“Despite all that has happened to us, God cared for us; He didn’t leave us.” –Father Poulos in Iraq in the Middle East
A resurrection story of God’s people.
You won’t find this account in the Old or New Testament, as first impressions might imply. But the feature protagonist and antagonist are the same. God and Satan are front and center in this narrative.
A Fight of a Different Kind
Clearly, the story of how the 2,000-year-old church in the Middle East has risen up after the inhumane brutality of ISIS and ongoing civil war is nothing short of radical.
It is a modern-day illustration of the words the Apostle Paul wrote to the persecuted church of Ephesus 2,000 years ago: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
Paul tells us this battle for survival and restoration is not merely physical; it’s also spiritual. Sound familiar?
Through ISIS and the trail of destruction the war left, Satan threatened to wipe out the entire Christian population in this region known as the birthplace of Christianity, including 2,000-year-old communities. The resurrection of the church in the Middle East is a tangible expression of a God who has carried His people since day one, a Savior who has already defeated our arch enemy and is more powerful than any group or ruler known to man at any time and place in the world.
From Invasion to Restoration
At the beginning of 2014, the picture looked bleak for believers and the Christian faith in the Middle East, with some news reports questioning, “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” Throughout the region, Christians heard the ultimatum: “Convert, leave, or die.”
Once controlling 34,000 square miles stretching across Syria and neighboring Iraq, ISIS imposed its violent rule on almost 8 million people. Today, the last Islamic State forces in Syria are currently confined into a tiny area near the Iraqi border—prompting officials to cautiously declare ultimate defeat of the remnant and an imminent end to the Islamic An Islamic State led by a caliph, a political and religious leader seen as a successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. His power and authority are absolute. in the Middle East.
Here, we offer a brief synopsis of what our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria have endured over the last five years—and the impact of millions of God’s people praying for and coming alongside the church in the Middle East.
2012 to 2013: Iraq is invaded, with ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) launching its “Breaking the Walls” campaign, carrying out eight prison breaks that free jihadists and more than 500 convicts, many of whom were senior members of a militant Sunni Islamist multinational organization founded in 1988.
August 2013: In Syria, northern Aleppo is attacked. Soon after, ISIS moves into Syria and later becomes “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS).
January 2014 and June 2014: The cities of Raqqa in Syria (January) and Mosul in Iraq (June) are captured. Thousands flee for their lives to makeshift refugee camps where they will live for the next three years. Militants establish an Islamic An Islamic State led by a caliph, a political and religious leader seen as a successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. His power and authority are absolute. (Islamic state ruled by a caliph with absolute power), declaring Raqqa its de facto capital. Later that year, smaller yet important cities and towns, including Qaraqosh—Iraq’s largest Christian town—are invaded and occupied.
2014 to 2017: ISIS carries out its reign of terror, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Non-Muslim women who remain are captured and sold as slaves. Churches are turned into shooting ranges. Reports from inside and outside the Middle East begin to surface, using the term “genocide” to describe what was happening to Christians, as well as other religious minorities.
October 2016: The Nineveh Plain is liberated as part of the year-long Battle of Mosul. Tired and weary residents displaced from their homes get the news they can now return to their homes.
2016-2018 Families begin to return to their villages but find their homes and communities destroyed and devastated by war. It’s quickly apparent that Islamic State set fire to hundreds of houses intentionally. Local churches form committees to coordinate house restoration, making the easiest repairs first. The hard work of rebuilding starts.
July 2017: Mosul is liberated. Three months later, forces mount an offensive against the extremist group and on October 14 announce they have cleared ISIS fighters from the National Raqqa Hospital and Paradise Square, the infamous area where ISIS jihadists carried out public beheadings and crucifixions.
October 2017: The last major stronghold in Iraq is liberated followed by Raqqa. The victories bring much-needed hope to the watching world and Middle East Christians.
Easter 2018 For the first time in three years, Christians in Iraq and Syria gather in their villages to celebrate Easter—a vivid picture of God’s power to rescue and restore.
1,206 HOUSES RESTORED
Today, the Nineveh Plain in Iraq has come back to life. More and more Christians are returning to the birthplace of Christianity. And with your help, 1206 houses have been restored. While some have chosen not to return, three years ago few believers in Iraq and Syria thought they’d ever see their homeland, let alone their home and community, again.
