As Christians flee violent persecution from Islamic extremists in Iraq, a religious activist from the American heartland has become one of the crisis’ emerging messengers by way of multimedia. “There is nowhere on the planet where as many religious minorities are threatened and killed at this level of intensity,” says Jeff Gardner, a humanitarian photographer and author based in Missouri. “Many people aren’t aware of the problem.”
Gardner recently launched The Picture Christians Project, an interactive photo-based website that gives the gospel community an intimate view of Iraqi Bible believers on the run. “The goal is to bring visual images and information,” says Gardner, who is a doctoral candidate at Regent University in Virginia. “You have to pay attention, know who the key players are and understand what’s going on.”
The project hopes to gain significant strength after the launch of its forthcoming e-book entitled “Exiled,” which features photos of displaced Christians who’ve fled the Islamic incited mass murder and mayhem in Iraq. Gardner, who traveled to the region as the project’s sole photographer, says his motivation has been groomed by a deep sense of Christian camaraderie and concern. “I just started wondering about what happens to these Christians when their church gets blown up or after their shop gets burned down. Where do they go? It’s terrible,” says Gardner. “The trauma that leads to an exile, such as a car bomb or a kidnapping, gets lots of attention. But the prolonged problem of being run out of your home, business or regular life, and thrown into exile for years and years… that’s the central and fundamental problem.”
Daily life can be frustrating for exiled Iraqi Christians. Many local countries are pro-Muslim and ban the Bible believing refugees from obtaining jobs or finding schooling for their children. The immigration process can be just as daunting, as case files often languish in limbo for years.
Gardner, who plans to sell the “Exiled” e-book for $10.00 each, will use half the proceeds to fund The Picture Christians Project. But the rest of the money will support Iraqis who agreed to be photographed for the publication. “If I can give a refugee family a thousand dollars so an immigration attorney can move their case forward… that will transform their life,” says Gardner. “If I can give somebody a hundred dollars for a sowing machine… that will transform their life.”
As Gardner promotes his cause and website, which can be found at www.picturechristians.org, he's planning the next phase of the interface’s future. Gardner, who returns to Iraq in roughly a month to snap more photos and record new stories, wants to build a global network of multimedia makers who share his passion for profiling the persecuted Church. “We’re looking at organizing groups to take photographers to places where they can meet those Christians, bring those strong images back and use the power of pictures to connect people,” says Gardner. “There is an interconnectivity and an opportunity to relate.”