Next to my bed are two icons I brought back from Tbilisi, Georgia. Immediately next to my headboard is St. George, a medal of whom was around my neck in both Iraq and Afghanistan. To the left of St. George is an icon of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. The small four inch by three inch framed depiction shows 40 men, for the sake of appropriateness covered with cloths below the waist, huddled together on a frozen lake, above them is Christ, with his arms outstretched in orant, preparing to embrace the martyrs. Between the martyrs and Christ are crowns, as a king would wear, symbolic of the immortality of martyrs. This icon, like all, tells a story, and is a means of connecting with the subject; in fact, the icon is so connected that it is part of the subject itself.
This image, and its story, is not well known here in the West. I did not know the story of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste until I saw the depiction in a fresco in a church in Mardin, Turkey, in 2011. The 40 were Roman legionaries in what is today east-central Turkey in the late 4th century. The 40 confessed themselves to be Christians and were commanded to renounce their faith, lest they receive the punishment mandated: death. The 40 were stripped and huddled atop a frozen lake overnight. One of the original group gave into the temptation of warm baths offered by the Romans and left his brethren for the relief of life and bodily warmth. However, a Roman sentry charged with enforcing the death sentence saw the faith of the other 39 and like the Centurion at Golgotha he declared Christ as the Son of God and disrobed and joined the martyrs, restoring the number to 40. When day broke and the martyrs were seen to show signs of life they were burned and their ashes were scattered in a nearby river. Their remains were recovered and the relics were distributed throughout the early church.
Like the 40 martyrs, who some may now recall from stories they heard in the past, we in the West are prone to forget many things after they leave our immediate sight, if they were ever even there.
One such forgotten reality is the plight of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa region, especially Iraq. I, too, would forget if not for the personal connection of my wife, who herself is an Iraqi Christian, of Chaldean and Assyrian descent. Since 2003, when the U.S. and allied forces initiated combat operations in Iraq, approximately two-out-of-three Christians have fled their country. The Christian population dwindled to less than five hundred thousand. Many moved to neighboring countries, mainly Syria. Others were accepted as refugees in Western countries, where they started a new life or joined family and friends who had fled years before. A lot of those that stayed in Iraq were forced from their life-long homes in big cities as Sunni, Shia and Kurds, who had militias to enforce their extra-judicial decrees, reshaped sectarian boundaries. Doura and Karadah, districts in Baghdad where many Christians lived, bear no sign of the old inhabitants. Their homes were taken, their churches destroyed or “repurposed” as mosques, if not something less dignified, and their businesses changed ownership as their situation became untenable and they were given the choice to leave or die.
Today I am especially reminded of this because I received a text massage from my wife telling me “they killed [her cousin].”
I knew him. We met when I first met my wife the day after the January 30, 2005 elections. He was devoted to his faith, friendly, and outspoken. He would befriend anyone: Christian, Muslim or Kurd. He would not hesitate to say what was on his mind, and that was his undoing. A small explosive was attached to his car’s ignition and when he started his car to leave work. The device worked as it was intended to, killing him immediately. He received his Crown of Immortality on May 30, 2013.
Sadly, media coverage has shifted from Iraq after the withdrawal of the large U.S. military force there. Whether on the news or not, the killing of Christians because of their faith is an all-too-frequent occurrence in Iraq, and the Middle East as a whole. Syria, where many Iraqi Christians fled during the fighting in their homeland is run-amok with violence between Sunni Islamist “resistance fighters” and a secular (in name and mostly in practice) government backed by Shia extremists. Like Iraq during the height of the sectarian violence, the Christians are left largely defenseless and are easy targets for extremists on all sides. Christians in post-Mubarak Egypt have not fared much better as the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of Morsi, and the zealous Islamists who brought him to power, visit terror on the Copts who had at least some pretense of freedom under the previous dictator.
We cannot do much from afar. There is no real expectation of the average citizen in the West venturing out to those foreign lands and defending the minority Christians in the same way minorities have a special protected status here in the West. We must do something to ensure the Christians of the Middle East and North Africa are not left to be slaughtered, especially when it was the unintended consequences of U.S. foreign policy that destabilized their lives to begin with. We can, at the very least, monitor the situation, and when we learn of the terrors faced by the members of the Church in the Near East we can express the outrage and disgust we did last week when Lee Rigby was murdered on a London street in broad daylight by radical Muslims. We can ensure our government is monitoring the situation and make sure they do not allow the situation to devolve into another genocide like the one suffered by the Armenians almost a century ago. We cannot leave the Christians of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other Muslim dominated countries standing shivering on the the frozen lake while we enjoy the warm bath of freedom.