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Persecuted Christians in Iraq are dying for Christ

Persecuted Christians in Iraq are dying for Christ
Modern-day martyrs witness to their faith in Jesus

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
Aug. 18, 2014

Christians in Iraq are dying for one reason and one reason only -- their belief in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

Their blood is currently being spilt in the desert sands of Iraq by ISIS, the violent militant Islamic arm of the emerging Islamic State (IS).

The blood of the martyrs has always watered the church. Many Anglican churches have red outer doors to emphasis that fact. The spilling of Iraqi Christian's blood will water the 21st Century Church and help bring her back to vibrancy of life.

Throughout history the persecuted Church has flourished. The bloody persecution of Christians that is playing out today in Iraq, played out for the first time in Jerusalem at the hands of Saul and was recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

The persecution of the Christian Church started immediately. The Deacon Stephen, Christianity's first martyr, spilled his blood at the hands of his persecutors, It was witnessed by a man from Tarsus -- Saul who, by his zealousness, was instrumental in the persecution of the early Church in Jerusalem.

"But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And Saul was consenting to his death." (Acts 7:57-59 & Acts 8:1)

Like ISIS, Saul was merciless in his persecution of the newly formed Christian movement.

"Now there broke out on that day a great persecution against the Church in Jerusalem, and all except the Apostles were scattered abroad throughout the land of Judea and Samaria. And devout men took care of Stephen's burial and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was harassing the church; entering house after house, and dragging out men and women, he committed them to prison." (Acts 8:1-3)

In his zeal, Saul mercilessly persecuted the newly founded followers of Jesus Christ who were being called Christians. Not because Saul of Tarsus was a Muslim -- Islam hadn't been established, yet -- rather, it was because he was a zealous Jew, a Pharisee born of the Benjamin tribe. He was named for King Saul, the first Israelite king who was also a member of the militaristic Tribe of Benjamin -- the descendants of Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob with Rachel.

"But Saul, still breathing threats of slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, that if he found any men or women belonging to this Way (a word used for Christianity at that time), he might bring them in bonds to Jerusalem." (Acts 9:1-2)

While on his way to Damascus, Saul heard these words: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" He was knocked to the ground as a light from heaven shone round about him while audible words came from on high. (Acts 9:4)

"Who are you ...?" Saul questioned. "I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting ..." came the reply. (Acts 9:5)

In persecuting Christians, Saul was persecuting Jesus. They (Christians) did not recant their faith. They did not reject Christ. They boldly proclaimed Him. And they were willing to die for their faith in Christ, the God-Man whose title they carried. As the Christians scattered, the Church spread the Good News of the Gospel that was being proclaimed near and far.

"Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word." (Acts 8:4)


Saul, too, heard the Gospel, directly from the lips of Jesus, and was renamed Paul the Apostle. However, he was ever mindful of his former persecution of the early Church.

He writes to the Corinthians: "For I am the least of the Apostles, and am not worthy to be called an Apostle because I persecuted the Church of God." (1 Cor. 15:9); he tells the Galatians: "For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the Church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. (Gal. 1:13-14); and he pens in a letter to Timothy: "For I formerly was a blasphemer, a persecutor and a bitter adversary; but I obtained the mercy of God because I acted ignorantly, in unbelief." (1Tim. 1:13); then as a part of his Jewish pedigree he admits to the Philippians "... circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee. As regards zeal, a persecutor of the Church ..." (Phil. 3:5-6).

But Saul-turned-Paul was not the only one to persecute the early church. Paul -- as well as St. Peter -- lost his life at the hands of Nero who persecuted the New Testament church. Following the Great Rome Fire in July 64 AD, Nero turned to extensively torturing and executing Christians because he felt they were "given to a new and mischievous superstition."

The second century Christian writer Tertullian was the first to describe Nero as the "first persecutor of Christians."

"Examine your records," he wrote. "There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine." A hundred years later, Lactantius also said that Nero "first persecuted the servants of God."

Around the same time, Sulpicius Severus reported that Nero was expelling the Christianized Jews from Rome.

During the third century, Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero. Tradition also holds that St. Peter was crucified upside down during Nero's time. By the fourth century, several writers were stating that both Peter and Paul died for the cause during Nero's emperorship.

Early church documents are replete with the sainted names of martyrs. All the Apostles -- save John the Divine who died of old age -- died for the faith, watering the early church with their blood. However, only John's brother James' death is recorded in the Bible.

