When most people read about atrocities taking place in a faraway land or see a report on TV or on the Internet, they may be concerned and possibly send in a donation. But when the Rev. Chris Bishop learned the violent group ISIS was driving Iraqi Christians from their homes, beheading men who refuse to convert to Islam and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery, he had to act.
“The father of one of my parishioners was living and working in Erbil for several years,” said Bishop, who is the priest in charge at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Radnor. Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a place where some 120,000 Iraqi Christian refugees have fled for sanctuary. “He came to see his kids who were in a Christmas pageant. He and I struck up a conversation,” said Bishop.
While Erbil is “the safest place in Iraq for Christians, they are in desperate circumstances.” They are living in basements, tents and wherever they can find space. The plight of Iraqi Christians “doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of attention here in the states,” said Bishop.
“It was one of these moments. I really had this sense I needed to do something about it. It wasn’t that someone had to. I had to.” After learning more about what was happening in Iraq, Bishop took the issue to his congregation and “they were also really moved by the situation.” “It’s a humanitarian crisis, first and foremost,” he said.
“These are human beings who have lost everything. The churches have been bombed. Their families and friends have been sometimes killed. They have had guns put to their heads: ‘Convert or die.’ This is all on account of ISIS. One of their goals is to wipe out Christianity in the Middle East.” While some people think of Christianity as a western religion, it began in the Middle East, he noted.
“So these are some of the oldest Christian communities on the face of the earth,” Bishop said. They are a variety of denominations, including Chaldean Catholics, Assyrians, Syriac Orthodox and some Protestant churches. “They were founded in the First Century, some of them. They are some of the only churches that still pray in Aramaic, which is the language that Jesus would have spoken. And they’re literally being liquidated.”
“Here in the states there’s a lot of talk about the Christian church and churches are having a hard time and the changing role of the church,” Bishop said. “But the truth is, we worry about budgets and buildings and our people but these folks are losing everything.” Before he felt a call to become an Episcopal priest, Bishop was a documentary filmmaker.
He holds a MFA from Columbia University and during his 15 years as a filmmaker, one of the films he made, “Building the New El Salvador,” was shown on PBS. Bishop decided to marry his skills and plans to go to Erbil toward the end of September to make a documentary about what is happening to the Christians in Iraq.
In addition, Bishop will also be bringing money to purchase educational supplies to equip a van as a mobile teaching unit. Through a journalist who traveled to Erbil, Bishop was given as a contact Father Douglas Bazi of Mar Elias, a Chaldean Catholic Church. Bazi is working with the children there and suggested that their greatest need is teaching supplies and equipment and teachers, said Bishop.
“We didn’t just want to raise money and write a check and say, ‘Good luck,’” he said. “We wanted to create relationships with these churches over there. And let them know they are loved…that they are not alone.” If all the Iraqi Christians leave, that will be the end of Christianity in Iraq, he said. “That would be a loss, not just to the body of Christ, to Christianity, it’s a huge societal loss,” he said.
“ISIS is very violent and their Medieval theology that they’re trying to promote. It’s bad news for everybody if the church disappears over there.” Bazi and his group are teaching children, they are playing sports and learning the arts, “everything ISIS hates they are doing,” said Bishop.
To raise money for the Iraqi Christians, St. Martin’s held a concert last month, iROCK4IRAQ, has a crowd sourcing page (Indiegogo.com Stand With Iraqi Christians) and a website: www.standwithiraqichristians.org
Bishop, who lives in Malvern with his wife, Amanda Eiman, an associate rector at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Wayne, is working with Wayne film maker Andrew Bilindabagabo, who hails from Rwanda, where his father is an Anglican bishop. So far Bishop and his congregation have raised about $11,000 for the Iraqi Christians.
His wife’s congregation has chipped in toward equipment to film the documentary and the Right Rev. Clifton Daniel, bishop of the local dioceses “has been very helpful in providing pastoral and financial assistance for my journey to and from Erbil, Kurdistan in September,” said Bishop. Once the film is made and Bishop is back in the U.S., he plans to show it at area churches and give talks about his experience.
By Linda Stein