“Islamic State was a Wake-Up Call” in Iraq

September 14, 2017 by Brian O. in Middle East

*representative image used

Faith – That is the key word when considering the future of the church in Iraq. With the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa in October, Christian refugees displaced by the war continue to make their way back to their homeland. But the task of rebuilding in a still-volatile political climate is just starting. In September before the fall of ISIS, we talked with Shlama*, director of our partner organization in Iraq. Two months later, her words are still profound reminders of a God who redeems and restores.

When talking with Shlama about the church in her country, faith plays a central role. “The future of the church is dark or cloudy, as I put it. But we as Christians should live by faith. Faith is about something you cannot see; it is the faith God has a plan and a future for the church in Iraq,” says Shlama*, director of our partner organization in Iraq. But when in 2014 ISIS was on the rise and took over Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, displacing almost all Christians living there, didn’t she doubt at that moment about the future of the church?

Wake-up Call

“No, I did not doubt,” says Shlama. “When you look at the history of the church in Iraq, you know that periods of persecution come and go. From time to time, we had persecution and we had times of renewal in the church. For the church, Islamic State was a wake-up call for their faith. Many started thinking again about the meaning of being a Christian. Being a Christian doesn’t mean an easy life. Jesus doesn’t promise us an easy life, He promised to be with us. That is what the church believes.”

Shlama continues: “I see a lot of encouraging things happening. I heard people from different churches saying that they want to stay in the country and reach Muslims. They even said that they believe the church of the future will be a church from a Muslim background. That is really a revolution. Even if they cannot do a lot with those people from a Muslim background, they accept them coming and they see that as the future.”

Increase of grace & mercy

She thinks for a moment and says: “You know, times of persecution always mean times of an increase of the grace and mercy of God. I remember once I had a conversation about persecution. We talked about this text of when you’re weak, you’re strong. When you are persecuted, you see it’s not you who is strong but He who is with you.”

Shlama describes what she sees happening: “There is a trend of traditional churches declining in numbers because of emigration. On the other side, you see the church of believers from a Muslim background growing. But that church is very new, like a baby. You even cannot call it a church yet. I see this time as an open time, an opening that has been given to us. I believe that there are periods in history when God remembers a nation, when He gives them chances. We should use this time, it might not come again. Yes, there is a lot of persecution, but there is also a lot of work to do. It’s good that you realize that, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to work in this.”

Looking back on the past three years she continues: “It was encouraging to see how the church is reaching out to their people, how churches play a big role in standing with the people. That encourages me to help them even more. The priests stayed with the people who fled the villages in the Nineveh Plain, they kept contact, and they went visiting from tent to tent, then later from home to home. That is what presence ministry looks like. It looks like Jesus being with his people. It would have been difficult for my organization if the church hadn’t done so. Together we stood as one with the people. That is very encouraging.”

Christians want to stay

Would the future of the church be different depending on the region in Iraq? “I don’t know. You see how the church has a difficult time in Baghdad. When people there leave their homes, they never know if they will come back. But still, the Christians in Baghdad want to stay and reach the people in their city. That brings hope.”

“I heard of one of the fathers we work with, Father Martin. This week there was a huge bomb blast at an ice cream shop in Baghdad. Father Martin went with his whole congregation to pray at that place to remember the victims of the bomb blast. You see how they trust this very young priest, how they go with him to a place they know is dangerous. All these people know how dangerous such an event is, but they went with him. That is very motivating. From hearing things like that, I get my energy, my power. That motivates me to do my best to support them.”

Encourage & build the church

When asked what role her organization has played in supporting the church, she says: “We want to support, to encourage. We want to be the ear and voice for the church. We don’t exist to build our organization but to build the church. That is our role. One priest told me: ‘The church is like a bird with a broken wing. You were the hand to hold the broken wing.’ That is the role we played. It is very important to continue doing that. Think of Moses who had the help of Kaleb and Joshua to keep his arms up. We keep the hands of the church up until the problems pass. We are not the hand, we are supporting the hand.”

Regarding the diminishing number of the Christians in Iraq, she is hopeful. “We are hearing about people are turning back to our country. I believe that if there is any hope that there will be peace in Iraq, people will return from surrounding countries. I heard of families from Germany, Sweden and France who returned. So I do expect those who are now in Turkey and Jordan to return. Those people who emigrated see that the West has changed, that it is not like before. When there is security and safety, they might return.”

Muslims coming to christ

One of the trends in the Middle East is a growing church of believers from a Muslim Background. Change of religion in Iraq isn’t allowed by law. “I believe in the supernatural, God is supernatural. The hearts of the kings and leaders are in His hand, He can change them, and he can change laws. It is under His control. For everything, there is a time. But it’s good to see people giving their lives and hearts to Jesus. It is important that people are coming to know Jesus. It could also happen that as this group grows, they get more power. When a bigger group wants something, they will listen to them. But I believe that this new church, in the beginning, will be an underground church.”

Even being underground isn’t a bad thing, as she knows from experience. “God has attention for the underground church. I have seen how strong underground churches can be when we had this in Kurdistan some 20 years ago. That church was growing, it was strong. When there came more freedom, the internal problems started. Now you see that the underground church in Baghdad is growing.”

For our partner organization, there is only one church in Iraq, like there is only one church in the whole world. “We might have many churches in the West and in Iraq, but we should focus on only one thing – our faith in Jesus. When we focus on that, we can do miracles. Even a small faith can change many things, it can change the world.”

*Names changed for security reasons