Mindy Belz taught a workshop during the The Gospel Coalition 2018 Women’s Conference titled “The Wilderness Experiences: How God’s Suffering People in Faraway Lands Can Teach Us in the West.” Recounting her experiences as a journalist and the deep oppression she witnessed toward religious people—Christians, in particular—around the world, she addressed the systems and situations that have led to such oppression and continue to drive it now. She also offered lessons from the persecuted believers that can only be learned through facing down oppression.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Mindy Belz: I was having a conversation with J.C. Derrick, who is the managing editor of our podcast. If you are someone who doesn’t have time to sit down and read a lot of news, or you’re just so done with the news these days, I want to recommend our podcast. It’s called The World and Everything In It. It is available on iTunes, any of the places you find podcasts. He’s doing a great job. He said, “Why is it the women on our staff are doing the hardest stories?” And as he said that, I actually was sitting at my laptop working on this panel presentation, and I started thinking about it.
I wrote down some names and I want to give them to you, because I think they’re names that you might, if you’re interested in this topic, interested in some of the things that are leading to persecution around the world, you will want to follow a couple of these reporters, because what I was struck by is that not only in little world-world, but in larger [inaudible] women who, the people who I consider doing some of the best reporting on areas where ISIS has been crucial and cruel, and on places that lead to persecution, where the church is really under the gun, they’re all women.
Rukmini Callimachi, that’s not a name that’s familiar to you. She is a New York Times reporter who has made it her beat to cover ISIS, and she’s doing it in a really remarkable way. She’s actually wanting to understand how ISIS thinks, so she doesn’t simply talk about victims of ISIS, which has been my domain, but interviews former ISIS and current ISIS and has done some incredible things. I actually crossed paths with her in Mosul last year.
Laura Logan is one who’s with 60 Minutes for a long time, and who we think of, she was attacked during the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. Liz Sly is another, and I’ve already mentioned her to someone here. Liz Sly covers the Syrian War for the Washington Post. These are women who are doing some of the hardest… I’m just going to say it’s the best piece of reporting that I’ve seen this year. Liz Sly’s stories of a Syrian family who came out of Syria and climbed the mountains into Lebanon, and there was a sudden snowfall that no one was expecting. And when they got to Lebanon, they were frostbitten, including a four-year-old. And it was just a searing picture of what these people are going through.
Liz Sly climbed up into the mountain when she heard about these people and got at them as they were trying to endure this incredible trek that they were making. The small postscript to this is that someone posted a picture that Liz Sly had published on Facebook, because all these families have been separated from one another, and the father of the four-year-old in Beirut saw a picture of his four-year-old on Facebook and came and got him.
Why am I talking about these women reporters, are reporting on our staff elsewhere, dominated by women, doing the hardest stories. There’s even a joke on my staff, if we say we really going to send her to do this, and one of our editors will say, you know what? We always say, we say chicks up front. And I resent that, but I want to try out on you guys something. I think that there’s a reason that women and you guys are here in this room at the end of the day talking about a hard topic.
I think that there’s a reason. I think that women in our makeup, in our physical vulnerability and in our emotional makeup, I think that we have an empathy and an… attraction is not the right word, but we are drawn to the vulnerable and the weak. And we ought to view that as a gift. I want to encourage you that if you’re here and if you’re interested about this [inaudible] to go with your gift, to think of it as a gift to be drawn to the pain of the world, because pain of the world is hard, and I get exhausted from it sometimes.
We have had some amazing people here in the last session. We had an aid worker who I know I sat down with her today. I met her two years ago at Gospel Coalition Conference, and she’s getting ready to go back to Iraq. She’s had an incredible year and she’s seen some incredible things, and she’s taken a few months off and going back into it. And we talked about what that’s like about getting recharged to go back into it.
There was an immigration lawyer here who is handling incredible caseload, but she’s going back into it after she leaves here, so I know there are so many stories I don’t know here in this room. And I just want to encourage you that what God has given us is a heart for the hurting in the world. So often our natural instinct is to move away from that. And I hope we’ll come away with a better sense of how we can move toward it.
Where I’m coming from, and as a woman traveling, one of the first mistakes I made was, of many, was reporting in Sudan back before 9/11, that will tell you how long ago it was. I walked into a room where I knew I was meeting someone who was going to help me get to this no-go area that I wanted to go to, where flights weren’t going in, and there was a bad humanitarian situation developing after the government Khartoum had attacked some Christian villages, and I needed this guy to open the way for me and the people I was with to go. I walked right in, and he’s a Sunni Muslim and pretty high ranking. And I did the American thing and stuck out my hand to shake his hand. You don’t do that. He stepped back away from me because men don’t touch women if they aren’t in their family.
