|(Photos by Gregg.Carlstrom)|
Iraq (MNN) ― U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta formally declared an end to nine years of a war in Iraq on Thursday at a ceremony in Baghdad.
The cost: 4,500 American dead, 32,000 wounded and more than $800 billion. However, Mr Panetta said that "the mission had succeeded in "making that country sovereign and independent and able to govern and secure itself."
According to government reports, the pullout of U.S. troops began in 2009, and combat operations stopped a year later. U.S. troops pulled out of the cities in 2009 and halted combat operations a year later. Training Iraqi personnel has been on schedule, so it's assumed that the withdrawal will have little immediate impact on the lives of most Iraqis.
However, that might not be true for one of the minority groups in Iraq: the Christians. Spokesman for The Voice of the Martyrs USATodd Nettleton explains, "The potential is there for it to affect believers, because believers have had a sense that American presence provided at least a little bit of protection, a little bit of oversight for them."
However, Nettleton notes that "the reality is that there have been attacks on believers while the Americans have been there. There will be attacks on believers, now that they're gone. It is simply a continuation of the persecution that Christians in Iraq face on a day-to-day basis."
About 334,000 Christians remain in Iraq, less than half of the number there in 1991. The violence has caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people--both Muslim and Christian--to leave the country, and many more are displaced inside Iraq, particularly in Kurdistan.
There is one question Iraq's believers want answered. "Now that the Americans are leaving, now that the Iraqi government is fully in charge and fully in place, what will be done about religious freedom? Will there be protections for Christians to meet together?"
A wait-and-see approach is the only option. In the meantime, the Gospel is going forward. "The Voice of the Martyrs is directly involved in ministries that equip the church, particularly equipping Christians who are doing evangelism. We provide Bibles, we provide other Gospel materials. We are also providing other material needs to Christians, especially those who have been displaced by the violence."
Pray for protection for the Christians who remain. Nettleton says their teams are praying for government leaders who will stand for religious freedom. "We can pray about the evangelism efforts that are going on. We can pray for those who are spreading the Gospel that God will protect them, that seeds will be planted, and that lives will be changed by the love of Christ."