Fighting the Gates of Hell: The Hope for Christians in Iraq

March 24, 2019 by Ryan Hamm in Middle East

The night ISIS came, Jandark was reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

She was praying over and over again through the familiar words. It was dark, and she could only see two or three other lit homes in her part of Qaraqosh, her home town. The rest of the buildings were dark, left empty by the other Christians in Iraq who had fled the threat of ISIS.

The prayer must have taken on a new meaning for Jandark as she prayed. As she pleaded for God’s Kingdom, she knew that her city was at the mercy of radicals who wanted to murder God’s people. As she asked God for His will to be done, she knew she couldn’t control the destruction of her city—and her home.

An hour later, she was on a bus, headed away from Qaraqosh. She left the doors unlocked, so ISIS wouldn’t break them down. She took with her a few family pictures, and left behind a cross on the wall. The cross represented her only hope that ISIS might spare her home.

“’Jesus, why is this happening to us? Can you save us?’” she remembers asking. “I left the cross inside […] to save the house.”

A Numb Normalcy

As Jandark left, her daughter Joumana was nearing the end of her own journey. She’d left Qaraqosh several hours earlier with her aunt, after the explosions she heard let her know ISIS was getting closer. She left her mother and home, hoping they would follow soon. She didn’t know what she was going toward.

As she rode through the dark desert of northern Iraq, Joumana couldn’t know that the next time she’d see her mother, it would be in a church in the nearby city of Akre, filled to the breaking point with Christians in Iraq who were fleeing ISIS.

“For the first three months when we were displaced, we stayed at the church,” Joumana says now. “I lost my ability to feel. I don’t remember how we existed or what we ate or how the time passed; we were in shock for three months. I felt nothing.”

Perhaps what seems most shocking is how normal it all felt to Jandark.

“It happened to the whole [community]. It wasn’t just to me,” she remembers. “It happened to all of us. It was normal.” When an entire community suffers the same trauma, it feels ordinary to go through the unthinkable.

A Painful Return for Christians in Iraq

Jandark shares about feeling violated after they returned to their home and saw what ISIS militants had done to it.

Joumana and Jandark were soon able to move out of the church into a house. Joumana got a job as an elementary school teacher—a far cry from her career as an organic chemist, but a job nonetheless. They also got help from Open Doors partners in the region.

“We are very thankful, because they helped us in Akre in providing food and heating oil,” Joumana says. “They [also helped us] in rent [on] the house in Akra.”

That helped them bide their time for two years until the news finally came: Iraqi forces had retaken Qaraqosh from ISIS. And it was safe to return home. Slowly, Christians in Iraq began to come back.

When Joumana and Jandark arrived back home, they saw what ISIS had done—a small taste of the brutal chaos inflicted on their city and the entire region.

“How can I express my feelings?” Jandark wonders. “We lost [our] privacy. I took a step to the back and did not touch anything on the first day; I just stood for a half-hour to look at my house.

“I didn’t do anything; I just [thought about] how we lost our privacy.”

When she did bring herself to start going through her home, it was painful.

“Kitchen furniture was in our living room and it was filled with rats—deplorable conditions,” she says, visibly disgusted by the memory. “Our clothes were dumped [into another room], they took all our electronics. There was even a hammer here—they were trying to break [through] the ceiling.”

“When I returned, I saw a damaged house, clothes and dirt,” Joumana says. “We spent a week in the home [before] we were able to organize and clean. We [had to] clean the house, burned old clothes, paint the walls, fix the broken windows, fix broken taps and [make] some house [repairs].”

As for the cross Jandark had left as a symbol of God’s protection over their house? It was still there, but broken into four pieces.

“When I came back, I saw the cross was broken into four parts,” she says. “I put the four parts back together, and it’s still in my house.”

Radical Love

Joumana has returned to her job as an organic chemist and hopes to go on to earn her doctorate.

Joumana and Jandark are finishing repairs to their home, with the help of Open Doors’ partners. “When we returned to Qaraqosh, they supported us [by] painting the walls and some basic reconstruction,” Joumana says.

And now, one year later, the family has slowly rebuilt. Alongside their still-recovering city of Qaraqosh, they are standing strong for Jesus in the Middle East. Families have returned home, churches are being resurrected, and kids are going to back to school. But Christians in Iraq tell us there is still much work to be done.

She has returned to her job as an organic chemist and hopes to go on to earn her doctorate. Jandark attends church so much that Joumana gently teases her. The mother and daughter remain deeply connected and close to one another.

Following Jesus has also meant that for Christians in Iraq, rebuilding is coupled with forgiveness—even for the people who destroyed their home.

“’Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you [Matthew 5:44],’” Jandark says when asked what she would say to ISIS.

“The most beautiful thing in Christianity is humanity,” Joumana adds. “I do not deal with a person as if he is [only] a Muslim or is my enemy—I deal with them as a human being regardless of who they are.” 

“We grew up with this,” Jandark says. “Jesus taught us to never hate someone. Because we are Christians, [we live] life [as] optimistic people. We live the life of peace and love. Jesus is love.”

Struck Down But Not Destroyed

The entire city of Qaraqosh has lived through the shared trauma of being chased out by ISIS. The terrorist group may have wanted to destroy Christianity in Iraq, but the power of the Holy Spirit has been unleashed as Christians return and reclaim the faith of their parents, grandparents and beyond. Christianity has been part of the fabric of this region of Iraq since the time of Christ—and it’s clear ISIS has failed spectacularly in trying to stamp it out.

Jandark’s cross is a fitting symbol of her family—and for Christians in Iraq. The cross was left as a symbol that God is in Iraq, and can’t be chased out. Over the last several years, Christians in Iraq have lived out 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” Jandark’s cross was struck down—ISIS may have thought it was destroyed, but she knew it could be put back together.

Like Jandark’s cross, the people of Qaraqosh have been broken—but God is restoring them, piece by piece.

“Who built the Church? It is Jesus. The gates of hell will not overcome it,” Jandark says.

Even ISIS—in their brutal actions, surely an earthly glimpse of the gates of hell—couldn’t destroy the church in Iraq.

Open Doors’ seven-year global prayer campaign aims to restore hope to the church in the Middle East—so that they can be a source of hope to their communities, their countries, and their region. It’s about the worldwide Church coming together to see God do what so many people thought was impossible. And it’s about you boldly standing with them.

Join the Hope for the Middle East Prayer Movement today.

Learn more about how you can stand with the church in the Middle East.