Instead of one meeting, I had to spend about four meetings re-establishing my credentials and what we wanted to do in getting his permission. And that was a lasting lesson, in the fact that I might think I’m a reporter, just like… We tend to think, oh, I’m a reporter just like any other reporter, just like those guys down the hall or whatever. But in fact, we are women, and I learned, and I’ve learned in other studies things too, to really embrace that, to recognize if, for instance, in Afghanistan, I need to talk to government officials, but when it’s time for lunch, I’m going to go over to the kitchen and have lunch with the women. I’m not going to be sitting with the men at lunch, that never happens. Instead of demanding my rights as a reporter, I sat down with the women and began learning about their lives.
I learned so much, because what I realized was the male reporters can’t sit down with the women. I sat down with the women, and I began to learn things about their lives and that were actually helpful to my report and that I would never have learned if I’d stayed talking to those government guys.
Again, just on this theme, I think that we have to come at these hard issues wherever we are, and with who we are, we don’t become overnight experts or we don’t have to be macho men to take them on either. I’m going to give you a few statistics. We’re going to start really broad and then I hope come down a little bit narrow as I talk about some of the issues that I have encountered while finding myself. I never actually went out to cover the persecuted church.
What happened more often is that I’d be covering conflict like in Sudan. And I would realize that how deeply the, in that case at that time, and actually it’s still continuing, the animosity of Islamic government in Sudan was toward its Christian populations right now. Nuba Mountains is an area that you can Google if you want to learn more about what’s happening. That is a heavily Christian area that has just been attacked and attacked and attacked and attacked by that government. So broadly speaking, and I should finish my thought there, that I never set out to actually cover that Christian community. I was covering that conflict, and the same thing in Iraq. I went to Iraq for the… I went in 2002 and again in 2003, as the war started, to cover the war. Then I began to learn about the Christian community.
As I did that, I began to see what was happening. I began to see how misunderstood they were as a community. The fact that I would come home and be telling people about my travels. And they would say, there are Christians in Iraq? And we weren’t aware of this. We weren’t paying attention. And so that is the way that I entered in to being drawn to these people. So I want to go big, come small a little bit. And I want to talk to you a little bit about what I’ve started calling, finding water in the desert. And that’s a really apt description if you’re traveling in the Middle East, especially in Iraq where many of the ancient Christian communities are out, in Nineveh plain, and it is a vast plain. And I’ve stood out there when it was about 120 degrees, and there’s no shade anywhere, and finding water in those kinds of places.
And I think that’s the heart of what leads us to thinking about what we can learn, not just that the persecuted church is something to be pitied, that that is something that has much to teach us.
Here are a few, if you can bear with me a few numbers and a few statistics, some things that I think are interesting to help us put this into perspective. All the academic surveys on religious oppression come to this conclusion, and I’m going to cite Pew as the Pew Center for Religious Studies, nearly 80% of the world’s population lives in religiously oppressive countries. What that tells you is that this is something that’s going to always be with us, or at least in our lifetime.
As long as we have the political systems and especially some of the destabilized situations and conflict situations that we have, as long as we have that, and we have 80% of these countries that are willing to oppress people who believe differently, we are going to be hearing about persecution. Simply put, what I mean by persecution is harassment, fear, imprisonment, or even death, simply because of what a person believes.
Here’s where it gets a little bit complicated, but it helps us think about our own brothers and sisters in Christ and why there are so many groups and so much focus on Christian persecution. The only large group of Muslims living in a non Muslim country with restricted religious freedom are Muslims who live in India. The only country that is majority Christian who face restrictions on religious freedom is Russia, so you can kind of eliminate those. And then think of this, that leaving out those, leaving out India, leaving out Russia, the difference becomes this: that leaves 700 million Muslims who are living in countries with restricted or no religious freedom. And those are all Muslim majority countries.
In other words, they are unlikely to face persecution unless they decide to convert to something other than Islam. In contrast, that leaves 200 million Christians who live in countries with restricted or no religious freedom, that are non-Christian countries. So in other words, did I say that right? Yeah. The remaining 200 million Christians live in countries with restricted or no religious freedom, they are all living in non-Christian countries. So they are all open to some kind of persecution.
