As I walked toward the meeting hall, several impressive young Iraqis looked my way with smiles of welcome. It was not what I expected for a white-haired male in his 70s, meeting them for the first time. Their hospitality and open reception surprised me because young people are often self-conscious around strangers.
Their country, Iraq, was vulgarized by despot Saddam Hussein, brutalized by the 2003 invasion, and traumatized by intra-Islamic terror. To Westerners Iraq seems a confusing mixture of a failed military incursion, massive killings, ISIS beheadings, and corruption. As we flew into Erbil, the Kurdistan province in the northeast, I was astounded by the large, new and efficient terminal, by its clean streets and modern buildings. People were moving about seemingly unconcerned that just thirty minutes west ISIS was very much in control. I blinked twice to remind myself where I was.
In today’s configuration Iraq as a country is a creation of the past century. In the early 20th century, post WWI negotiations by the League of Nations carved up the Ottoman Empire to create what we now call Iraq. Yet this land has an enormous history—just down the road is the ancient city of Nineveh. Iraq is home to ancient civilizations from the 6thcentury BC and contains the biblical Garden of Eden. Names of cities and peoples here remind one of Old Testament stories about Babylon, Chaldea, the Sumerians and Assyria.
Iraq’s 36-million population is 75 percent Arab and 15 percent Kurd (not Arab) plus other ethnicities. Its oil reserves are huge: fifth largest in the world. Under Saddam 1 million people were killed in his war with the Persian Empire, Iran, not including the many his secret police killed and the thousands he smothered with mustard gas. The U.S. and its invading partners attempted to resolve its internal divisions; yet today there is an implicit federation of three distinct groups: Arab Muslims make up 75 percent composed of the majority Arab Shi’a and with Arab Sunni the minority; 22 percent are Kurdish Sunnis along with other smaller groupings. The Kurdish Peshmerga armies are at the forefront of battling ISIS, an offshoot of Al Qaeda which is part of the Sunni Muslim world. The Sunnis, disaffected by the Shi’a government majority under Nouri al-Maliki (the US/coalition choice to be president), make up the majority of ISIS.
The deep hatred between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims creates such division and may be an ongoing source of violence, like an active volcano producing unmitigated conflict.
Most Christians have been vacated by the war. Resident in the region for 2,000 years, the Christian community was 1.4 million in 1987. Today Operation World reports half a million, but people living here say a large part of those too have left. Just west from Erbil, Christians this past year fled Mosul, escaping from ISIS who gave them two options: convert or be beheaded. The situation is complicated by Assyrian Christians (Roman Catholic) along with the Kurds pressing for their own homeland based on their ethnicity. This infuriates ISIS, as Assyrian Christians are neither Arab nor Muslim.
Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Iraq, told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that she and 120,000 Christians fled ISIS, seeking freedom in the Kurdistan province. She asked, “Why should we leave our country? What have we done? The Christians of Iraq are the first people of this land. . . .Uprooted and forcefully displaced, we have realized that ISIS’ plan is to evacuate the land of Christians and wipe the earth clean of any evidence that we existed. This is cultural and human genocide. The only Christians that remain in the Plain of Nineveh are those who are held hostage.”
In downtown Erbil, I visited Father Douglas Bazi of the Chaldean Catholic parish. His analysis of ISIS and Muslim intention was candid and severe. Instead of vacating or harboring resentment, however, he persuaded the Canadian government to build a playground on the land of his parish, World Vision to build housing for 634 Christians who recently fled Mosul, and Samaritan’s Purse to build and fund an educational facility and program for the children.
I drove fifty minutes to Koya, a smaller city where many Syrian refugees have sought protection but are finding no work and little to supply their needs. World Compassion/Terry Law Ministries runs the only food program in the city. Terry’s global interest in mission has taken him into many troubled places. His recent book, Storm Chaser, tells of his remarkable life. Terry and I have been friends since boyhood and it was a special moment to see his work firsthand.
I stood facing 200 young people after their hour of praise and worship. From the Scriptures I spoke of how God uses us in spite of challenges. Telling them the story of a young boy’s fish and loaves through an interpreter, I explained how the Lord solves problems by using us, even though what we have seems meager. It was a wonderful moment of opening the Word. They laughed. They cried. They prayed. And at the end, on their feet, they applauded the wonderful news that God will use them, regardless of place or circumstance.
Iraq is an ongoing narrative of killings and murky characters; yet through its tragedies, miracles too are part of the story being written each day. The West looks for the role it may play in bringing about order. Political entanglements are so intertwined that outside attempts to secure its future often seem futile. Even so, in cities, communities, churches/parishes and individual lives, the Spirit is ever alive, bringing people into the loving presence of the risen Lord.
I was invited to the home of Fuad, a policeman and recent Christian convert, and organizer of the food bank for Syrian refugees. He asked me to offer the blessing before lunch with his wife and two children. I prayed a word of thanksgiving and protection over this family. And then I asked the Lord that as the children grow, they and their generation will be protected and the Gospel will find its way into their community, city, province, and nation.
Remember to pray for Iraq and its many peoples, that the witness of Christ will resurge, bringing peace to this nation.
Brian C Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance