Christianity began in the Middle East, and now Christians are being forced to flee their homes in record numbers. Anne, Mariam and the other refugees I met are real people. They have names and faces and dreams just like you and me. But their dreams have been taken away from them due to hatred and persecution. The Arab Refugee Christians in the USA (ARC-USA) is one organization trying to help.
KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - Christianity began in the Middle East, and now Christians are being forced to flee their homes in record numbers. They are fleeing the Middle East due to persecution and political turmoil. Iraq and Egypt have been the hardest hit in recent years. Many are coming to the USA. The Arab Refugee Christians in the USA (ARC-USA) is one organization that is trying to help.
The exodus began with the rise of Islam many years ago. Based on a 2010 report produced by the Vatican synod on the Middle-East exodus, Christians constituted about 20 percent of the overall population a century ago, but it has dropped to five percent in recent years. The document lists the rise of a violent and political form of Islam as the primary reason.
According to other reports, the Christian population in the Palestinian territories was 15 percent of the Arab population in 1950. Today, it is two percent or less. The town of Bethlehem had been predominately Christian for centuries. Today, only 18 percent of the population is Christian. Based on a recent CBS interview with the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, Theophilos, there were about 30,000 Christians living in Jerusalem in 1964, now there are about 11,000, 1.5 percent of the total population of the city.
The most recent exodus began in Iraq as an indirect consequence of the Iraqi war. The exodus went into full swing after the horrendous massacre at Our Lady of Deliverance Church in Bagdad on October 31, 2010. This is the same massacre where a three-year-old child, Adam Udai, followed the terrorists around for two hours telling them to stop before they brutally murdered him. Adam joined his parents and approximately fifty other Christian martyrs that day, but his words lived on and were heard throughout the world (Adam, the Little Christian Boy Who Confronted Islamic Terrorists).
Although all the terrorists who stormed the Church that day were killed, it did not stop the terrorism of Iraqi Christians. After the attack, terrorist groups were reported to have targeted Christians in their homes. Church leaders were afraid to hold Christmas services or put up decorations, and families were advised not to decorate their homes. Over 80% of Christians were afraid to go to church. About 10 churches were closed, and Sunday school was discontinued. Today, the Christian population in Iraq has been reduced by more than half what it was prior to the war.
Egypt is also experiencing an unprecedented exodus. The Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations has published a report on Christians moving out of Egypt. It states that nearly 100,000 Christians have emigrated since March 2011. The Coptic Christians are one of the earliest Christian communities in the world, and they are the largest minority in the Middle East today.
The Coptic exodus began after the murderous attack at Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt on New Year's Eve, January 1, 2011. A car bomb exploded as people were filing out of church after Mass. Twenty-three people were killed. About 97 others were injured. It was the most violent and deadliest attack against the Copts in a decade.
Ever since the bombing, Islamist groups have threatened, beaten and murdered Christians in Egypt. Their churches, businesses and homes have been ransacked and burned to the ground. As it turns out, the so-called Arab Spring has allowed Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis to grab power. Some Copts fear this is an ominous turn of events. They worry that life in Egypt will grow much worse in the next few years.
ARC-USA is located in Knoxville, Tennessee. Its members are dedicated to helping refugees from the Middle East. They formed the organization two years ago in response to the situation in Iraq. But due to the exploding exodus of Christians throughout the Middle East, its ministry has been expanded to include refugees throughout the region.
I first heard about ARC-USA after Sunday Mass about one month ago. Susan Dakak, a board member and fellow parishioner, made an announcement that her organization would be hosting their first annual River of Babylon Festival on Saturday, July 21. The purpose of the festival was to welcome our new brothers and sisters in Christ to Knoxville and offer assistance with their settlement.
I had the privilege of meeting some of these wonderful and inspiring people at the festival. It was the first opportunity I have had to speak with people who have lived through one of the great tragedies of our time. I believe it is important for us to know their stories. However, some of them feared reprisals against family members back in their homeland. Therefore, I have taken precautions to protect their identities.
