Despite the distractions of the festive season and cutbacks on the horizon, the Barnabas Fund is asking Christians to remember the plight of their brothers and sisters in Iraq in prayer and practical ways.
In the last couple of months, Christians in Iraq have been attacked and killed in their churches and homes and Al-Qaeda-linked militants have effectively waged war on them. Christmas was, as expected, a muted celebration for many Christians in Iraq who decided to mark the birth of Jesus in the safety of their homes rather than risk their lives attending church services.
Barnabas Fund recently received a letter from an Iraqi archbishop warning that Christians were too afraid to leave their homes. The very real threat of being killed in broad daylight is making it difficult to do the very practical things like shopping and, more importantly, going to work.
The international director of Barnabas Fund, Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, said: It is like living in a prison camp. You could leave the house but you dont know what is going to happen. Because of the targeted attacks, there is a chance that Christians venturing out to work or onto the streets will be attacked or killed. The fear is effectively leaving Christians stranded in their homes.
The one million Christians not only have the difficulty of getting into another country, they are also faced with desperate poverty once they get there. Many of them are living in neighbouring countries like Syria, where the Barnabas Fund is providing practical assistance. In Lebanon, thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees have just received £50,000 from the Barnabas Fund to cover the cost of emergency food and schooling for the children.
The difficult question for those still in Iraq is whether they too should now make the move and leave. The question is difficult because in spite of the dangers, the deaths, and the hardship, Iraq is their homeland and a country they love, a country they want to stay in.
Whatever they decide, Dr Sookhdeo says it is important that support is given to those who choose to stay as well as those who go.
He said: I dont think we can say to Christians in situations where they are facing kidnapping and death that youve got to stay. If they think it is right for them to leave then weve got to help them. Equally weve got to say to those who want to stay, we will continue to assist and provide for you and argue your case.
There is no question that the situation has deteriorated. When Dr Sookhdeo visited the Christian community in 1999, it numbered around 1.4 million. Saddam Hussein was a pretty evil dictator but Christians were not persecuted, he says. But since the US-led invasion in 2003 the number of Christians living in Iraq has plummeted to around 3-400,000.
There are various reasons for this, he explains. It was easy for Christians to be seen by militant Islamists and indeed the wider, more moderate Muslim population as supporters or colluders of the Western invaders. Then in 2005, Sharia law was enshrined and the constitution did not embrace Christians or other minorities effectively classing them as dhimmis, or second class citizens.
Dr Sookhdeo believes the US, UK and Australia should shoulder the lions share of responsibility in protecting minorities but instead he says the British government effectively washed its hands of the violence against Christians in Iraq and paid little attention to a petition Barnabas Fund presented to it last year raising awareness of the situation and signed by tens of thousands of British Christians.
By Maria Mackay