"About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread." (Acts 12:1-3)

The early Roman Empire Christians suffered martyrdom at the hands of Nero (64-68); Domitian (89-96); Trajan (98-117); Hadrian (117-138); Marcus Aurelius (161-180); Septimus Severus (193-211); Ducian (249-251); Valerian (253-259); Diocletian & Maximian (284-305); and Galerius (605-311). Early Christians were beaten, beheaded, tortured, and torn apart by lions. They suffered racks, scourges, swords, daggers, crosses, poisons, and famine. They were tarred and boiled and set on fire.

Many Saints names sprinkle early church history including: Linus (76); Cletus (92); Clement (98); Ignatius (107); Polycarp (155); Justin (165); Perpetua & Felicity (203); Cyprian (249); Cornelius (253); Sixtus & Lawrence (258) Cosmas and Damian (287); and Chrysogonus (300).

Once the Edict of Milan was introduced under Constantine I in 313, Christianity was not only tolerated by promoted. It became safe to be a Christian in Rome. However, the same was not true in other parts of the world. The persecution of Christians continued as the Church spread. There has never been a time that Christians have not suffered and even died for their faith ... for believing in Jesus Christ.

Down through the centuries, Christians have been persecuted all over the globe. History records that Christians lost their lives during the Roman-Persian Wars that ended early in the seventh century. The first persecution of Christians at the hands of the Muslims began during the lifetime of Muhammad, as their lands were conquered and the early Arab-Islamic Caliphates were established.

Once the persecution of Christians by others lessened, Christians started persecuting themselves over theology, doctrine, and authority.

First there were the Inquisitions when the Catholic Church attempted to keep a dogmatic handle on things by suppressing heresy and apostasy. There were various Inquisitions -- Episcopal Inquisition (1184-1230s); Papal Inquisition (1230s); Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834); Inquisition in Malta (1561-1798); Portuguese Inquisition (1536-1821); and Roman Inquisition (1588-1870).

The Reformation stands out both in England and continental Europe. Heads literally rolled. The Oxford Martyrs -- Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, Bishop of London Nicholas Ridley, and King Edward VI's chaplain Bishop Hugh Latimer -- all lost their lives, along with many others, at the hands of Catholic Queen Mary I, who is infamously called Blood Mary for her ruthless ways in dealing with Protestants. The many Catholic martyrs include the Bishop of Rochester John Fisher, Sir Thomas More, and the Earl of Northumberland Thomas Percy who experienced the same fate as their Anglican brethren at the hands of Queen Mary's Protestant sister Queen Elizabeth I who was called Good Queen Bess.

The Reformation was marked by a river of blood that flowed on both sides of the Tiber and the Thames.

Reformation persecution not only occurred in England, it also spilled over to continental Europe where the European Wars of Religion broke out between Catholics and various Protestants -- Lutherans, Calvinists, Huguenots, Anabaptists, and Reformists. Some of the bloody skirmishes include the German Peasants' War (1524--1525); the First and Second Kappel Wars in Switzerland (1529 & 1531); The Schmalkaldic War (1546--1547) in the Holy Roman Empire; the French Wars of Religion (1562--1598); the Eighty Years' War (1568--1648) in the Low Countries; and the Thirty Years War (1618--1648), affecting the Holy Roman Empire including Habsburg Austria and Bohemia, France, Denmark and Sweden. Much of the time, religion and politics got tangled together fuelling the fighting.

France's St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 is burned into history. No one really knows how many died, but estimates have been given from as low as 2,000 (Catholic count) to as high as 70,000 (Huguenot count). The real count is lost to history.

Not all were in agreement as the Church of England was getting a firm footing in England -- the Calvinists in particular. A movement formed designed to continue the purification of English worship, doctrine and piety that they felt were still too tainted by Roman Catholicism, especially in the penning of the Book of Common Prayer. By 1620, a group of these Puritans set sail for the New World on the Mayflower, seeking religious freedom and to shake off the liturgical demands of the Church of England. This group is remembered in history as the Pilgrims.

When the Catholics landed along the Atlantic seaboard in the New World, they found a strong Anti-Catholic sentiment and were met with hostility, intolerance, and persecution. Early American Catholics were distrusted as a holdover from the memories of the Reformation. Catholics in America were discriminated for their faith -- equal opportunity in employment, housing, schooling and politics were all denied them. It wasn't until American Catholics decided that it was more important to be "American" than to be "Catholic" that they were assimilated into the American culture.

The Amish got their start as a part of the Swiss Brethren, a form of the Anabaptists, who were a part of the continental Europe's "Radical Reformation" of the 16th century. Two hundred years later, the Amish migrated to the United States to escape wars, poverty, and religious persecution in Europe. Today there are no Amish left in Europe; however they are considered the fastest growing denomination in the United States. They have spread from their original foundation in Pennsylvania to more than 25 other states and remain wrapped in misunderstanding and mystery which fuels intense cultural interest.


