Images of desperate refugees making perilous journeys and arriving in Europe have been playing across our screens for months now, along with debates on how best to help them. But many of the poorest and most desperate will never be able to leave their countries.
This is certainly the case for many of Iraq’s Christians, according to Dr Michael Bassous, who oversees Bible Society work in Lebanon and Iraq.
“The typical Iraqi Christian has, over the last 30 years, been displaced four or five times,” he says. “Many of them will never be able to leave Iraq, for financial reasons, or because they don’t have connections outside Iraq, so they have to remain there.”
Arrival of ISIS
The Christian community in Iraq has been living under increasing pressure since 2003, but the arrival of ISIS last year made their situation far worse. Tens of thousands of Christians were forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on their backs to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they have been sheltering for months.
At first the Bible Society and its partners concentrated on meeting people’s immediate needs, providing them with food, mattresses, blankets and other material aid, and giving out Scriptures to all who needed them. But it is now also starting to offer Bible-based trauma healing.
“We are dealing with serious psychological needs because every single Iraqi Christian family has a story – a sad one,” notes Dr Bassous. “We met a very tired-looking father who had been abducted by ISIS for three months and had just been reunited with his family. He wasn’t tortured but he told us that he could hear other people being tortured.
‘In my heart I’m Christian’
“He ended up signing a paper saying that he had become a Muslim. Now, how do you deal with that? He said, ‘In my heart I’m Christian.’ Some people would say he did the wrong thing but we’re not here to judge – we are here to help him and his family overcome this trauma, including the decision that he made in order to see his family again. And that’s just one encounter with a single family. Just imagine how many other stories there are.
“I’ve lived and worked in the Middle East all my life. Jesus prophesied that we would have a very difficult life, especially in the region. He also prophesied that we would be a minority – he said we’d be ‘salt and light’. So we have to recognise that this is our destiny, our purpose as Christians living in the Middle East.
“Our hope is that we will get enough of a breathing space to allow these Christian refugee families to rediscover their purpose. What they need is the psychological-spiritual support for them to go back and realise, what was the purpose of you being born as a Christian in Iraq?
“They have the choice and we have the task to help them in that choice: Do you remain there and be hopeless? Or do you remain there, have your wounds healed, have hope and become witnesses of Christ again, wherever you are?
“Let’s pray for the Iraqi Christian families. They have the potential to be reaching out to the other refugee families because they’ve shared the same story. And because they’re people of hope they are able to help the majority of other refugees who do not have the same source of hope. So let’s pray that they will rediscover that hope and they will continue to be witnesses for Christ in those very difficult circumstances.”
Watch Dr Bassous talking about the situation of Iraq’s Christian refugees.