‘I miss my Dad’—Why this persecuted 11-year-old still trusts Jesus in Iraq

December 8, 2021 by Lindy Lowry in Middle East

She’s wearing reindeer ears, a glittery dress and a big smile: Rafif is 100 percent ready for Christmas. She stands on her toes to add an ornament to the top of the Christmas tree and points to the happy Christmas decorations around the house that she shares with her mother and grandmother.

“Christmas is always lovely,” says Rafif. “You giggle, you laugh and most importantly you spend time with the people who you love.”

Rafif kneels next to a nativity scene situated in a paper mâché cave: there is hay, along with puppets of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus in His manger.

“My father made this,” Rafif says, carefully adjusting some figures in the scene. “I never knew him, but by setting up this nativity scene each year, I feel he’s there with Christmas a little bit.” E

Eleven years ago, when Rafif’s mother was pregnant with Rafif, her father, Raddif, went out for what seemed to be a normal day of work in his shop near the University of Mosul.

Watch Rafif’s story

Not a normal day

Raddif saw the danger more quickly than anyone else. The university was the only one in the region at the time, and Christian students came to college there from surrounding villages. He Raddif noticed explosives, ready to detonate, at the arrival site of the buses from Christian villages.

“When he saw the bomb, he ran towards the bus and shouted and waved at them,” Rafif tells us “He told them, ‘don’t move, or we will all be dead.’” The bus drivers listened to Raddif: They all stopped. Because of Raddif’s heroic action, only one of the targeted young Christians died.

But that day, he paid with his life. Raddif died without ever meeting his daughter.

“They hated Christian people,” Rafif says when we ask if she knows why the extremists had targeted the Christian buses. “They wanted to get the Christians out of this world and out of this country; that’s why they tried to kill them.”

‘I miss my dad’

A few days later, Rafif is at her church, which is also colorfully decorated for Christmas. Parents drop off their children and some stay to chat with one another for a little bit, while the kids run to their friends immediately.

For Rafif, watching these moments can be painful. “I miss my dad,” she says. “Especially when I hear my friends talk and say ‘my dad did this with me, my dad brought me that.’ I have asked God: ‘Why did You take my father away? Why did You do this?’” While most children still have their father, none of the children at the church is a stranger to persecution.

Even at their young age (the kids here are between 8 and 12 years old), all share horrifying memories of when ISIS overtook this area of Iraq in 2014. For some, the memory might be seeing their church change into a refugee camp overnight; others still have nightmares about men with long beards taking even the few coins from their pockets.

Many children never returned to the house they lived in before ISIS came. Rafif, for instance, is from Mosul, a place still deemed too unsafe for Christians to return. For the tens of thousands of Christian children in Iraq, it is essential to start building a relationship with the Savior born in a manger—persecution was in the past, but it is also in the present and might spike in extreme ways in the future. That is why Open Doors invests in these children with the help of local partners and churches.

Stand with children of the persecuted church

Open Doors works through local church partners in Iraq to strengthen our youngest brothers and sisters. With your support, children of persecuted families receive Christian books and the opportunity to know Jesus and learn about Him. And churches like Rafif's get practical items, such as tables and chairs, for their church schools. Church teachers are trained in the best teaching techniques and receive funds to set up learning activities for children.

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Finding the Savior in the manger

Rafif’s church is one of the places Open Doors has supported. The Christian education class she attends is one of the ways in which the children are encouraged to grow in their relationship with the Lord and follow Him despite ongoing persecution—and the fear of increased, future persecution. The head teacher, Mrs. Moshriq, leads the 20 teachers who educate the kids at this church.

With the support of Open Doors partners, the church has become a Center of Hope, a place that helps the Christian community with a variety of training and support. “We divided the children into age groups,” she says. “We tell them stories, but we also do activities so that they feel like they are part of the story. If we don’t support these children spiritually, they will not be able to overcome the pain and suffering they encounter.”

Moshriq continues: “It is important for the children to feel at home in the church and make the stories their own. We start eight weeks before Christmas, sending them daily online lessons about the story and the meaning of Christmas. We also continue our weekly meetings. We then help the children to tell the story of Christmas in their own words, or through a little play. On Christmas Day, they then contribute to the service.”

The lessons help Rafif work through what happened with her father. “There are stories in the Bible where people save the lives of other people,” Rafif says. Then, she jumps up in excitement. “When I hear those stories I think: Hey, that is my dad! He also died to save the lives of others, just like the special people in the Bible.” The Bible has become more familiar for Rafif thanks to the classes. “You know, whenever I feel like I am not in the right place, I read the Bible,” she says. “That gives me confidence that I am in the right place.”

Rafif knows Iraq is not the only place where children are persecuted for their faith. All over the world, millions of children miss their parents, face violence or are discriminated against for their faith.

“Every one of those kids should have a Christian education class like I do,” Rafif says. “They need to know their roots, and they need to know what the truth is, what the reason is they suffer. The most important thing I have learned in Christian education class is that God is always there for me; He never leaves me.”

With that, Mrs. Moshriq gathers the children, who each find a place to sit and grab their music sheets, perfectly socially distancing in the pews. In the darkness of this country filled with persecution, the children have found their spark: Jesus, who came to this earth and still is with us.

Rafif’s lips form the words of the song they sing together. The girl who lost her dad sings out: “Today, we are gathered with joy. The enemy has been defeated and our fear was taken away. Jesus was sent down from Heaven, glory to Him who sent Him to us.”

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