NEW YORK — A new photographic exhibition documenting the lives and suffering of persecuted Christians in Iraq and Nigeria aims to act as a “warning and hope” for the faithful, the exhibit’s photographer has said.
Stephen Rasche, an American Catholic lawyer who left his commercial practice almost 10 years ago to help persecuted Christians in Iraq and then Nigeria, told the Register July 6 that his photographs aim to show that the persecuted are “innocent people, who have suffered greatly for their faith, and who are still suffering today,” and that such persecution “can come for us all.”
At the same time, the images also aim to convey “the deep perseverance that comes from deep faith. In that sense,” he added, “this exhibit has been designed to serve as both warning and hope.”
The photographs, many of which have been published in media worldwide, are on display until July 28 in an exhibition called “Among the Displaced” at the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in New York. The exhibit, at the center’s Janet Hennessey Dilenschneider Gallery, will then move to various venues throughout the U.S. in 2023-24, including Washington, D.C., Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
David DiCerto, the Sheen Center’s director of faith programming, called it a “dramatic photo exhibit” that “speaks powerfully through a vocabulary of stark black-and-white images about faith, resilience and, ultimately, the hope that is at the heart of Christianity, even amid persecution.”
The exhibit, he added, “invites viewers into deeper empathy and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ displaced by hatred and war, while raising greater awareness of the growing threat of anti-religious violence in our global culture.”
Both Iraq and Nigeria have suffered intense persecution in recent years and especially over the past decade.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Christians were targeted by Islamist groups such as al-Qaida, and then suffered even greater persecution from 2014 to 2018 when parts of Northern Iraq, home to ancient Christian communities, were brutally occupied by Islamic State (ISIS). Christians have also suffered from marginalization and limited education and work opportunities.
The exact numbers are not known, but hundreds of thousands of Christians are thought to have been killed in Iraq over the past 20 years, and almost 1.5 million have been displaced, with 80% of the Christian population having left the country.
Over the past 14 years, more than 50,000 Nigerian Christians, including many priests and religious, have been brutally murdered by Islamist militants. Five million Christians have been displaced and forced into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps over the past decade. In the first four months of this year, 1,000 Christians were killed and hundreds of others kidnapped.
Rasche had been working on commercial projects in Northern Iraq since 2006 when, in the summer of 2014, Iraqi Christian friends asked for his help after ISIS began violently occupying the region. Later that year, after a brief discernment, he traveled to Iraq to offer his expertise as legal counsel and coordinator of displaced persons for the Chaldean archdiocese of Erbil which, at that time, was largely responsible for nearly 150,000 homeless Christians.
While there, Rasche, a keen photographer, took pictures and video and logged his experiences, which included accompanying small groups of priests to destroyed Christian towns to survey the damage left by ISIS. His experiences also led him to publish an acclaimed 2020 book, The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East.
That same year, Rasche’s desire to help the persecuted took him to Northern Nigeria, where he has been helping to support Catholic-run humanitarian projects developed in response to the violence and mass displacement in the region.
“One of the questions I’m most often asked is, how is it that I found myself in these places?” he said, adding that he took the decision “after surviving a major health challenge.”
“Throughout my recovery, I came increasingly to understand that I needed to make a serious decision regarding my own faith. Did I truly believe in it? And if so, what then was I called to do about it?”
“That decision eventually took me to a new life, the life of a Catholic field worker among the displaced,” he said.
“The human reality of that world is what I hope people can see in this exhibit,” he explained. “I am grateful every day to have been blessed with the chance to live and work among these people, and certainly, I do feel a responsibility now to help share their reality with people in the West.”
Around 110 million displaced people live in the world today, he noted, “more than at any time, ever, in human history.”
“They are our brothers and our sisters,” Rasche said. “And touching them is just a decision for us to make.”