|Violence is on the rise in Iraq. |
(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
On this day in 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into major U.S. landmarks: two into New York's World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. When crew members and passengers attempted to gain control of the fourth plane, it crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
Nearly 3,000 people died in what would take a place in history as the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Declaring a war on terrorism, the U.S. launched an offensive strike in Afghanistan called Operation Enduring Freedom. Two years later, Operation Iraqi Freedom put nearly 150,000 U.S. boots on the ground in the initial strike.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, over 1 million American soldiers served in Iraq; many of them on multiple deployments. U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq entirely in 2011, leaving the country in shaky hands.
This spring, Greg Musselman of Voice of the Martyrs Canada was in Baghdad.
"The thing that really struck me was just the state of fear," says Musselman. "Everybody is on-edge, all the time."
Shortly after Musselman and his team left, a new wave of violence began sweeping through Iraq.
Sectarian conflict between Sunni militants and Iraq's Shi'ite government is threatening to topple the unstable Middle Eastern nation. This summer saw Iraq's deadliest month since sectarian violence peaked in 2006 and 2007. According to UN figures, 1,057 Iraqis were killed and another 2,326 wounded during July.
Bombings are now an almost-daily occurrence. Yesterday, attacks in central and northern Iraq killed more than 20 people. Over 4,000 people have died so far this year, according to Agence France-Presse.
If the West uses force in Syria, it could push this alarming trend over the edge. Iraqi Christians are torn.
"They're just not sure what's going to happen," says Musselman. "There are some that would say, 'We'll stay no matter what; we're here to advance God's Kingdom.' [There are] others that would like to leave yesterday."
Among the latest developments in Syria comes a Russian proposal to surrender all chemical weapons to the United Nations. The U.S. and its allies have agreed to look over the plan, suspending a threatened military strike.
Musselman says church leaders inside Syria are "very concerned" about the unfolding state of affairs.
"It's such a volatile situation," he states. "We really need to be interceding and pressing in with our Lord and asking Him to help our leaders to do the right thing."
In Iraq, VOM Canada helps Christians who face arrest, torture, and even death for their faith in Jesus.
"The worst kind of persecution in Muslim countries is for those who have converted from Islam to Christianity," Musselman explains. "They're not only seen as infidels but even worse than that, because they have left Islam.
"We want to aid and support them any way we can."
Musselman refers to a young man he met this spring as an example.
"He had come to Christ, and his brothers tried to kill him because he had become a Christian," Musselman recalls.
As a result, the young man fled to southern Iraq and is now living in an area with a very strong Shi'ite presence. For security reasons, Musselman doesn't state the man's name or exact ways VOM Canada is helping him.
"Our desire is to…help and support Christians, sort of one-on-one, as best we can," says Musselman.
They're also trying to strengthen the underground Church. Only 334,000 Christians remain in Iraq--less than half of their 1991 population.
"They have to be very careful because if they're found out, they could be in great difficulty, could be killed, those kinds of things--arrested, tortured," says Musselman.
VOM Canada defines Iraq as a "restricted nation," a country whose government policies prevent believers from obtaining Bibles or other Christian literature. Also included in the definition are "government-sanctioned circumstances" that lead to Christians being "harassed, imprisoned, or killed."
"Our heart's desire is to empower the Christians, to say that we care about you, we know what's going on, [and] we're praying for you," says Musselman.
"How can we come along and support the Gospel ministry that you're doing at this point in time?"
Their answers take different shapes, from women's ministry to letters of encouragement.
What can you do?
"It's uncomfortable to think that people are dying for their faith," states Musselman. But as Christians, he adds, we are called to respond.
"We need to care, and we need to be praying for them and helping them in any way we can," Musselman says. "We may have a relative who doesn't know the Lord, but you're actually closer-related spiritually to someone that's in Iraq."