From Genesis to Revelation many Bible stories took place in the countries that we know today as Iraq and Turkey.
The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:14 NIV).
Turkey and Iraq are countries that share a land border and are part of the Fertile Crescent region, including the major river system formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Their towns and place names are found throughout the Bible.
For example, Abraham came from the city of Ur in Iraq. He migrated to Haran in southern Turkey and settled there (Genesis 11:31). Jacob’s sons were all born in Iraq. The city of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah is in Iraq, and events from the books of Esther and Daniel took place there. Even the Garden of Eden was in Iraq.
St. Paul was born in Tarsus, a southern part of Turkey in ancient Cilicia. Most of his missionary journeys involved Asia Minor (Turkey), and many of his letters were written to believers there. Today, Iraqi Christians – Aramaic-speaking ethnic Assyrians – are one of the oldest, continuous Christian communities in the world. In Turkey, the Christian population is comprised of Greeks, Armenians, Russians and Turks.
But despite the strong biblical foundation in these countries, between the 7th – 11th centuries a significant cultural shift took place. In the mid-7th century Islam was established in Iraq, and in the 11th century the Seljuk Turks invaded the Anatolian peninsula, which makes up most of modern-day Turkey, bringing Islam to that region.
Today, both these countries have a Muslim majority, each with a Muslim population of 95% – 99%. In Turkey, the Christian population is a minority of just 0.2%, and in Iraq it is 1% and declining. This means that undertaking Bible mission is a very sensitive and challenging task. The staff in these countries are very dedicated. There are limitations and restrictions on where and how they can carry out the work. The small size of their Christian populations means they cannot raise funds for the mission from within their own countries. These Bible Societies are struggling to even maintain a foothold.
The Bible Societies in Iraq and Turkey urgently need our help to remain operational. It’s essential they maintain a presence because it would be impossible to ever establish a Bible Society in either of these countries again.
In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) occupied Christian cities and villages across northern Iraq, displacing 100,000 Christians in Mosul, appropriating Christian homes, and destroying farms.
They burned churches, defaced icons and scrawled graffiti; to the effect that Christianity was finished under the extremist group’s rule. Christians had to either convert and pay a special tax or face the sword. As they moved further east, Christians in towns and villages fled ahead of them.
On August 6th, 2014, people in the town of Karamles were waiting. For weeks, priests across the Nineveh Plain had been in contact with Kurdish military forces, about the imminent threat of ISIS. This night ISIS was on the move.
Around midnight a church bell rang out across the town. Within a couple of hours, nearly all the town’s 820 families were on the highway heading towards safety in the large, predominantly Kurdish city of Erbil. Within hours ISIS fighters arrived.
But in October 2016, in an Operation dubbed, ‘We are coming, Nineveh,’ Iraqi troops liberated Christian town after town across the Nineveh Plain before finally entering Mosul on 1st November 2016. On 10 July 2017, victory by the U.S.A-led coalition was officially declared in Mosul.
But today life remains very uncertain for Christians in northern Iraq. Tens of thousands remain displaced in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Their towns have been virtually destroyed, they have ongoing concerns about security, and unemployment is high.
Across the Nineveh Plain, it’s a very mixed picture for individual towns and villages. In Mosul, for example, where 80% of the Old City was destroyed along with 80,000 homes, many of the hundreds of Christian families who fled have made a new life for themselves and will never return. For father Yousif and his two daughters, Maryam, 22, and Wasam, 18, who now live in Erbil, it isn’t just a matter of the destruction
of their city, but the loss of trust between them and their life-long neighbours, many of whom welcomed ISIS with open arms as Christians fled. “How can the international community stand by and do nothing?” he wonders.
Archbishop Bashar Warda, of the Diocese of Erbil, agrees. For years since he became the de facto pastor to hundreds of displaced Christian families in the Province of Nineveh, he has struggled to raise international attention about the plight of Christians in Iraq.
However, in the town of Qaraqosh, twenty miles from Mosul, half of the 50,000 people who fled from ISIS have now returned. In a joyful reclaiming of their city, which can trace its Christian lineage back to the fourth century, thousands took to the streets this year to celebrate Palm Sunday and Easter. Yet, Father Salar Kajo of the Churches’ Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), which aims to rebuild nine Christian towns and villages, fears that unless more is done to enable displaced Christians to return to their homes, more could leave Iraq, and Christianity could be lost from Iraq forever.
It’s part of a larger exodus which has seen the Christian population of Iraq fall from 1.4 million before the U.S. invasion in 2003 to around 275,000 today. However, other assessments suggest that only 150,000 are hanging on, a very slim thread indeed for a Christian presence that can trace its lineage back to first-century communities believed to have been established by the apostles St. Thomas and St. Thaddeus.
Father Kajo was one of the first to visit many of the villages of the Nineveh Plains on the day the Iraqi army drove out ISIS. “In Batnaya, the first place I visited was the church and I could see that everything had been destroyed,” said Father Kajo. “Lying on the ground were Bibles and lectionaries that had recently been burnt. Before leaving the village, the militants of ISIS made a special point of ransacking the churches,” he said.
The Bible Society of Iraq’s mission has never been more vital than today. Amid war and chaos, it’s the only agency in Iraq that is legally permitted to provide Bibles.
Now more than ever it needs to maintain two offices – one in Erbil to assist suffering Christians in the north – and one in Baghdad. This means they must pay two lots of high rent and other operational costs.
Quite simply they are unable to do this without our help.
In many ways the situation for Christians in Turkey is no less dire. Like Iraq, the number of Christians in Turkey has declined rapidly from 20 – 25% of the population in 1914 to 3% by 1927. Today, their presence is a mere 0.2% of the Turkish population.
Beginning in the late 19th century, many Christians emigrated to escape persecution, and this continues today. Many churches stand empty. The Bible Society of Turkey and its staff work in an environment requiring constant sensitivity and awareness. Key to the mission is the Bible Store in Istanbul and Bible Society’s presence at book fairs in different Turkish cities.
The Bible Store in Istanbul is a true testament to the power of this type of work as it attracts people of all ages and from all walks of life.
As people browse the different items on display, they often ask questions. Recently, a 17-year-old girl bought a New Testament. Later that day she came back asking many questions about Christianity. She said she felt peace when she entered a church. The book fairs, too, bear much fruit. For many Turkish people, when they speak to a volunteer on a book stall, it may be the first time they have encountered a Christian. The staff are always ready to respond with friendly, well-informed answers. Both the Bible Store and the book fairs provide a friendly and welcoming environment for Turkish people, who rarely have an opportunity to learn about Christianity first-hand.
Bible Society also provides Bibles for partner organisations such as churches and mission groups for people in need, including refugees from Syria and Iraq. They produce New Testaments for distribution through churches and a Bible correspondence course, which around 400 people sign up to every week.
The situation in both Iraq and Turkey is dire. These Bible Societies urgently need our help. They need to remain operational within their countries or the Christian presence there could be lost forever.
Will you partner with us today to help some of the oldest Christian communities in the world cling on in countries where they have had a presence since biblical times? By supporting this work, you’ll be providing vital Bibles for suffering Christians there and helping stem the dwindling numbers of Christians in Iraq and Turkey.
Your assistance would make such a difference to believers in Iraq and Turkey who desperately need our support. Please make a donation today using the secure form below.