I was raised in a nominally Christian home in Baghdad, but it was as a foot soldier in Saddam Hussein’s army during the Iran–Iraq War that I became convinced that as a follower of Jesus I could no longer kill or serve in the military. In 1990, with another war looming, I knew I would be called up again and that I faced execution if I refused to serve. I chose instead to flee Iraq with my wife, Layla, and our baby daughter. We received asylum in Sweden, and now are members of a Bruderhof community in England.
Naturally, the human tragedy sweeping the Middle East these days hits especially close to home. The crimes committed by ISIS and other factions that drive people, both Christians and Muslims, from their homes in Syria and Iraq cry to heaven. These are our people, and our hearts long to comfort them.
So we jumped at the chance when our church agreed to send us to Iraq for two months earlier this year to report on the situation of refugees and displaced people, and to encourage Christians suffering for their faith. When we landed in Erbil and stepped onto the soil of our homeland for the first time after so many years, we were overwhelmed, our tears of joy mixed with sorrow over all that has happened to our country.
We could not help noticing how decades of war have halted progress and dragged the country backward. The country’s infrastructure has been going downhill for twenty-five years. Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, had just begun to emerge from this devastation; we saw many signs of recent development and urbanization. But that mostly ground to a halt with the emergence of ISIS. Though this region borders ISIS strongholds, thousands of displaced people have sought refuge in its relative safety, and even Christians from Baghdad have found it a temporary haven. This influx, along with increasing military expenditures, has caused intense economic pressure. On top of that, almost everyone we spoke to complained of corruption and the looting of state funds.
We visited several camps for displaced people – Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis. Outside the camps, sheltering wherever they could find space, were Christians from Mosul, the Nineveh plain, and Baghdad. The citizens of Kurdistan, though of different religions, have opened schools, halls, churches, and uninhabited houses to accommodate the torrent of refugees. Still, many end up on the streets, sleeping on the ground in people’s yards and public parks.
We heard horrific stories of evictions from people who had left behind property, possessions, businesses, churches, and the graves of loved ones. It is hard to forget the story of one elderly woman who told us she had tripped and fallen when ISIS attacked her village; her legs have been paralyzed ever since. One family had already migrated within Iraq three times, fleeing first from skirmishes between ISIS and the Peshmerga, the Kurdish army, in their hometown, Qaraqosh. They took refuge in Sharanish, a remote village near the Turkish border, only to come under fire from Turkish airstrikes targeting Kurdish militants.
An eighty-five-year-old widow told us how she returned to her home in Mosul after visiting relatives. She didn’t know what had happened but saw that there were no Christians and that all the men were bearded. She went and asked an imam what had happened to all the Christians. He replied that they all had to become Muslims. She said, “But I don’t want to become a Muslim.” To which he said, “Then you will be killed.” She is now being cared for by the church in a small village in Kurdistan.
We also met people who had been kidnapped for ransom. One Christian man from Baghdad was kidnapped by his own neighbor, a man he had thought was a friend. He told us about the insults, false accusations, and brutal treatment he endured. A full week after payment of the ransom, he was finally released. A Christian woman told us about the day she set out to fetch her son from school. Since it looked like rain, she had brought along her umbrella. On the way, a car pulled up beside her and three armed men got out. They trained their machine guns on her and ordered her into the car. When she refused, one of them caught her by her long hair, wrapped his beefy hand in it, and yanked so vigorously that it was pulled out at the roots. As they tried to push her into the car, she prayed silently to the Virgin Mary, pleading for help. Unexpectedly, the umbrella popped open, momentarily making a barrier between her and her assailants. She broke free and fled to the nearest doorway as the men opened fire, hitting the ground at her feet. The resident, a Muslim, opened his iron door and then locked it behind her, saving her from certain kidnapping.
In the midst of all this tragedy some surprisingly cheerful individuals stood out. In obtaining the pearl of great price – faith in Jesus Christ – these new Christians had been given an overwhelming joy despite their circumstances. They said they were no longer worried about their situation because their future was now in the hands of the Lord. Several testified that Jesus had saved them from death at the hands of extremists. We marveled to see in their jubilant faces the work of the Lord in this war-torn land. Shouldn’t our prayer be that those who have driven these people from their homes find faith and repentance, too?
Most of the people we spoke with want to emigrate because they do not see a stable future in Iraq. This was not surprising. But we found others opposed to emigration on nationalist grounds. They would say to us, for example, “This is our country, our land and the land of our ancestors. Our history is here.” Or, “We will not leave our homeland. We have sacrificed our blood for it, the blood of many martyrs in many wars.” Or, “Have we killed so many of the enemy, so many ISIS troops, only to flee?”
This attitude, expressed so passionately, made Layla and me remember why we left Iraq. Didn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies? Is it not our calling as Christians to represent the peaceable kingdom of God here on earth? Although every homeland is precious, Christ and his church are our dearest treasure. If governments ask us to do evil things against the commandments of Jesus, we must obey God rather than men. When this brings persecution, sometimes we will have to stand firm, and sometimes we may have to flee.
We did not feel we could advise anyone whether to go or stay. We would pray with them for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But we did urge them to stand together in solidarity as a Christian community, putting the principles of the kingdom of God into practice as a group: lifelong commitment, full dedication, total sharing, love to all people, and service to one another, their neighbors, and their country. For this is God’s will for his people, and this is the most important testimony they can bring to the world: unity, solidarity, a shared future, and a shared destiny. The church of Christ is a united group, not a bunch of independent individuals who are not bound to one another. In every decision, we should give priority to the church, which represents the kingdom of God on earth as its holy embassy.
An Arabic version of this article is also available.
Photographs courtesy of Yacoub Yousif unless otherwise credited.