ISIS tried to kill Christianity in Iraq. Here’s why they failed

August 18, 2020 by Open Doors in Middle East

It’s a cloudy day on the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq. A fresh breeze accompanies the breathtaking view of the mountains that surround the small city of around 40,000 people.

 

This area isn’t technically a desert like much of Iraq, but it’s still very dry—scrub brush and small plants dot the surrounding hillscape.

Like many communities on the Plains, there are Christians in this town—but also Yezidis, Shabaks and Muslims. Just behind the mountain, a centuries-old monastery is a silent reminder of the historic presence of Christians in this area. The Christians here trace their lineage back to the days of Jesus’ disciples—Peter even sent his greetings to the church in this region in 1 Peter.

featured in presence magazineDalia lives in a quiet corner of this town with her family—her husband Ghader, three young adult children and their white chihuahua. They have visited the monastery—a physical connection to their historical faith—but her first memories are of her grandmother’s garden, not far away from where we sit now. She remembers playing with her nieces and nephews, eating with the whole family, going to church together. They are beautiful memories … but they are now bittersweet.

That’s because Dalia won’t make new memories here with her extended family.

“I am the only one of my extended family that’s still here,” she says. “The others all fled Iraq because of the persecution.”

Dalia has known persecution as long as she can remember, but the most painful memory is the brutal murder of her uncle in the city of Mosul in 2006. He was one of the Christians killed by Islamic extremists to tell people following Jesus that they didn’t belong in Iraq. “During my uncle’s funeral, my father got a call,” Dalia remembers. “[The person on the phone said] if we didn’t give my uncle’s murderers a certain amount of money, they would kill my brother, too. So, we stopped the funeral and started to collect the money.”

Destruction and a hard return

Dalia walks with her pastor.

In August 2014, ISIS had taken Mosul and were threatening the nearby towns and cities on the Nineveh Plains. The world saw what ISIS was doing—murder, rape, torture and kidnapping. The Christians on the Nineveh Plains knew the stories, too. So, in the middle of the night, Dalia and her husband fled with their three teenage children. “I remember being so anxious. We left our house that we had spent years building and ran into the unknown, with not much more than the clothes on our back.”

Watch Dalia’s story below

The memories visibly touch Dalia, but despite the pain of the stories, she is surprisingly to the point about what she had to endure for her faith. “It is written in the Bible that those who believe in Jesus will be persecuted, and we know that very well,” she says. “This doesn’t mean these events didn’t affect me; I was crying the whole way when we fled, but it never affected my faith. The persecution made me cling to God even more.

“In the refugee camp, people asked me why I was smiling. I told them that we might have lost all our earthly possessions, but we still had Jesus and no one could take that away from us.”

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Dalia’s town was a different place when she returned in late 2017. The place of her sweet childhood memories was deserted, its burned houses covered by ISIS slogans. “We came back with the church,” she says. “When we came back, it was almost like a desert—the destruction, the burning. Our house was looted, the rooms torn down, on some of the walls they wrote, ‘The IS Caliphate.’

“Even inside my own house, I felt like a stranger, as if I didn’t belong to this place,” Dalia remembers. “It was excruciatingly painful; even my children felt like strangers in their own home.”

While many Christians left the country—Open Doors estimates around 40 percent of Iraq’s believers fled in the last decade—Dalia and her husband returned to the Nineveh Plains because this is their country and their heritage. This is where Dalia feels called to serve the church. But it’s not an easy life. “Our bags are always packed, just in case we have to flee again,” she explains. “I am very strict with my children; I urge them to be careful. My daughter studies in Mosul, where kidnappings and explosions often happen; it’s scary.”

How can anyone live like this? Dalia’s answer is simple. “It’s going to church and meeting God that gives me hope,” she says. “I pray a lot, and when I do it leads me to the Lord. When my prayers are deep and from the heart, I hear the voice of God inside of me, and the Holy Spirit speaks to my inner being.”

“Whenever I feel sad, oppressed or hurt, I cry out to God and receive a feeling of serenity in my heart.”

Finding new life in the desert

Dalia and some of the women from the Bible study that she helped to start.

Coming back to the Nineveh Plains, Dalia felt she needed something to strengthen her faith and restore her self-confidence, and she saw some of the women around her needed it too. Together with some neighbors who felt the same, she decided to act. “We thought, what is a better place to gather than the church, and what better place to find hope than in the Bible?” she says.

Through the giving of Open Doors supporters, the group of faith-driven women received training in setting up women’s meetings. “The trainers taught us how we could present the Lord Jesus to the women of our village, how to serve them in love, communicate with them wisely and transmit hope,” Dalia says.

