How I Became a Persecuted Church Activist
Last June, my wife and I went to Northville, Michigan for the annual General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, in which I serve as a pastor. Little did we know that we were also going to keep a divine appointment that would change our lives.
I have a long-standing interest in the persecuted church. I was leading the churches I served in praying for persecuted Christians long before the start of the International Day of the Persecuted Church. I had written about persecution, preached about persecution, followed the news about persecution. Nevertheless, I was completely unprepared for what awaited me in Northville.
On Thursday of that week, the General Assembly was privileged to hear from Juliana Taimoorazy, the founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council.* She told her personal story of fleeing a religiously repressive Iran as a teenager, making her way to Switzerland, and then to the United States. She spoke movingly of her people, the Assyrian Christians; of their history of persecution under Persians, Arabs, and Turks; and of its intensification under ISIS. In heart-breaking fashion, she talked about the destructions of cities, towns, and villages, of homes and churches, schools and hospitals. She related the horrifying details of the murder of Christians, the selling of women and children into sexual slavery, the emptying of population centers, and the reality of ongoing genocide. It was overwhelming, and it was convicting.
I’m sure that different parts of her presentation reached different people in different ways. For me, the most powerful moment came not in in the form of facts and figures, but of a short film, of which Juliana was the Executive Producer. It’s entitled Sing a Little Louder, and was inspired by a true story of an elderly man who in his youth witnessed the horror of the Holocaust from the pews of his church:
I became a Christian in college, but I grew up Jewish in northern New Jersey. Born a mere 13 years after the end of World War II, I was raised hearing stories of the Holocaust and of the historic persecution of my people in Europe. A first cousin (twice removed) who was a rabbi in Frieburg, Germany in 1938 saw his synagogue burned to the ground on Kristallnacht, and spent time in the Dachau concentration camp. I grew up with the phrases “never again!” and “never forget!” ringing in my ears.
And yet, here it was happening again.
As I watched Sing a Little Louder, my past and my present fused together. I realized that both peoples–the Jews of the cattle cars and the Assyrians of the ISIS charnel house–were my people. I could not do anything for my blood brothers and sisters who were the victims of the Holocaust, but I could help the victims of the latter-day genocide who were my brothers and sisters in Christ. So when the session ended, I went to Juliana with tears running down my face to ask how I could help.
One way I can and have been helping is by contributing to as well as speaking and writing about #OperationReturnToNineveh. With the success of the Iraqi military in driving ISIS out of many Christian towns in the Nineveh Plain, the displaced people of the region have an opportunity to begin the journey home to rebuild their lives. But that isn’t going to be easy. Thousands of homes have been destroyed. Families have been torn apart, deprived of their livelihoods, and reduced to living in squalid conditions wholly dependent upon the charity of others. Almost two dozen churches have been burned, desecrated, and used by ISIS for murderous purposes, depriving communities of a visible center for life and faith. Through #OperationReturnToNineveh, the ICRC seeks to provide those who have lost so much the opportunity and means to rebuild.
We will be working with local priests, government officials, businesspeople, teachers, and others to bring life and Christian faith back to the Nineveh Plain. Our first target is the ancient town of Tel Eskof (also known as Tesqopa or Telskuf), 19 miles north of Mosul. At least 1000 years old, it is a town of about 11,000 mostly Chaldean Catholic Assyrians. It is home to two churches, Mar Yacob’s (St. Jacob’s) Church, which was built during the 13th century and Mar Gewargis’s (St. George’s) Church, rebuilt in 1955. It has been essentially uninhabited save for Islamist soldiers since ISIS swept through in 2014.
Now, thanks to the rollback of ISIS, it is possible for hope to be returned to Tel Eskof. #OperationReturnToNineveh is part of that hope. I’m going to help with it in any way I can. Will you help, too?
*Disclaimer: I am a member of the Board of Directors of the ICRC. I receive no compensation for doing so, and in fact ICRC has only one employee. Over 90% of what ICRC collects goes to help Iraqi Christians.
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