Last month on June 25 I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on “The Future of Religious Pluralism in the Middle East” at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The panel also included David Saperstein, the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and Andrew Doran, the Senior Advisor to the group In Defense of Christians. Our moderator was Thomas Gjelten, Religion and Belief Correspondent for National Public Radio.
In our pre-event planning we had quickly decided that “the Middle East” was too broad a topic for an hour long discussion, so our focus was on Iraq and Syria, and the threat to religious minorities of ISIS and other jihadist groups. My topic was “The Historic Presence of Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, now undergoing destruction by the Islamic State.” Andrew reported on the situation of Christians and other minorities today both in-country and as refugees. And Ambassador Saperstein talked about the Obama Administration’s response.
You can watch the entire discussion on the Council on Foreign Relation’s video, but here is more of the information about the Biblical heritage of Iraq than I had time to speak about at the event:
Talk about tying together ancient Biblical history and current events!
- Last January, retired U.S. Representative Frank Wolf and a team from his new venture, the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, were in Iraq during the Fast of Nineveh. This is a three-day fast to commemorate the repentance of the city of Nineveh when Jonah came and preached to them. Nineveh was such a big city that it took three days for Jonah to go through the whole city and preach to the inhabitants. They all fasted and repented, from the King on down. Til today, Iraqi Christians celebrate the conversion of Nineveh. And
- In the same trip, Mr. Wolf and his team met the Iraqi Christian whose house in Mosul was the first to be targeted by ISIS, marked with the nun symbol, ن . The ن is the 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet and the first letter of the word Nasara which, according to Rorate Caeli is what “Muslims have called Christians since the beginning of their invasion of the Christian world in the 7th century.” (BTW: you can read the 21Wilberforce report here.)
Mosul is the modern name for Nineveh.
Other Biblical connections (many, courtesy of Congressman Wolf’s talks on this subject):
- Abraham came from Ur (southern Iraq)
- Isaac’s bride, Rebekah, came from northwest Iraq
- Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (Israel), spent 20 years in northwest Iraq (working for his father-in-law, Laban, in order to marry Rachel), and his sons, the 12 tribes of Israel, were all born in northwest Iraq
- Daniel was brought as a captive to Babylon, as were Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego.
- The tombs of Jonah, and of the prophets Nahum, Daniel, and Ezekiel are all in Iraq. (Of course, the tomb of Jonah is no more…blown up by ISIS. Possibly that of Daniel, as well.)
- The Babylonian (Iraq) captivity of the Jews:
- Some scholars believe that the Pentateuch was put into canonical form during the Babylonian exile
- This may have been where “synagogues” originated, with Jews in exile.
- The Apostle Thomas, who also went on to bring the message of Jesus the Lord to India, is believed to be the first conveyor of Christianity to Iraq, but another interesting fact, shared with me by my co-panelist, Andrew Doran, made me believe that there may already have been some believers in Iraq when Thomas got there:
- From Diarmuid MacCullough’s History of Christianity we learn that “The rulers of one small kingdom to the east of the River Tigris, Adiabene (in the region of the modern Iraqi city of Arbil) [more frequently “Erbil”] were actually converted to Judaism by Jewish merchants in the first century. . . “
- Acts 2 tells us that “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” were staying in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost when the followers of Jesus were gathered together, as Christ had told them to do, waiting for the gift His Father promised, to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Upon the descent of the Holy Spirit, “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontusand Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” all heard the Galilean fishermen “declaring the wonders of God” in their own languages. Then Peter preached, and 3000 “were added to their number.”
- It would seem likely that the Jews from Mesopotamia (Iraq) — either the original Jewish merchants, or those who were converted to Judaism — were among that number.
After this incredible beginning of Christianity in Iraq, it was not long before the Church began to suffer persecution. Says Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, “Christianity in Iraq is going through one of its worst and hardest stages of its long history, which dates back to the first century. Throughout all these long centuries, we have experienced many hardships and persecutions, offering caravans of martyrs. Yet 2014 brought the worst acts of genocide against us in our history. We now face the extinction of Christianity as a religion and as a culture from Mesopotamia.”
This is not the only Christian culture that is in danger of extinction. Also disappearing is the Syrian Church. In a future post I will discuss the plight under ISIS of Syria, the land where Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle on a street called “Strait” in Damascus.