“We want peace in the Middle East.” Famous words uttered by former President Jimmy Carter some 30 odd years ago. Sometimes it seems the characters change but the issues remain the same.
There are however bright spots within the Middle East. Northern Iraq is now a democratic Federal Region, which is structured similarly to a State within the USA. Picture Texas with a President, and a military. This area is made up primarily of Kurdish ethnics who fought for autonomy, if not complete independence during the Iraq war.
The Kurds have been targeted by many over the years for extinction, most recently Saddam. The former Iraqi dictator used weapons of mass destruction such as chemical weapons to destroy entire towns, killing approximately 300,000 Kurds during his reign.
The Kurds were supported by US and coalition forces during the early phases of the Iraqi war with the implementation of a no fly zone, and eventually troops on the ground. This allowed the Kurds the necessary coverage to negotiate and create an “autonomous region” with it’s own democratically elected leadership.
It is no easy task to segue from a warrior to a diplomat. Over the past several years, Kurdish leadership began proving themselves as worthy diplomats. They became architects of a thriving federal region with one of the fastest growing and safest economies in the Middle East. Religious freedom is even written into their constitution, with President Barzani publicly stating that they will protect Christians. Kurdistan is arguably the safest place in the Middle East, as there have been no recent bombings or killings targeting Christians.
But seeing religious equality leak down into lower levels of local government has been hard to find. There are stories of Christians accused of being spies, or other crimes, and being imprisoned under false charges. Some Kurdish Christians complain they are not allowed to change the religious status on their national identification card from Muslim to Christian, or even register their children as Christians.
Unfortunately Americans know that legislation and public policy cannot change the hearts of the people. As I watch sectarian violence and the oppression of Christians throughout the Middle East I reflect on our own American history when the KKK blew up churches killing innocent people because their skin was black. We learned from the human rights movement of the 1960s, although the American government legislated equality, legislation does not change the heart of a man.
During this time, America encountered the “Jesus Movement,” which changed the tide of religion, and tolerance in our country. As young men and women stepped up to exemplify the lifestyle of a modern Christian, communities and ultimately the American culture changed.
We recently met with Minister of the Interior Karim Sinjari of the Kurdistan Regional Government to discuss the crisis of 150,000 Syrian refugees. He mentioned the lack of concern from the Christian community and their slow response to involve themselves in the greatest humanitarian refugee crisis of our generation. I understand and sympathize with Minister Sinjari’s position. He has his hands full running a regional government and must now deal with 150,000 new residents within its borders. He has supported religious freedom in Iraq by chairing a committee just two years ago to accept fleeing Christians into the Kurdistan region. He has supported the Kurdish constitution that legislates Christian freedom. Yet the Christian church does not look so much like Jesus in Northern Iraq today, because it is absent.
We have an opportunity as the Christian community to shoulder the responsibility of care for the Syrian refugees. Through the administration of humanitarian relief, we can share the message of Jesus Christ. The icing on the cake is that the crisis provides an opportunity to model Christianity on the ground in Northern Iraq, and support a regional government that has first supported Christianity.
It is the changing of peoples mindset that changes their action over time. This cannot be done though legislation, not through war, but only through the consistent demonstration of the love of Christ. It is time for the church of Christ to take its position as servant to the Syrian refugees. It is the long and difficult road that reaches a destination of peace. For the prince of Peace must be known to all, and touched by all.