After the training, Dalia and her friends started organizing regular Bible study meetings for women. They also offer prayer and encouragement. And it’s been a huge success. Last summer, around 150 women attended the gathering. “I feel the Holy Spirit is at work in us during the meetings; it’s such a joyful feeling,” Dalia says. “When I hear that a woman is preparing a Bible study at home, together with her husband and children, that really makes me happy.

“When we meet each time, we talk about the Bible together. We talk about women in the Bible who were persecuted and people who faced trouble firmly and strongly. Through this, we feel we exist; we feel the presence of our church and God. We see how happy the ladies are, and this increases our faith even more.”

Samera, a member of the study

“I attend all the meetings of the women’s ministry. Through these gatherings, we educate and develop ourselves. We learn about the Bible by studying it. After the meeting, I always talk about what I learned with my daughters, neighbors and friends. Not only did I learn a lot in these meetings, I also grew in confidence.”
*Representative photo used

These are signs of life in the desert left behind by ISIS. It’s much like the landscape itself—though it’s dry and arid, there are signs of life everywhere, if you know where to look. Dalia and the other women from her church are planting flowers in a desert, and your gifts and prayers are helping them bloom.

The local workers Open Doors supports keep in close contact with the organizers of the women’s meetings. They also train Christians who work with other groups in the town, such as city leaders and youth. “The local workers are a great support for us financially, as well as morally,” Dalia says. “With their help, the church became a Center of Hope. And without that support we wouldn’t be able to continue our work.”

The situation on the Nineveh Plains remains tense—the struggle isn’t over. Violent incidents against Christians still occur. But the church is standing strong because of your support. “We feel that we belong here again,” Dalia says. “We feel more confident and peaceful. I would like to thank everyone who supported us, and I want to ask them to keep supporting us, because we as a church need someone to stand with us. With your support we can continue our ministry and spread the word of the Lord, deliver the Word of life, right here in the midst of persecution.”

Lidya, a member of the study

“Through these meetings, we grow closer to each other and closer to God. We read and study the Bible. I now educate myself with stories from the Bible. I like especially the stories from women in the Bible; they have become my role models in life. I like how the committee sets up the meetings—they are very creative. This way we are encouraged to attend every meeting.”
*Representative photo used

Shortly after our team left the Nineveh Plains, the COVID-19 pandemic reached Iraq. The country went into lockdown, and church buildings were closed. In these new circumstances, Dalia and the ladies of her town went online. Living rooms turned into little churches. Doing Bible study at home is not a very common activity among the traditional Christians in Iraq, but the participants of the women’s ministry group have learned Bible study skills in the meetings.

Throughout the pandemic, Dalia and the other women continued to receive support from the local field workers through the phone and internet. They even met up with women from other committees online to encourage each other, sharing how they dealt with the crisis and how they supported one another.

Fortunately, the pandemic didn’t seem to hit Iraq particularly hard. Regardless, Dalia stands strong for Jesus in Iraq. She knows in every situation, in every crisis, there is only one thing she can do: Rely on the Lord. “I always remember the words of the apostle Paul and repeat them in my head,” she says. “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.

Sarwa, a member of the study

“I attend most of the meetings. I like to listen and come closer to God. The committee encourages us to participate, and they help us grow our confidence. Next to the lectures, we also have fun together: We eat and cook together and sometimes have lectures outdoors. The women’s ministry has broadened my view and changed the way I think.”
*Representative photo used

What’s a Center of Hope?

Open Doors started the Centers of Hope project in Iraq and Syria several years ago. Centers of Hope are active, local churches that are supported with a number of hope-giving projects, including projects to:

  • Grow ministry for women, youth and couples, and to strengthen discipleship efforts
  • Build healthy leaders and create trauma awareness, with members involved in tasks such as teaching and pastoral care
  • Inspire Christians to find their prophetic voice and speak up about injustice
  • Rebuild healthy incomes and livelihoods for Christians and reach out with Christ’s love into the community

The exact activities differ from Center to Center. Larger programs, such as those for church leaders and the year-long trauma awareness course, are shared between several churches. Sometimes Open Doors partners with other organizations in supporting a church.

Centers of Hope provide what the Christians of Iraq and Syria need right now: hope and new perspective. They need this to accomplish their dream of becoming a beacon of light in their societies. Without our help, many Christians would lose hope completely and find ways to leave the country. Christianity in Iraq and Syria would dwindle even more, if not disappear.

Thanks to the gifts and prayers of Open Doors supporters, in Iraq, 65 percent of all churches (about 125 congregations) have been transformed into Centers of Hope. In Syria, 20 percent of churches (about 110 congregations) have transformed into a Center of Hope or are part of a larger Center of Hope. Through our local partners, we help these Centers of Hope to grow stronger, while also reaching out to the churches we haven’t connected with yet.

To find out how you can help continue the vital work of the Centers of Hope, visit OpenDoorsUSA.org/Centers-of-Hope

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