That’s sort of the math behind where we come to. Very often, I will be asked as a journalist, do you ever look at Muslims being persecuted? Do you ever look at Hindus facing persecution? Do you ever look at what the Maoists are doing to so-and-so in Nepal or that kind of thing? And I will say yes, absolutely. But what’s overwhelming is the persecution that Christians face. And it is simply a matter of the way that countries are situated. The most populous countries of the world are typically Muslim-dominated countries who restrict non Muslim believers.
I also want you to remember the other really important takeaway, that Muslims who face religious persecution face it when they renounce their faith. And very often I feel like the church doesn’t show up for them, or the church treats them differently. I see that in some other places. We want to keep them in mind, too. Some of the things, just coming forward, I have taught a workshop like this at each of… You weren’t at the one two years ago, right?
Yeah, that’s right. And so I’ve talked about this subject, so forgive me to the extent that I repeat myself, but if I repeat myself, it’s because it hasn’t changed. And a couple of things though that I was thinking about that are new. We have new statistics, and they’ve been in the news quite a bit with the summit that we’ve had with North Korea that President Trump and Kim Jong-un had.
Those numbers indicate between 50 or 70 and 80,000 Christians are in prison in North Korea. North Korea remains, has perennially been one of the worst abusers of Christians. North Korea would like people to be atheists as a communist regime. They want you to worship the State. The cost for Christians, these are nameless people for us, but they’re not nameless to God, and that is a huge area, and as we think about potential progress in terms of our relationship with North Korea, in terms of changes on the Korean peninsula, this has to be a key feature of those conversations and those discussions.
China. In the last year, we actually have a reporter who covers China and I work with her pretty closely. And in the last year we have seen an explosion of Christianity in China. It’s one of the fastest growing religious populations in the world. And now we have a new, not new, but the Chinese President has really begun again, as we’ve seen happen cyclically in China, to crack down on this now very large and actually kind of influential church in just about a month or so ago. Chinese authorities moved in, let me say, to close down one of the largest house churches.
When we think about house churches, we’re not talking about house. We would have been like 20 years ago. Yes, there are some that still meet in houses, but these house churches have grown into vast networks. There is one in particular that meets in Sichuan Province, and it’s enormous. And they operate pretty openly now because they’ve gotten so large, they can’t do otherwise.
The police showed up and began to arrest the leaders. And some of the people in the congregation protest, they waited until it was time for service. I think it was a Sunday, and they just… Anyone who protested the arrest of the leaders got arrested, too. And so we started hearing about this. There were dozens of people from this church in jail, and they closed the church. This has been their pattern, that they use protesting the arrests as a pretext for shutting down the church.
One thing that really concerns us is there’s been an incredible growth of Christian schools in China that have been coming out of these churches. Several of them have been closed this year, and that immediately is a hardship for children and also gets at what happens to the next generation of Christians. A lot of people who are deeply involved with the church in China really worry that this is like the start of a cultural revolution, kind of crack down again, and that we will see, as we saw during that time, that church life will be essentially wiped out unless it is officially sanctioned government church activity.
So we need to really pray for the church in China, because it is now a church that probably… I hear numbers all over the place, 80 million, a hundred million, but this is one of the largest populations in the world, and this is a growing economy. It is dominant, and it’s come to be dominant economically, politically in Asia. It’s wonderful to think of Christians, of Chinese policy and Chinese life beginning to actually have a Christian expression, and it would be tragic to see that shut down.
What I love about that church, that was where the police showed up to arrest the pastors, is that this is what happened on Monday. It was on a Sunday, because on Monday after they released these people, but they had shut down and were saying they couldn’t meet anymore. On Monday, two pastors went to that local police station. They lodged a complaint about what had happened, but then they stood outside the police station, and they held signs that read, “God loves the world, and we don’t harbor resentment.”
The police came out. They were doing this. They were just like standing outside the police station. It looked like they were protesting, but they had these kinds of signs, about a dozen of them. The police came out and didn’t know what to do with them because they weren’t doing anything. They took their cell phones and they arrested them again. After that, some other members of the church went down to the police station and they sang a hymn called The Cross is Our Glory. Do any of you know that hymn? I don’t know if that’s a translation from the Chinese and it’s a Chinese hymn.
So the other people in the church went down to the police station after they had arrested their pastors a second time and sang a hymn for the police. I think that’s a great, again, like a water in the desert moment. That’s a great a picture too, of sort of the feistiness and the perseverance of this church. What are they doing when things like this happen? What is the church doing when it responds in love or responds in persevering with people who are trying to persecute them, is directly tied to what we were hearing from Don Carson this morning, that the piece where he talked about rejecting false worship. He said, he used the phrase, upholding a discipline that preserves truth.
