In her new book “They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East,” Mindy Belz shares the stories of Iraqi Christians she met while covering the Middle East for WORLD magazine. Belz, senior editor for WORLD, talked with byFaith about the lengths to which Christians in Iraq will go to keep what is most precious to them.
“You don’t go into the most religious part of the world and take religion out. ISIS makes that clear.”
What do Western Christians need to understand about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq?
There has been so much coverage of this issue. Seeing what’s happening now as we see them forced into boats and crossing the ocean, trying to find safety — I feel like their plight should be well-known and well-understood to us by now. And yet it’s not.
My hope is simply telling the stories of specific, real people. I think it’s notable that I contacted all the Iraqis I wanted to write about in the book, and every one of them wanted me to use their real name. None of them are afraid of having their story told, even though many of them are right in the middle of what is continuing to go on. They have a fearlessness that is admirable and something we can learn from.
In this age of technology, it’s possible to connect with Iraqi churches, to find ways to help them, and to support this incredible population. There is a huge need for humanitarian aid, and it is a tremendous opportunity for the Western church to connect with this Eastern church that has always been so strange and exotic to us. I would love to see more churches taking this on as an issue they would pray about, and possibly connect directly with churches to help.
While many Westerners first heard about this systematic persecution of Christians in 2014 when ISIS came on the scene, you say it has been going on a decade or more. How did we miss it?
The prevailing worldview among our political leadership was to approach Iraq from a nonsectarian view. In other words, religion was the problem. If we took religion out of the equation we would see emerging this “new Iraq” that everyone was talking about. But you don’t go into the most religious part of the world and take religion out. ISIS makes that clear. We simply were not paying attention. We weren’t paying attention to the Christians; we weren’t paying attention to other religious and ethnic groups such as the Jews, Yazidis, Kurds, and Turkmens.
They gave up everything so that they could hold on to the one thing they weren’t willing to give up. And the one thing was their faith.
If you think about our country, it was founded in part by dispossessed victims of religious persecution. It is in our country’s DNA to look for and craft solutions that will protect those kinds of people. We not only didn’t do that, we avoided doing that in Iraq. It never was seen from a political standpoint as right or proper to side with the Christians. I think if we had been listening to them we would have had a lot of intelligence, a deeper understanding about the region they are so integral a part of, and that would have helped us.
When Western Christians read your book and want to help in tangible ways (in addition to their prayers), what do you suggest as a good next step?
Prayer is effective — that’s not a do-nothing answer. One thing that we’ve done at WORLD is we’ve created a page on our website called “Aid for Iraqis”. It lists 15 groups that are all Christian-based groups — we know the people who are behind them. They are all groups that are doing good, active work in Iraq, especially in medicine, housing and education which are huge issues.
By looking at this list and investigating the groups on it — we see that medical, housing, and education issues are huge. Some groups are building; some are just supporting the churches that still exist. In the north there are existing churches that are trying to serve the tens of thousands of people who were displaced in 2014 and have nowhere to go. The international community and the government have not found any kind of solution.
ISIS is still sitting there in the middle of the country. I think there are any number of ways to help.
I went to the opening of a school sponsored by a group based in Nashville (servantgroup.org). They have set up this school to serve Yazidis but are now also serving Arab children forced out of Mosul. The school quickly grew from a couple hundred students to 2,000. The day they held their opening ceremony they planned to give each child a backpack. When I talked with some of the parents who were there for the ceremony, several said, “My child was so excited about getting a backpack that they couldn’t sleep all night.”
How has this book changed you?
I am a pretty typical American, and I went into this situation as your basic war reporter with the idea that Americans had arrived; Americans were there to help. As I began to learn about the community, I began to think, “How can we help the Christians?” Over the course of time of following the same Christians around Iraq and seeing them forced out of one home and then forced out of another home — catching up with them and trying to figure out where they were — what I realized is they have so much to teach me.
So often we hear the term “persecuted church,” and we think, “Oh, I pity them.” But they really don’t need our pity. They need us to come alongside them, and then they have so much to teach us. So the bottom line for me is realizing that we need them, and they need us. There is a place for mutual cooperation and understanding and coming alongside in all the ways we have talked about.
It has been really hard for people to understand why these Christians just picked up their belongings and left. The ultimate lesson — and it became clear to me as I got to the end of writing the book — is that they gave up everything so that they could hold on to the one thing they weren’t willing to give up. And the one thing was their faith. They were directly challenged — I heard this in interviews over and over again. ISIS came into their homes, came into their street, herded them, shouted at them, “You must convert to Islam.” And they had to answer that question at some point. And it became a matter of flee, be killed, or stay under some kind of horrible accommodation that has not worked out for anyone. The one thing they would not give up was their faith.