When ISIS kidnapped and murdered 21 men in early 2015, all but one of them were Coptic Christians from Egypt. The 21st man was Mathew Ayairga, a citizen of Chad, who, upon seeing the faith of the Christian men as they faced death declared, “Their God is my God.” His choice to lay down his life in the name of Christ continues to inspire Middle Eastern Christians more than two years later as they suffer the effects of violence, oppression, and persecution in their region.
I recently had the privilege of hearing an address given by Ignatius Aphrem II, the 123rd Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The Patriarch escaped an assassination attempt last June by a suicide bomber who took the lives of three of his bodyguards. In spite of the challenges and threats he faces, the Patriarch continues his ministry on behalf of Christians in the Middle East.
In his address, the Patriarch suggested several ways that Christians in North America can support Christians in Syria and Iraq.
- Work with local churches. The Patriarch encouraged North American Christians to support the work of International Christian Outreach, the relief and development arm of Eastern Orthodox churches that is serving refugees and displaced persons in Iraq and Syria. More than 70% of the people that they help are not Christians. They see this development and relief work as an investment in their future, knowing that their well-being is inextricably bound to the well-being of their neighbors, both Muslims and Christians. “Let us make decisions about what we need as Christians,” said the Patriarch, “and empower us to do so.”
- Come to learn. The leaders of the Church in the Middle East have realized that the most effective way for them to elicit the support from North Americans—in the form of prayers, financial contributions, and advocacy—is by hosting them in the Middle East. Once North Americans get to know their faces, hear their stories, and walk through their streets, everything changes. Father Aren Jebejian, a representative from the Armenian Apostolic Church, shared with us that, upon his most recent visit to the Middle East, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem told him, “Don’t send us money. Vote with your bodies, your presence. Come see us.”
- Advocate on our behalves. “We need American advocacy on our behalf if we are going to stay here,” said the Patriarch. Every few months the Presbyterian Church (USA) brings pastors to visit them. They see these visits as critical to gaining their support in advocating for change. The Patriarch shared with us that Christians in the Middle East are suffering the consequences of Western intervention in the region, making advocacy by North Americans highly important. He also would like to see advocacy for removing sanctions against Syria.
Since March 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that from Syria alone there have been:
- 4.8 million refugees to other nations
- 6.6 million internally displaced persons
- 1 million persons requesting asylum in Europe
But in the midst of such chaos, Christians refuse to be defined by the single story that their region can be characterized by violence. They have hope.
Sister Maria Hanna serves in Iraq, working to sustain faith in the midst of crisis. Sister Hanna and the Dominican Sisters that she works alongside have established an orphanage and a Kindergarten to serve refugees. When asked whether she would serve Muslims, Sister Hanna replied, “We do not serve because they are Christians. We serve because we are Christians.”