This is so important, that if we believe that the gospel is salvation, what else can I say? If we believe that that is the power of the gospel, then the gospel is worth fighting for, and this is what I think we can learn, we can begin to see, when we look at some of the stories that come out of churches that are being persecuted.
I want to talk just a little bit about, I’ve heard from some of you who’ve read this book and have heard perhaps the journey that I went on, but I want to tell you just as a way, again, of focusing on what it looks like to get inside some of these persecuted groups. As I mentioned, when I first went to Iraq, I was going to cover the war, not to cover necessarily the church. I began to learn about the church. I began going to worship services, finding just dramatic variety and robustness, both in new evangelical churches and in some of the old ancient churches that were still reciting liturgy in Aramaic.
Being drawn to what their experiences were, what I didn’t anticipate was that under the US-led war, as we saw the rise of the Islamic groups, including Islamic State of Iraq, which was existing in Iraq as far back as 2010, that those groups would be rising up to attack and target the churches. Though, we saw it happening as early as 2004 and 2006, there were many target… There were attacks on churches. I started hearing, because I was making contacts with the churches. I started hearing about kidnappings and priests and pastors who were being killed. It began to be the steady drumbeat.
What I thought, too, and I’m sorry to say that we’re seeing it again, is that with US military presence very heavy in the country, with political leaders who were working with Iraqi leaders, wanting to instill this idea of pluralistic democracy, had worked very hard with the Iraqis to create a governing assembly that would be composed of people from all the groups in Iraq. That meant one parliamentarian who is from the Christian block, but it meant others who were supportive of Christians. And they were working very hard on one level to create this kind of government, this kind of future for Iraq. But when it came right down to the persecution that was happening literally under the nose of US military and political leaders, they would not acknowledge it, and they would not take steps to prevent it.
I tell in the book the story of talking with a NATO advisor who had just come from a meeting of all the generals who are working in Iraq at that time. And he said that the [inaudible], because the situation, there’s so much turmoil in the Mosul region at that time. He asked the question, if the Islamic groups target the Christians, what will the United States military do? And keep in mind, we were based there. We had a hundred-thousand soldiers and we had a base right outside Mosul, and we had one that was just South of Nineveh plain. If they come after them, if they begin to target them, if they begin to take over some of their cities, what will the military do? And we watched as around the room, the generals shook their head and basically said we won’t do anything. That’s not what we’re here for.
What we saw from that, from the unwillingness of political leaders basically to uphold pluralistic society, which is what we count on here in this country, that out of that came all that unfolded, that Mosul became a place that became so dangerous for Christians to live in, a city, it used to be Nineveh, and it was a huge… It had a large Jewish population a century ago. And it had a large Christian population, that by 2014, a city of 2 million had 30,000 Christians living in it. When ISIS came in 2014, they were able to move them out, kill a number of them, and then move out from there into those villages, those very villages in Nineveh plain, and to empty them and to chase out all of the believers.
Because this political climate had been created, there was no sense of standing up to protect them. And so I think that when we think about persecution, there is a real place. We all have different roles that we can play, but there is a real place for political engagement. For leadership, for letting political leaders know that these things are happening and that we expect them to uphold our values, or in a foreign country, we want foreign leaders to uphold the protection of their own people.
We come forward to 2014, all of these people forced out, and now we’re in a situation where these communities have been liberated from ISIS. We saw this incredible fight. Syria, a number of areas of Syria have been retaken from some of the Islamic groups, and all of Nineveh plain, the Iraqi army with US support and other countries has retaken these areas. I was there in them in March, and it’s remarkable. The city of Mosul is just alive again. They have a Ferris wheel, lighted Ferris wheel, and shops coming back. The shopkeepers very quickly put out colorful dresses, because no one could wear colorful dresses while ISIS was in charge of Mosul, all the women wore black.
All these things are happening, but it’s the Muslims who are coming back because the Christians don’t have the security, the Christians don’t feel safe. They know that local people were involved in what happened to them in 2014, and they don’t yet feel a security. They’re starting to come back to these ancient villages because they have this incredible commitment to keeping Christianity in Iraq, in this area, that dates back to the second century.
So their commitment is remarkable, but they don’t have support. The Chaldean Archbishop of Iraq just wrote a piece this past week protesting, saying that we were promised… It was actually $33 million, which is not a huge sum of money for rebuilding whole cities, pledged by Vice President Pence last, I don’t know, September, October has not shown up. We have not seen any of the US aid that was promised. And when the US does that, other countries follow suit. So these countries aren’t receiving the money that it’s going to take to help rebuild their communities, and they lack the security.
