St John the Baptist Byblos St John the Baptist, Byblos (Lebanon) © Andrew Ashdown

Christians driven from Middle East: An editorial by Victoria Ashdown

Christianity is being wiped from the map across the Middle East. Has the church in this country forgotten how to love our family in faith? Wake up, Stand up, join with me in supporting our sisters and brothers. We may share their challenge before too long.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12

Christians are being wiped from the map

I am sitting on a rather lovely balcony of a tiny house in a tiny village on Mount Olympus in Cyprus. The sun is shining, it’s early so it’s not yet too hot. Across the ravine is an Greek Orthodox 11 century monastery and two houses away a small church dedicated to St Mary. Greek Orthodox because I write from the South of the Island.

I and Andrew have just returned from four days in the North of the Island. We Spent Sunday with the congregation of St Andrew’s Anglican church in Kyrenia. A thriving church of expats from a round the world, occasionally hosting one or two Cypriots. Cyprus is in the Diocese of the gulf comprising of Iraq, Yemen, Cyprus and the Gulf headed by Bishop Michael Lewis. Not an easy patch. When we met with Bishop Michael a few days ago, he spoke candidly of the difficulties of running a diocese with such wide needs and so little money. Of the struggles of reconciliation in war torn countries, of being ‘Anglican’ and not ‘Church of England’ and how politics cannot be avoided.

Bishop Michael and his clergy are fighting a fight hardly acknowledged in the UK.

In northern Cyprus there are churches and monasteries aplenty. It is here that Barnabas was raised, it is where St Paul came, where Mark learnt at their feet. It is the place that Barnabas was martyred. You can visit his tomb, a sad defunct church now a museum of sad and tired icons and a few archaeological finds.

There is hardly a note that the great saint of the New Testament is buried here, of what he achieved in this land and on the mainland. And this is the story throughout the north. Churches even magnificent cathedrals, desecrated, converted into mosques, left to decay or nominally a museum piece. A series of invaders over centuries and changes of government have seen Christianity wiped from the land. These ancient buildings stand as a warning to us all.

There is not much radical Islam here, religion is very mild, most women do not even wear a scarf let alone the Hijab. Most dress as any westerner and surely the average holiday maker would have no idea this was a Muslim country. We have found the people to be most hospitable and friendly. But don’t rest on your laurels, A more radical Islam is coming.

Bright new shiny Mosques built with foreign money from across the western gulf including Saudi Arabia are appearing. With them comes the madrassa (religious school) and the Imam… Cypriot police do keep an eye on what is being taught, but recent history tells us that Wahhabism, the unyielding form of Islam from the western Gulf is not easily suppressed.

The previous week found us in Lebanon, still 50% Christian although recent elections diminished their percentage in government. Here Christianity survives, but it holds on to the thinest of threads as each surrounding country leaks Christians to the West or worse to death.

Israel, the birthplace of our Lord seeks to control the whole of the occupied territories, it makes no secret of wanting a complete Jewish State. Christians are persecuted, unable to work or access good health care, imprisoned for speaking out or driven from their land. As we speak Israel shoots Palestinians with impunity, the world cries, but no action is ever taken. President Trump gives Christ’s Jerusalem, a city Holy to all three faiths, to Israel, therefore giving his backing to carry on changing the ethnic composition of the land. Despite the difficulties of the term it feels very like an ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Dare I mention Syria? Even the Pope has called the wholesale massacre of Christians in this land Genocide. And yet the UK, US and France continue to supply weapons and millions (yes hundreds of millions) of taxpayers money to ‘Rebel’ groups who, across the world are now recognised as ISIS and ISIS affiliated groups. They are murdering all in their path who do not sign up to their extreme Ideology and it seems that’s ok. Because global politics, oil, arms and money are more important than people.

And where are our Western Christian leaders as Christianity is being wiped from the map?

And what of Christians in the West? Are we fighting the good fight? Or are we complacent, moderate, tired Christians? We know that most of our country is not Christian, we know that attracting numbers into our churches is getting harder and harder. It makes sense that something new will fill that void, but when that happens it will be too late and we will just be left to mourn a better time when there was once a peaceful land, but our complacency let evil move in.

Do we wait till we die and our churches with us… or do we wake up, stand up and say: ‘Not on my watch’!

Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

Romans 10:9-10

We must be diligent in our own faith and we must support our brothers and sisters in far flung places. They are our family; when the Christians of the Middle East have gone, which will not be long, then we are dead too…. This is not a battle against secularism this is a cosmic battle of immense power, this is beyond our wildest imaginations. What I have seen in Northern Cyprus (and previously in Turkey) and what is happening around the world will come to our shores, make no mistake. And we are the only ones left who can make a difference, who can turn the tide, who can keep Christ alive.

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