Despite the Islamic State's attempts to destroy all evidence of Christianity in Iraq and Syria, the Church continues to function, serving as a tremendous source of encouragement and refuge to those displaced by terror.
A recent report from persecution watchdog Open Doors USA notes that over the past several years, numerous ancient church buildings and monasteries have been demolished one after another by ISIS militants. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of Christians have been driven from their homes and many others killed because of their faith.
Experts believe the continuous attacks on Christian communities, symbols, and structures by ISIS shows that the group is continuing in its attempt to "cleanse" their caliphate.
"As a westerner, you cannot imagine the alarming mental impact of the ongoing devastation," "Robert," Open Doors' coordinator for Syria and Iraq, said of those living in regions under ISIS control.
However, despite such destruction, the Church continues to be more relevant than ever before, Open Doors reveals. In regions which repel ISIS, Christian churches are the primary providers of food and shelter for those displaced by terror.
"From the very start of the crises in Iraq and Syria, churches spontaneously formed an approachable relief network," Robert said. "Displaced Christians asked for help at local churches and monasteries. It was there they met pastors and parishioners who provided them with their essential needs. In most cases they still do."
"Syrian Christians are trying to cope with more than seven million Internally Displaced Persons," he continued. "In addition, we observe a new development best described as an 'internally displaced church.' Every now and then we discover complete parishes adrift. Islamic State confiscated their church building, demolished their valuables and burned their Bibles. Despite this, the priest and his deacons continue holding services and celebrating liturgy. Functions are fulfilled and prayers ascend to God. All tangible elements of the church have disappeared, yet the church as the Body of Christ still functions. Arduously and flawed, but it still functions."
He added that many Christians are traumatized by their experience, as many of them were targeted and tortured because of their faith.
"That is the experience they carry with them wherever they go," he said. "Christians stand by their behavior, the language they speak, the food they eat and the clothes they wear. Many of them wonder if they could ever trust a Muslim neighbor in a packed refugee camp."
As more and more Christians continue to seek refuge in Churches amid continuing war and insecurity, the need for supplies, money, and volunteers has increased.
"The need is overwhelming and increasing," Robert said. "As Open Doors, we have provided aid and support to churches in Iraq and Syria for years now. By doing that, we throw a lifeline to many churches which act as a rare shelter; a last hope for many Christians."
He added that Christian aid groups are faced with a "major task".
"The pressure on local workers, pastors and church members is increasingly heavy, both practically and spiritually. In Iraq, for instance, our work with displaced Christians is in the shadow of mainstream international aid operations in massive refugee camps. Some large-scale aid projects for Christian refugees, those in the Ankawa District of Erbil for example, gain some international attention."
Robert revealed that in many small villages, only priests, pastors, and parishioners will take care of refugees. Thus, when Christian groups stop supporting such efforts, "we deprive the people of the opportunity to act as salt and light in the midst of their present darkness," said Robert.
"Most Christians have lost their trust in the international community, their government and their own countrymen. Let us work to ensure that they do not lose their trust in the Church, which is a shadow of Jesus Christ."
Robert is asking Christians worldwide to continue praying for the Persecuted Church in Iraq and Syria and noted that in the coming months, the organization needs labor and gifts to continue and expand outreach.
"We are one of the very few organizations still operating in Syria," Robert says. "That is not because of our impressive efforts, but only because, in a very special way, we were given access to an extensive network within the country long before the crisis manifested itself. We cannot walk away from the responsibility that we have received. Providing aid to displaced Christians in Syria can only take place through local churches; there are no other responsible methods. The Church in Syria is willing to take on this task, and it is up to us to serve them."