You encounter the kind of things you are talking about, where there is freedom but only to a point.
I see churches continuing to operate, continuing to hold worship services, and continuing to gather on regular basis. They are doing it against incredible odds. They are incredibly brave believers. If you have decided to stay, I feel like anybody who is still worshipping Christ openly in this part of the world is doing it having counted the cost and having chosen to in spite of that cost. They have a lot to teach us about the depth of their faith and the depth of their commitment in the faith of the kind of peril that you are describing.
You know I think that it’s a great moment. We too sometimes succumb to a sort of fear of ISIS and we forget that we have a God who is bigger and a Gospel that is better that what the Jihadists are holding out. I met a refuge in Europe this past summer from Iraq who told me that after making this incredible trek, an illegal trek that we have heard a lot about, and arriving in western Europe. The first thing he said when he met someone was “Can you find me a church?” This person looked at him because he is clearly an Iraqi Muslim man and said, “Why are you looking for a church?” He said, “Because Islam has brought me nothing but trouble.” In the midst of all of this trouble there is a great moment where many Muslims are asking questions and are looking for this better Gospel, and this loving God that we have. It is a real challenge to continue to hold that out in the midst of the dangers and the fear. That is what keeps me going back is that I keep seeing the Iraqi Christians and other believers in the Middle East doing just that.
Hank: I find it quite ironic in that while the faith is being deconstructed in the West, often times Western Christians regard Christians in the Middle East as suspect because they are involved in what they think are dead churches that are just repeating liturgies that are without any life whatsoever, but you found the opposite to be true. You found that through the liturgies people have stayed with a fantastic fidelity to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I was very struck by reading that in your book.
Mindy: That is sort of my story. In many ways, I am a cloistered Western Christian. I have lived on the Eastern seaboard, and had a somewhat sheltered upbringing. My forbearers came here in the 17th century, and here we have been ever since.
In many ways, these Christians (in the Middle East) have been through tumultuous times not just in this century but in centuries previous. One of the things that has been eye opening to me was visiting the old churches. Keep in mind that there are young evangelical churches that continue to meet and worship in Iraq as well. One of the things that was really striking to me is that part of the isolation that these groups have felt, part of the effect of being shunned, if you will, by the Western Church, is that they have also been somewhat kept from a lot of the liberalizing influences that we have seen in the Western Church. They have continued to hold on Scripture in its original form. Many of the churches that I have been in are still worshiping in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, they are chanting their liturgy, and they are singing in that language. They feel very strongly about holding onto what came before them. That also means holding on in some ways to an unadulterated Gospel. That is not always the case. Obviously, there are going to be dead churches and people who have fallen away from the faith, and we see that here in the United States as well. But, it is striking how many have held onto what many of us would recognize as vibrant faith.
Mindy Belz is Senior Editor of World Magazine and author of They Say We are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
This blog was adapted from the February 23, 2017 Bible Answer Man broadcast.