The insurgent group sweeping across Iraq and Syria and taking control of provinces announced June 29 it had established a caliphate, an Islamic state led by a religious and political leader -- in this case, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
As ISIS, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, continues its terror-fueled advance, Southern's J. Scott Bridger said the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- which began June 28 -- is a timely reminder to pray for both Christians persecuted in the violent struggle and Muslims who participate in the annual observance.
"Oftentimes movements of Muslims to faith in Christ have come out of these intense times of prayer and reflection," said Bridger, who advises Christians to adopt a Muslim people group during Ramadan for prayer by their churches.
"We need to raise our voices much louder on behalf of Middle Eastern Christian communities that have basically existed for 2,000 years," Bridger said. "You have Christians in this whole area that are basically being exterminated."
Christians, Shiite Muslims and Sunnis with more democratic ideologies are among the victims of the indiscriminate violence that the Sunni-rooted ISIS has inflicted on those who disagree with its ambition to create an Islamic state.
"Any person who does not align with their particular ideology is declared an infidel, which allows to kill them -- to declare them an apostate and take them out," Bridger said. In June, ISIS released footage claiming to show the mass execution of 160 people, while the United Nations reported 2,417 dead in Iraq during the month.
ISIS believes that government and religion go together and "Islam is the solution," Bridger, director of Southern's Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, explained. Originally ISI (Islamic State in Iraq), the group expanded to Syria during the ongoing civil war, where it has fought against both the Syrian government and the opposition forces. The claim of the supposed Islamic state includes territories ISIS captured from Iraq's Diyala province to Syria's Aleppo province.
"What they're wanting to establish is Islamic states throughout the world and to replace what they see as decadent democratic regimes with Islamic regimes -- that's an Islamist ideology," Bridger said, noting that Islam is a diverse tradition with violent and nonviolent factions.
ISIS has called all Muslims to declare allegiance to its leader, al-Baghdadi, in an effort to revive a caliphate system that has not existed for nearly a century. Bridger said the idea that there was ever a unified caliphate is a "myth."
"It's a myth of the modern Muslim mind that there was this one caliphate that had legitimacy for all Muslims in all periods of time," Bridger said, explaining that rival caliphates have claimed various regions throughout history. "It's a romanticized understanding of Islamic history."
Another misunderstanding of the Middle East is evident in the call for peace from government officials in the West. President Barack Obama urged the Iraqi government in June to find a peaceful solution to the Sunni-Shiite conflict, a plea Bridger described as "idealistic and naive."
"You can't put a Band-Aid on these kind of conflicts," Bridger said. Calls for peace ignore the fact that democracy has not been adequately cultivated in the Middle East, he said.
Bridger, in addition to leading the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, is the Bill and Connie Jenkins assistant professor of Islamic studies at the Louisville, Ky., seminary.
A guide to unreached people groups can be found online through the International Mission Board at imb.org/globalresearch. For more information about the Jenkins Center, go to jenkins.sbts.edu.
S. Craig Sanders writes for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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