One of the most precious artifacts I have in my office isn't an ancient coin or oil lamp. It is a business card. From northern Iraq.
Monther Al-Saka handed it to me just after I preached a sermon in his church, Mosul's Evangelical Presbyterian Church. They served fried chicken after worship ("Don't all Americans love fried chicken?" he asked), we exchanged hugs, and I went on my way. But on Dec. 1, 2006, Monther was martyred -- for being a Christian leader in the chaos we now call Iraq. He was standing on the front porch of the church -- he had been warned by Sunni extremists to flee or die, but he stood his ground. And a bullet from a car met him on a Sunday morning.
Monther is the only martyr I have ever personally known. In 2008, I saw his wife at a conference and realized that though she was alive, she too had suffered martyrdom. Something had died within her, and it was palpable.
All of this came rushing back to me when I read the news reports in November about what had happened in Baghdad on Oct. 31. Gunmen stormed the Sayidat al-Nejat Syriac Catholic Cathedral in central Baghdad, shot its young priest (whose dying words were, "I am a martyr for Jesus"), and then in the melee that followed, killed 57 people and wounded many more. After four hours, the church was stormed by Iraqi and American troops. The incident was denounced by many good people, and responsibility for it was claimed by others for whom assaults on Christians is a deadly political strategy. It was hardly mentioned in the American media.
The Arab churches of Iraq, once numbering 900,000, are trying to make sense of this. Do they flee? Many already have. Do they move to the Kurdish north? Do they seek asylum in America or Australia? "What can we do?" we ask. "Pray for our protection," is the chief word coming from Baghdad's bishops.
I know little about martyrdom. But I know, in a theoretical way, that it has been the story of many Christians over the centuries. Today that story is being replayed in the Middle East. "We are a church of martyrs and saints," a Syriac bishop in Damascus once told me.
Amidst the clamor of politics and war in this region, I do not want to forget an ancient church that is laboring simply to survive.
Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous books both on the Middle East (Jesus and the Land, Whose Land? Whose Promise) and the New Testament (Jesus the Middle Eastern Story Teller, The New Testament in Antiquity, and Encounters with Jesus).