Former Rep. Frank Wolf, the leading voice for religious freedom in Congress for decades, says Christianity is on the verge of extinction in Iraq and the remaining steadfast believers do not see much effort from the U.S. or other western nations to improve their plight.
Wolf served in the House of Representatives from 1981-2015. He is the author of the International Religious Freedom Act, which the International Religious Freedom Office at the State Department and created an Ambassador-at-Large position to promote religious freedom around the world. That post has been vacant for some time.
Upon leaving the House, Wolf became the first-ever Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University and co-founded the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. He co-led a trip to Iraq in January to observe conditions for Christians and other minorities and to speak to people first-hand. The group recently released a report based on that trip entitled “Edge of Extinction: The Eradication of Religious and Ethnic Minorities in Iraq.” He says the conclusions of the visit were obvious.
“Two things. They’re really suffering and they’re really facing extinction,” said Wolf, who says the people there are mystified at the relative silence in the midst of their suffering, since the Islamic State has very real plans to bring their savagery to the West as well.
“The threat ISIS poses is not only to them but to people in the West and, quite frankly, people in the United States. It’s kind of a conglomeration. They kept saying, ‘Why will no one in the West speak out for us? Does anyone care?’ said Wolf.
“I think they’re running out of confidence that the West will do much about it, because you know it’s been going on since it started in June, then in August. Now here we are in February of the next year, so they’re not seeing very much assistance,” said Wolf.
Wolf says that impression is only intensified after events like the beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya and the Obama administration only referred to them as Egyptian citizens. He says instead of reacting to individual atrocities, the U.S. and other western nations need to understand what’s really happening.
“It is genocide, genocide against Christians and genocide against the Yazidis and other religious minorities,” he said.
The nightmare for Christians started long before the rise of the Islamic State. Wolf says the the state of Christianity in Iraq now compared to the days before the Iraq War is staggering.
“In 2001, there was a million and a half Christians in Iraq. They’re down now to 300,000 and I think probably under that number. Some say under 225,000,” said Wolf.
“The suffering of the people is not just numbers. We interviewed many, many people there that are suffering. They would like to stay, but if something isn’t done they are going to leave,”
Christians who refuse to convert are either killed or forced to live in subhuman conditions. As cold winter conditions hit the region, thousands of people are sleeping in whatever abandoned buildings they can find, often in 12×12 or 15×15 foot sections with just two-inch-thick mattresses as beds and kerosene heaters for warmth. For those allowed to live, there is no opportunity for work or for education. They also have no medical care.
“Many of them are doctors and many of them are lawyers. They’re educated people, but they don’t have any resources,” said Wolf, who says the most substantial relief is coming to believers through a Catholic group called the Dominican Sisters as well as Samaritan’s Purse, the relief organization headed by evangelist Franklin Graham.
All of this is taking place in a region rich in biblical history.
“More biblical activity took place in Iraq than any other country in the whole world, other than Israel. Abraham’s from Iraq. Rebekah’s from Iraq. The twelve tribes of Israel lived in Iraq. Ezekiel is buried in Iraq. Jonah, Ninevah, in fact Jonah’s tomb was just blown up in Iraq. Daniel, one of the great men of the Bible, is buried in Iraq,” said Wolf.
Despite the intense persecution, the report from the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative suggests the faith of embattled believers remains strong. It tells stories of people preferring to die than recant their faith in Christ. Another man lost his wife to cancer after the Islamic State refused to allow her to receive treatment in Mosul because she would not convert to Islam. In the report, the widowed husband shared his wife’s last words.
“I am going to hold onto the cross of Christ. I refuse to convert. I prefer death. I prefer death to abandoning my religion and my faith,” she told him.
Wolf says faith of Iraqi Christians is the strongest he’s ever seen, but he adds that Christians and other religious minorities there have infinitely less faith in western nations to come to their rescue.
“Their faith is strong. Maybe their faith is greater with the persecution than it is in the West where there’s a lot more materialism and things like that. I think they’re beginning to give up on the west and many are saying, ‘Help us stay,’ meaning if we don’t stay. we’re going to leave,” said Wolf.
“If they leave, we will literally see the end of Christianity in the place where it kind of began. In the cradle of Christendom, there’ll be no Christians left and ISIS will have won,” he said.