I met one young father who was forced to leave his home with his wife and beautiful small children a couple years ago. This is a man who was once responsible for the lives of other people. Now, this highly skilled man is a manual laborer. He assembles wooden palettes. He is grateful for the work, but he cannot adequately support his family on the low wages he receives. Reflecting on his situation, he told me that he just wants to be a good father.
I also interviewed two women who were willing to tell their stories. Neither of them spoke English well enough to carry on a conversation, so Issa Issacs, the president of ARS-USA, was kind enough to sit through both interviews and translate. Their fictional names are Anne and Mariam, and their stories are as follows:
I interviewed Anne first. She has been in the United States for about four years now, yet when she spoke about what she and her children went through, I sensed that the wound she suffered was still raw, as though it happened yesterday. Back in her homeland, Anne lived alone with some of her children in a Muslim area. Her husband passed away about 25 years ago.
One of the first things she told me was that the Muslims hated her and her children because of their Christian faith. When they would go to the market, Muslims would insult them and tell them to convert to Islam. They would hit her sons in front of her, she said. They would prevent her and her children from going to church. The final straw was when a gang of Muslims forced their way into her home and started yelling at them and calling them infidels. Then they smashed her son's head against the wall. She yelled back at them, telling them that they were the infidels.
But, of course, it was no use. She had to leave her home for the safety of her children. They left in haste, taking only the clothes they were wearing. It took her nine months to get to the United States. They first went to Turkey. Anne did not have a job and only a little money. To make matters worse, it was very expensive living in Turkey. She did not always have money to pay for electricity, food or medicine. She has diabetes and needs medicine for it. At one point, she had a stroke and had no medicine for three days.
Living in Turkey was a very difficult period in her life. After nine months, she was allowed to come to the United States. It was sad because her family split up at this point. Only her daughter is with her now. Her sons stayed in Turkey. Despite all the difficulty, Anne has been through, I did not sense bitterness; I sensed decency, goodness and strength. She said that she is glad to be in a Christian country where she can go to church, and that she is not afraid anymore.
The second woman I interviewed was Mariam. She is new to the United States. She has also experienced a tremendous amount of suffering in her later years. Her husband was a good provider, but he died in 2002. About three years after his death, she received a terrible letter from some Muslims.
The letter said that her son and her grandson had been kidnapped. They tied her son's hands behind his back, blindfolded him, and put him into the trunk of a car. The kidnappers called her and demanded $10,000. But Mariam did not have the money. All she had was her house and the contents in it. At this point, she said, all she could do was cry.
Her family raised as much cash as they could. She was forced to sell her property far below its value. Family members negotiated on her behalf with the Muslims kidnappers, and finally the kidnappers agreed to the amount of money that had been raised. They said they would return her son and grandson within two hours after they got the money. But two hours went by, and they were nowhere in sight.
Mariam was afraid they had been killed. She was told that the kidnappers often kill the victim after they get paid. But the kidnappers spared their lives. They dropped them off in a suburb, but they took a knife and cut her son's wrist. The cut was deep and the bleeding was potentially life threatening. A stranger brought him home, and he made it to the hospital. His hand is permanently damaged, but he is alive.
As if that was not enough, they got another threat. This time, they were told to get out, that they could not live there anymore. They left with nothing. They moved around a bit after that and finally ended up in a Syrian refugee settlement, where they lived under difficult circumstances for seven years. Finally, they were relocated from Syria and sent to the United States.
As a refugee, Mariam does not get to choose where she goes. As a result, her family has been broken up. She has a daughter in Sweden and a son in Canada, but she and her other son were sent to Knoxville, Tennessee. They arrived in Knoxville about one month ago. They have lost everything, and they are virtually destitute right now. To make matters worse, Mariam has health problems. Yet, like a true mother, her greatest concern is for her children.
Anne, Mariam, their children, and the other refugees I met are real people. They have names and faces and dreams just like you and me. They are good people who have experienced terrible injustice due to hatred and persecution. Our hearts and prayers go out to all of them, but they also need tangible help. If you want to help our Middle-Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ, you can begin by contacting ARC-USA. You can contact them by e-mail, email@example.com, or you can go directly to their website. arc-usa.net.
Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.
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