Christians are not the only religious group to suffer for their faith. Originally Muslims suffered at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church during the Age of Crusades -- from the First Crusade in 1095 until 1291 ending with the Siege of Acre. The Christian Holy War (Crusade) was used in an attempt to wrestle control of various areas of the Holy Land from Muslims and stem the spread of Islam in the near East. The major crusades included: First Crusade (1095--1099); Second Crusade (1147--1149); Third Crusade (1187--1192); Fourth Crusade (1202--1204); Fifth Crusade (1217--1221); Sixth Crusade (1228--1229); Seventh Crusade (1248--1254); Eighth Crusade (1270); and Ninth Crusade (1271--1272). Minor crusades were being fought as turf wars, used to strong arm pagans to convert; and to settle political differences. They included: People's Crusade (1096) Norwegian Crusade (1107-1110); Wendish Crusade (1147--1162) the Swedish Crusades (1150-1293); the Northern Crusades -- Baltic Crusade, Livonian Crusade & Prussian Crusade -- (1193 --1290); German Crusade (1195--1198); The 1197 Crusade (1197); Albigensian Crusade (1208--1241); Children's Crusade (1212); Venetian Crusade (1220-1224); the First Shepherds' Crusade (1251) Aragonese Crusade (1284-1285), and the Second Shepherds' Crusade (1320).


The Jews were almost wiped from the face of the map of Europe during World War II as Adolf Hitler attempted to stamp out all Jews as a "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" in Germany. The Holocaust was a result of his desire to purify the German race. Three million Jews lost their lives reducing the pre-WWII Jewish population in Europe to six million.

The Jews still suffer from anti-Semitism worldwide which can be expressed in many ways including but not limited to: expressions of hatred, intolerance, discrimination and bullying against individual Jews, or organized violent attacks by mobs, state police, and the military on Jewish settlements and communities.


In the middle 19th century, the Mormons also were driven westward from Ohio to Utah by religious violence. Their founding leader, Joseph Smith, was killed and they were harassed and persecuted for their unique doctrines. Their wagon trains were burned and pillaged while their people were massacred.

In 1838, during the height of the three-month long Missouri Mormon War, the Show Me State Governor Lilburn Boggs issued Executive Order 44 called "The Extermination Order" declaring that "the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State." As a result, the Haun's Mill Massacre occurred resulting in the deaths of 17 Mormons making it the bloodiest event during the Missouri Mormon War.

There was also the Illinois Mormon War of 1844 in which Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed. Their followers were driven from Illinois during the "Wolf Hunt." The Smith brothers are honored in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as martyrs.

The Utah Mormon War 1857-1858 was between Mormon settlers in the Utah Territory and the United States. The yearlong conflict was more political in nature than religious with the concept of "popular sovereignty" and the theodemocracy of the emerging Mormon State of Deseret in the forefront. The early Mormon practice of polygamy was considered barbaric and became an issue in the 1856 presidential election. In the end, President James Buchanan insisted, "The inhabitants of that [Utah] Territory shall manifest a proper sense of the duty which they owe to this government."


Religious persecution has not ended. It continues to this very day and Christians are considered, by Pope Benedict XVI, to be the most persecuted group on the face of the earth. The Vatican has reported that more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed each year because of some relation to their faith. The World Christian Data Base from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity puts that number closer to 160,000. In addition, the World Evangelical Alliance reports that more than 200 million Christians are denied basic fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. However of the 100-200 million Christians who are currently being persecuted, the majority are resident in Muslim-dominated nations such as what is happening under ISIS.

Islamic countries have various degrees of tolerance for Christians within their borders, ranging from uneasy acceptance to outright slaughter and genocide. Middle East and African countries dealing with marked Christian-Islam unrest include: Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.

In 2014 ten countries have been identified by the Dutch-based Open Doors foundation as the worst persecutors of Christians today. They include: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Maldive Islands, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Other Christians are suffering in Ethiopia, Egypt, China, Colombia, India, Kuwait, Jordan, Mali, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Viet Nam as well as other world nations.

Last week the major network news outlets, the world's largest daily newspapers and news magazines took note of the violence against Christians in Iraq by ISIS. Now those headlines have faded and the graphic story became last week's news. But the violence, bloodshed and killing continue unabated. The continued media coverage of ISIS centers around military action, not the plight of Christians.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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