The situation in Iraq has been in the news for all the wrong reasons for large parts of this year. As the militant group IS target and attack all who don’t adhere to their strict views of Islam, Christians (and other religious minorities) have fled homes, fearing for their lives. Many churches have been destroyed and atrocities have been committed. Here, Emma catches up with Henry, an Open Doors worker who has been in and out of Iraq this year, trying to serve and support the remaining Christian community.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the current situation for Christians in Northern Iraq? In some senses it feels like the coverage in our media has dipped a little bit, so it would be great to hear what the current situation is.
Henry: The situation is still very terrible. But then news goes on. That’s a very weird thing in our times that if the news is almost the same reporting of the situation dips. But it is pretty bad. I mean there are still 150,000 Christian refugees in Iraq. If you put that in perspective, in the early ‘90s, there were about 1.2 million Christians in the whole of Iraq – that number dropped to about 300,000. Of that number half of them are on the run, or displaced internally. Just picture how a church in your country would be with half of the population displaced, or going through severe difficulties. It’s a very sad situation. In brief, that’s the bigger picture.
Also, when you look at the situation now, the summers in Erbil, that’s in Northern Iraq, are very hot, but the winters, they can also get quite cold. They also have wet autumns, like we do in the UK and here in the Netherlands. I’ve already seen pictures from Dohuk, that’s also in Northern Iraq, where a tent camp was completely blank with water. It’s also the situations and conditions that people are living in now that’s so hopeless. There seems to be no good solution for them. They’re still dealing with trauma, the terrible situations that refugees have experienced, it’s very sad.
Q: Speaking about hopelessness, we have seen a few reports about people who, despite the hopelessness, are really being salt and light in these situations. Can you perhaps tell us about a person, or a group of people, who have really inspired you?
Henry: That’s a good point you raised, because despite the hopelessness there is always hope. That’s a thing I was really encouraged by, just to see that there is hope. There is a tent camp which we have been to several times. The pastor inside this camp is Father Douglas who’s just a very inspiring, very great man. He’s really a man of God, filled with vison by the Holy Spirit to give people a place to live and feel welcome. He was in the military when he was younger. He says that in the military you have to give soldiers something to do so they won’t get bored, or so they won’t sink away into sadness. He really knows how to motivate people and keep up the spirits in this camp.
Actually, I’m saying camp but that’s a habit. I also did it when I was there and he always corrected me. “This is not a camp, it’s just a temporary place for people to be; a temporary home for people. So we call it a Church Center.” He has a passion that’s mind-blowing, and it’s been going on for months already. It’s very inspiring to see this man of God serving his people, but also other people who need food and materials.
See Father Daniel in action…
This center has a child friendly space. It’s a big tent specifically for children, because Father Douglas knows they need a place for themselves. They also have paddling pools. It’s fun in the hot summer, but he also uses them to give the children a good bath. They go round with a big bottle of Dettol, to keep the hygiene in a good state. At the end of the day Father Douglas always invites the children to join him for his ‘daily garbage moment’. He gives the children responsibility for keeping the center neat and clean.
He’s really a very inspiring person. He’s also doing the church services and encouraging people to have hope. I think he’s an amazing person and I would love to see many more church leaders like him.
Q: Linked to that Henry, what do you see God doing in the lives of believers? Obviously they’ve seen horrific things, and yet you say there’s still hope. So what’s God doing in their lives?
Henry: It varies a little bit from person to person. Some indeed do have hope, others have lost hope. There are people who fled from Baghdad in 2003 to Mosul, and then from Mosul for a short time in 2006-7. Then back to Mosul, and now again they have to flee to Erbil. So there are a lot of people who have lost their hope. Who think it’s just enough.
But others, remarkably, keep their hope. We visited a primary school where there are three to four families living in every classroom. The daughter of a lady in this school had gone through a very nasty car accident. They were pushed off a fly over by terrorists who wanted to kill her, and she was severely injured. Her mother-in-law said “It’s not a good thing and we are going through lots of terrible things, but we do have hope… We will be compensated in heaven. It’s not good here. It’s not good now, but we have hope that God will give us a better future.”