What I’m saying is that, and this goes back to the big picture numbers that we were talking about earlier. Even if the persecution is not active and ongoing, if the persecution is systemic and it is keeping these believers from feeling safe, those communities in effect are wiped out. It is the same as an act of genocide, what we saw a couple of years ago. I do want to emphasize that in the midst of that, it’s remarkable to see what these small churches will do.
I was shocked when I went into one of the communities, the largest city in Nineveh that had about 60 to 70,000 Christians forced out of it in August 2014. And the churches in that city, they have not received US funding, they are not receiving UN funding that is going to Mosul. There’s a Norwegian group and Samaritan’s Purse, and a couple of other groups that are in town helping to organize some grassroots rebuilding of houses. But the church has organized something called the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee. Let’s be honest. We all know how hard it is for Christian, for church leaders of different denominations to come together in our city and do something. So here you have in the midst of this incredibly devastated situation, you have Chaldean church leaders and Syriac church leaders and Orthodox church leaders, and a few American Protestants thrown in who are trying to help them.
They have formed this committee, and they had this big map on the wall. They have surveyed every home that’s been destroyed in the city. They have color-coded them according to how much rebuilding they need. And they have divided the city into sectors and assigned people who say they will help with rebuilding and they’re using volunteer labor. So I looked at the map and I said, can we go look here? And they said, sure, we’ll take you out there. And so we went to these neighborhoods and we saw the way that people are rebuilding, and it’s fascinating. It’s remarkable because I think that they will wait months for governments to step in and do something to help them, but they are trying to do it themselves. And really their whole push is to reestablish the presence of Christianity, to be able to worship in their homeland and things like that again, and they’re willing to risk something to do it.
I think it has a lot to teach us. It teaches us we don’t often have to risk something, and so we lose that muscle. And I think that that risking something is actually part of the Christian life, part of what we’re hearing in these sessions. What they are doing is leading away and showing us.
I kind of want to pause. I could go on and tell you more stories, but I think I would really like to be sure that we have some time for questions. Let me do one thing, because I hinted at this and I didn’t come back to it. I’m sorry that I didn’t come back to it. This concerns me greatly, and it’s something that we’re seeing similar to this ancient community in the middle of Iraq. There’s also a very ancient Christian community that stretches along the border between Turkey and Syria.
There are monasteries there that date back to the third century. I walked into [inaudible] in 2015. It’s this big old structure. The monk who was taking me around and showing me and showing me some of their ancient documents, many of these places are repositories of scripture written in Syriac in the earliest centuries after Christ. And he also said, step down here. And he took me down under this chapel, and it was a sun temple. They don’t know how old it is, but it was a block sun temple, where they had the… There’s a name for the hole where the sun came in and they worshiped at certain times of the day. A pagan sun temple, and this monastery had actually been built on top of it. And so incredible history there.
Soon after I was there, the Turkish government seized [inaudible], and I was hearing from some of the people there, they didn’t know what was going to happen. The Turkish government ultimately turned it back over to them, but this happened in several places. And I think the whole point was to let the church know it shouldn’t assume its continued existence. And what we’ve seen happen now is we’ve seen the Turkish army has moved into this area under the guise of fighting terrorists as they’re fleeing Syria or fleeing Iraq, and they are wiping out these ancient Christian communities.
I just have finished reporting on this area near Afrin, or as some people say, which is a little bit west of where [inaudible] is, but also in an area that’s been largely Christian, a lot of [inaudible], so we’re seeing something that is like what we saw in Iraq in 2014. The Turkish government moved in with, we now know, a large contingent of radical Islamic fighters that they basically hired like mercenaries to fight alongside of them, and they forced out some of the Kurdish troops that have been protecting us. This is an area that was not at war, that was not currently an active part of the Syrian war, but they wanted to clear these communities, and they wanted to have a buffer of control.
What I find deeply disturbing is that the US, what ground forces we have in this area, are right nearby. They’re like 50 miles away, and Turkey is an ally. So we see how these policy decisions get made, where the US is basically saying, well, if Turkey controls this area, it’s probably better than, say, Iran controlling this area, or maybe better than Syria’s Assad controlling this area. So they’re willing to tolerate this kind of activity. But the bottom line is that the Christian population is quickly the victim, and the Christian population is considered dispensable.