The expulsion of Christians from the cradle of Christianity in today’s Middle East, particularly in Iraq, has taken the western world by surprise.
Yet something amazingly similar happened long ago – in 587 BCE, to be exact – as recorded in the Biblical books of Kings, Chronicles and Jeremiah.
At first the story was only about the Jews. But now it has come to include the plight of modern Iraqi Christians.
Living at the Edge of Eradication
On Feb. 11, former United States Congressman Frank Wolf released a report following a fact-finding trip he had just completed. He ominously titled the report “Edge of Extinction: the Eradication of Religious and Ethnic Minorities in Iraq.”
For decades, Wolf was the U.S. House of Representatives’ foremost advocate for global religious freedom.
After retiring in 2014, he is still relentlessly pursuing his cause by co-founding 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a religious freedom group. And, with characteristic courage, his first stop in his new role was at the doorstep of the Islamic State, where he heard for himself about the shattered lives of the “caliphate’s” surviving refugees.
His report begins with a powerful warning:
Religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq are living at the edge of extinction. They are marginalized and under threat from the genocidal actions of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq resulting in the purging of religious and ethnic minorities from their historic homes.
Loss of an important religious and ethnic minority has occurred in Iraq before. In 1948, the Jewish community numbered 150,000. Today, there are less than 10 known elderly Jews living in Iraq. An oft-repeated refrain remains grimly germane: ‘First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People.’
In the last decade, the Christian community has plummeted from approximately 1.5 million to 300,000.
The Babylonian Exile
As the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun.
In the 6th Century BCE, according to biblical, Babylonian and Egyptian sources, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon “exiled all of Jerusalem: all the commanders and all the warriors – 10,000 exiles – as well as all the craftsmen and smiths; only the poorest people in the land were left.” (2 Kings 24).
A stunning new exhibition at Jerusalem’s Biblelands Museum, titled “By the Rivers of Babylon,” opened Feb. 1, displaying for the first time the Al-Yahudu Tablets, a collection of cuneiform records and other artifacts documenting in detail the story those Jewish exiles. The exhibition’s title recalls a beloved Psalm:
By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it We hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, And our tormentors mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How can we sing the Lord’s song In a foreign land? (Ps. 137)
During a media tour, the Biblelands exhibition’s curator, Filip Vukosavovie, explained that after a time of mourning, those captives gradually wiped away their tears and established a comfortable and even prosperous community. They bought, sold, married and bore children, and, according the records, continued to live as Jews, despite being in a “foreign land.”
After the exile ended, as recorded by Ezra and Nehemiah, a throng of priests, Levites and others made their way back to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
But many other Jews decided to not leave Babylon. They remained behind and continued to prosper. Ultimately, demonstrating profound devotion and diligence, their religious scholars penned one of the most important texts in Judaism – the Babylonian Talmud.
First the Saturday People...
At this point in the story, Vukosavovie pointed out that the last of the exiled Jews left Iraq in the mid-20th century, 2,500 years after their expulsion.
In fact, until the early 1950s, Jews had little desire to leave what was, by then, Iraq. They saw their communities, situated “by the rivers of Babylon,” as their own ancient homelands. Wealthy and well-connected, many were active participants in culture, commerce and creative endeavors.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before they were Jewish exiles once again, driven out by vengeful Muslims who had once been their neighbors and friends. Most fled with little more than a small suitcase and the clothes on their backs.
As Wolf pointed out, fewer than 10 Jews remain in Iraq today.
I have interviewed a number of those Iraqi-Israelis in Jerusalem. One elderly gentleman was particularly worried about Christian friends in Baghdad with whom he had lost contact. He shook his head and with a shrug explained, “We tried to warn our Christian neighbors that they would be next. First us Jews, and then it would be their turn. But they didn’t read the writing on the wall.”
...Then the Sunday People
Like the Jews before them, Christians have a long history in Iraq. Their church was established in the first century CE. According to church tradition, two of Jesus’s 12 disciples – St. Thomas and St. Thaddeus (also known as St. Jude) – brought the Christian gospel to what was then Assyria.
Of course, there were periods of grave danger after that early church took root. But today, perhaps for the first time, Iraq’s Christian community faces extinction. Of the 150,000 believers who fled in 2014, most are living in camps and other temporary dwellings in Kurdistan. Mercifully, Kurdish Muslims are far more tolerant than the radical Sunnis who comprise ISIS.
In October, with a colleague from Hudson Institute, I was able to visit those refugees. We heard for ourselves how they had fled their neighborhoods with only minutes to prepare. How they’d hurriedly packed their cars and headed north from the Nineveh Plain, where they prayed they’d find shelter.
Unfortunately, their efforts to salvage their belongings were futile. ISIS had set up checkpoints on the northbound roads. Terrorists blocked the cars at gunpoint, ordered everyone out, seized passports and other personal identification, and confiscated money, vehicles, medication, clothes, bedding, baby formula – everything.
They then sent tens of thousands of Christians away on foot – young, old, sick and disabled, toddlers and nursing mothers – into the scorching summer heat with no food or water.
And now? The tragedies my colleague and I saw and heard in Kurdistan are echoed in Frank Wolf’s report.
The Wilberforce delegation travelled within 1.5 miles of the Islamic State frontline … interviewed dozens of displaced Christians and Yezidis. The delegation found that six months after fleeing the Islamic State’s murderous march through their lands, Iraq’s displaced religious minorities feel abandoned and they implore the international community to help.
A Future and a Hope
The “By the Rivers of Babylon” exhibition in Jerusalem reminds us that history continues to repeat itself – with eerily similar brutality – in the Middle East.
It also affirms biblical authenticity. The predictions of ancient prophets are being fulfilled before our very eyes.
Today, many of the exiled Iraqi Jews have returned to Israel – a re-gathering in their original homeland that was prophesied thousands of years ago.
No such opportunity exists for the Middle East’s homeless Christians. There is no Israel for Christians.
Yet in today’s troubled world, the histories of Jews and Christians have become intertwined in ways that would have been unimaginable in centuries past.
Radical Islam – both Sunni (al Qaeda and ISIS) and Shia (Iran) – poses deadly threats to us all, fueled by ferocious hatred. We are awakening to a new reality: we are both at risk, Christians and Jews alike.
Every day seems to bring a new atrocity as Jews are slaughtered in Europe and Israelis are stalked throughout the world by radical Muslims. Meanwhile Christians in the Middle East and beyond are subjected to unimaginable brutality including crucifixion, beheading and sexual slavery.
Apart from prayer and passing on information, there’s little we can do. Thankfully, most of us still believe in divine intervention.
The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah made dire predictions about the Babylonian Exile. He warned of the coming invasion and the enormous suffering it would bring. In the process, he experienced his own persecution.
But Jeremiah also offered hope for the future to those who would seek the Lord:
‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’”(Jer 29: 14).
Today, the old prophet’s insights have vibrantly come alive in the land of Israel where Jews from every nation continue to return and resettle.
Jeremiah’s words cannot help but offer hope to Christians, too, whatever our circumstances. Although this present darkness may grow even darker, and although at times optimism seems almost delusional,
‘I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.
“You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.”
(Jer. 29: 1-13)