Others who have not had to flee several times already, really have hope. They say that “it’s terrible now, we have had to leave everything… But I trust that one day this will be over and we will go back to Qaraqosh [one of the cities that is empty now] because that is where I was born, that is my home soil , that’s where my family has lived for centuries, so we are not leaving, we are not giving up.” I pray that people will maintain their hope and not let the church die in this region.
Q: Speaking about prayer, what would you say would be the key things that we in the UK should know and pray about specifically?
Henry: I think the first point would be to pray for those who don’t have that hope yet, for example the Muslims and the Yazidi. We went to a Christian village, where they were also hosting Yazidi families. I saw a huge difference between Christians and those Yazidi. Some people were living in unfinished concrete structures, so people are very happy that they have a roof over their head, but when you look in the eyes of those Yazidi women and men, then you see this emptiness, and they really didn’t express any hope. So one of the key things to pray for is for those who don’t know Jesus yet. I really hope that they will see the light of Jesus in their lives.
I pray that people will maintain their hope and not let the church die in this region.
Another key thing to pray for is for Christians themselves to stay encouraged, that they will keep hope. Many are losing their hope, or don’t know what the future will hold for them. One man said “I’m 58 now, but 50 years of my life my country, Iraq, has been involved in some kind of war. So this should stop at some point.” It’s also a point for prayer for Christians to remain hopeful and to be able to deal with the trauma and traumatic events they have gone through. Some refugees are living in houses, but most of them are living in unfinished concrete houses, or camps near churches. That’s a lot of people in a very crammed area, which means it is a very stressed situation. Let’s pray for peace in people’s hearts, for Christians to be able to live in peace with each other in their current circumstances.
And another key thing to pray for is for the people hosting these refugees. Church leaders, church workers or NGO’s who offer relief. Let’s pray for more people like Father Douglas, with a very great vision for the people they are hosting, and that the hope of Jesus will touch people.
Q: We’ll definitely use those and we’ll pray. What’s the biggest faith lesson you learnt from you recent trip to Iraq?
Henry: When I first went to Iraq it was just after America had their first involvement with some ISIS posts. It really was uncertain what was going on and how fast ISIS would advance. So I went there with fear in my life. It was mid-August, and I was thinking, maybe they had only just started. But in being in Iraq and meeting those Christians who are so full of hope, and especially some church leaders so full of hope, I learnt you can fear, and ISIS can bring fear, but we don’t have any reason to be frightened because God is hope. For me that is a very strong and very solid foundation.
I learnt not to let my self be talked down by these rumours or these terrible acts that may bring fear into our hearts, because we have Jesus. It sounds very simple, but that’s one of the key things that I learnt, that I don’t have any reason to fear, because we’ve got Jesus on our side.
Q: From here in the UK we can feel a bit helpless – what more can we be doing?
Henry: It’s good to let you know that in July, in London, there was a big rally to support Iraqi Christians. We took pictures of this event with us on the first trip to Iraq to let people know ‘ You are not forgotten’. I could only go there with one or two people, just a very small team, but we showed these pictures to show them, reminding them that they are not forgotten. We told them ‘this event was especially for you’. We try to take photos and videos of the things we are doing in the west over with us as encouragement.
About a week after this interview another Open Doors field worker was in touch with Father Douglas, who Henry spoke about. As the situation continues and refugees cannot return home, the situations in church centres are getting worse.
The conflict has been going on for months already and tensions where refugees are staying grow. The weather is getting cold and it sometimes rains for days in a row. Refugees realise there will not be a quick solution. Father Douglas mentioned frequent occasions of aggression, especially amongst the men in the Church Center, resulting from trauma, hopelessness and bereavement. The past four months have also taken their toll on Church leaders like Father Douglas, so they really need our prayers.
We support people who are beaten, tortured,
imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.