View from St Matthew’s Monastery, northern Iraq, looking across the Nineveh Plains towards Mosul and other territory held by the Islamic State (IS) group. St Matthew’s has been a centre of Christian worship and witness since the fourth century. The Nineveh Plains were the traditional heartland of Christianity in Iraq, but most of the Christians have now fled for their lives
When the Lord Jesus described the horrors that will unfold at the End of the Age, he said, “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak” (Mark 13:14-16).
This call by Jesus recognises that there are times when Christians may have to leave their homes and possessions to escape danger, persecution or even death, as He did in his infancy, so that God can continue to work through them to fulfil His purposes.
The early Church was scattered because of violent persecution and took the Gospel everywhere they went (Acts 8:1, 4). Saul escaped a plot to kill him in Damascus by being lowered in a basket from the city walls and went on to become Paul, the great apostle, preacher and church planter (Acts 9:23-25).
Christianity is unique amongst world religions in that it does not need land to exist (although some Christians have mistakenly made it so at various times and places). In the New Testament tradition, the people (laos) of God are no longer an ethnic group like the Israelites, but they are drawn from every tribe and nation across the world. The Church does not need land, such as the physical land of Israel, for its land is the commonwealth of heaven. It does not need a physical temple, because we are the temple, the inner sanctuary (naos), of God, and His Spirit dwells within us.
The New Testament writers speak of the Christian community as aliens and pilgrims (1 Peter 1:1). Whilst we are in this world, we do not belong to it. We are like refugees or asylum-seekers, merely passing through. Here we have no continuing city (Hebrews 13:14) for our home is in heaven. Here on earth we are amongst the marginalised, the alienated, the discriminated, the persecuted. We are bereft of earthly power or force of arms. Our hope is in God, our dependence is on Him, for He is our shield, our fortress and our protector.
Whilst we are in this world, we do not belong to it. We are like refugees or asylum-seekers, merely passing through.
God’s people have always been on the move. Abram obeyed God’s call to leave his country, his relatives, and his home in the city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq) and make a journey to an unknown destination (Genesis 12:1). In Psalm 137, the exiled Israelites sang of their grief and longing for their homeland. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1).
And beyond the pages of the Bible we see it too. In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from England to start a new life in America where they could freely practise their Puritan form of Christianity. In 1685 a ruthless persecution of Huguenots (French Protestants) began, leading some 200,000 to flee France and seek safety in other countries of northern Europe. An estimated 50,000 of these crossed the English Channel to England, and it was then that the word “refugee” first entered the English language.
There are times when in our movement and displacement, the memories of the past overwhelm us, as we remember the security and stability we once enjoyed, and the lives we used to live. Maybe we too sit down and weep as the Israelites of old did beside the Euphrates. Today, the Syrian Christians displaced from their homes in Homs and Aleppo weep. The Iraqi Christians of Mosul and Qaraqosh weep in their refugee camps in Ankawa. The Eritreans and Pakistanis, the Karen and Chin of Burma (Myanmar), weep for their homelands.
Christians form a substantial part of the global refugee movement that is taking place today. And, as they move from place to place, they carry in themselves the seeds of new life. In the terrible aftermath of the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide, which peaked 100 years ago, Armenian refugees, who had seen their families slaughtered or die of want, established new lives in many parts of the world. They saw the Gospel rooted and planted in new environments, where it has flourished and brought forth new life. Out of death came life. Out of despair came hope.
With His family Jesus fled the killing fields of Bethlehem to the safety of Egypt. The One who calls His people to flee again and again is the One who will come and take His people to their home, their true home. And if He does not come now, He awaits them with open arms, ready to embrace His people to Himself.
Christians believe that all things work together for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28). So in the modern tragedies of our age, where the Church suffers so many afflictions, from war to natural disaster, from persecution to genocide, she lifts up her eyes, looks beyond the physical and sees the spiritual, beyond the temporal and sees the eternal. For her destiny is assured, and so she cries “Maranatha! Even so, come Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20).