On a warm and bright summer afternoon, while much of the planet gathered around screens to watch the World Cup final, worshippers in downtown Washington's New York Avenue Presbyterian Church gathered to pray for the church in Iraq.
"Almighty God, Father of our Transfigured Lord, bestow heavenly peace on the ancient and biblical land of the Tigris and Euphrates," read a clergyman from Baghdad's new Council of Christian Churches. "Grant [your people in Iraq] the spirit of the good fight of faith and perseverance in that endeavor; give the political leaders of our time the courage to work for the sake of the weak," he continued, pausing to allow the 100 or so attendees seated in wooden pews also to pray silently. Churchgoers in Baghdad that day also meditated on the same prayer.
Propping the church in the Middle East appears a losing battle. If centuries of decline under Islamic hegemony haven't been enough, a few years of sectarian fighting and terrorism in Iraq are proving near fatal. The Christian population there has dropped from 1.5 million in 1990 to perhaps as low as 400,000-and many of them are internally displaced. Extremists target Christians in what amounts to ethnic cleansing in major cities, where vibrant Christian communities have dwindled to remnants. In Basra handfuls of believers meet to worship in house churches now.
This month pastors from Iraq traveled to Washington first to pray and then to plead before lawmakers and State Department officials for protection of their flocks. Theirs was a message of desperation: One pastor described a church reduced to two members by threats from Islamic militants; because the rest of their families have fled, the two live inside the church with a priest.
Let's be clear: The threat to Christians is directed by Islamic militants. But it is made possible by a lack of security and legal protection that the United States and its allies have permitted-starting notably in 2005 when the Bush administration pushed for elections at a time when many Iraqis warned they would lead to sectarian fighting. Those of us who supported the war (like me) and did so fully believing that its aftermath would include a better life for Christians (also like me) need to insist that our political and military leaders stand with these Iraqis in the very uncertain months ahead.
It's good to remember that New York Avenue Presbyterian Church has seen losing battles before. Abraham Lincoln and his family were regular worshippers there from the time he took office, and the family pew remains just as it was in the 1860s (signified by a small plaque bearing Lincoln's engraved signature). The president attended not only Sunday worship services but also mid-week prayer meetings. Asked about the sermons of then-pastor Phineas D. Gurley, Lincoln replied, "I like Gurley-when I go to church, I like to hear the Gospel."
Lincoln came to the church often during the summer of 1862-and also in desperation. Eleven states had seceded, and Lee's armies repeatedly rebuffed Union troops south of the capital. Lincoln was so dismayed by his own commanders he had relieved them; for four months, until mid-July, he would himself serve as general-in-chief. He wanted to end slavery, but the odds were stacked against him: Slavery was written into the U.S. Constitution, and by the beginning of the war it had become a $3 billion enterprise-twice the federal budget. As historian Edna Greene Medford notes in a special exhibition currently at the Smithsonian, "Slavery was as American as the nation's democratic institutions. . . . Every white man and woman throughout the nation benefited from it."
Lincoln in July 1862 began drafting what would become the Emancipation Proclamation. He sought Gurley's advice, and an early draft today resides in the first-floor parlor of the church. In those months he resolved to use presidential war powers granted under Article 2 of the Constitution to declare slaves in seceded states "thenceforward forever free." It was a bold stroke of public courage. And against all odds, it turned the course of American history. On their behalf Iraqi Christians need such a bold stroke of public courage now.
Email Mindy Belz