The resurrection story continues.
By the end of November 2018, local committees coordinating the restoration of the houses in Iraq and the return of the people report that 8,360 Christian families have returned, and with your help 1206 houses have been restored. Some 5,122 families have returned to Qaraqosh and 487 houses have been restored followed by Bartella that has seen 1,325 families return and 300 houses restored.
Other towns include: Bashiqa (287 families, 228 houses); Bahzany (155 families, 120 houses); Batnaya (0 families, 31 houses are done (roads are still blocked, preventing families from returning); and and Karamles (329 families, 40 houses).
And while the progress is encouraging, much is still left to do. Father George, who oversees the committee coordinating restoration in Qaraqosh, shares his disappointment: “I expected it would go faster. The money comes slower to us than we had expected. Per organization, it’s different. The money your organization promised to us always comes in time.
“We need more support to rebuild the houses to let the reconstruction move faster. We have some houses that we couldn’t complete.”
He points to reasons why some families are not willing to return. A year after the town was liberated, the streets still need repairing, and medical services are lacking. For any specialized treatment or hospital needs, they must travel to Erbil.
“Last night my daughter was having tummy problems,” says Father Poulos from the Iraqi village of Bashiqa. “I didn’t know where to go with her at 2 o’clock in the morning. But, despite all that has happened to us, God cared for us; He didn’t leave us.”
All but 10 to 15 families from his village have returned. The remaining families still can’t return because their homes were completely destroyed.
EVIL FOR GOOD
In many ways, the Christian Church throughout the world is part of this resurrection story. Around the globe, believers rallied in prayer as the crisis grew worse. Millions joined hearts and voices for the persecuted church in the Middle East. And thousands have and continue to come alongside our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters as they rebuild their lives and communities.
We’ve rejoiced at the scenes of returning believers waving palm branches and celebrating Easter in their homeland. And we’ve wept at the ongoing reports of discoveries of more mass graves, repeatedly reminding us of the darkness that once covered the region.
The schemes and plots of ISIS were full of evil and death, yet reports from Iraqi and Syrian believers continue to reveal the omnipotence and sovereignty of God–using the ways of evil for good.
Our partners in these areas have heard and shared repeated accounts of God’s hand moving and Muslims miraculously coming to Christ out of the turmoil and heartbreak that ISIS brought. And faithful and courageous friends, family and neighbors have risked their lives to share the gospel, resulting in Muslims turning from Islam and trusting in Christ as their Savior in unprecedented numbers.
Believers and churches have also grown stronger, Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche says of Iraqi Christians: “Years of displacement have shaken the faith of the Christians,” he says. “But I see that many have come closer to God; their faith has become stronger. You can see the churches are full.”
In Syria, churches are seeing the beginnings of a revival.
The Next Chapter
The story of Christianity in Iraq and Syria is still being written. While the church has come back to life, strengthening it is necessary for its future. The threat of ISIS and other extremist groups still remains. Persecution is still very real.
Father George in Qaraqosh voices the need for greater protection:
“We need more security, more justice for our people,” he says, “and we need political support to guarantee that the Christian existence is protected here. Every day, we’re fighting for our survival as Christians; our existence is threatened.”
In addition to protection from persecution, more homes and businesses must be rebuilt and restored. Jobs must be created. Medical services must be improved, streets must be repaired, and schools must be rebuilt or refurbished.
We know that God’s work in Iraq and Syria is not done yet—and we also know He has already begun to write this next chapter. Open Doors’ Hope for the Middle East project continues to work within that tension.
Eternally, we know the end of the epic story and who wins. We know the protagonist defeats the antagonist. Until then, as a believer and part of the global body of Christ, you’re part of this unfolding story with an integral part to play in the future of the church and God’s Kingdom here on earth and in Heaven.
Our Middle East brothers and sisters need prayer and support from the global church. The road ahead is long and hard.
Will you pray for Christians who have returned and those who are returning (or thinking about it) as they rebuild the church and focus on the Kingdom work God has yet to reveal both in their hearts and communities?
Pray that they hold tight to the hope and the truth of the gospel as they seek to forgive and share their story of how God has sustained them and resurrected the church. Pray that God would give them strength through the trials they’re currently facing and will encounter in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Father George reminds us of our role in this story:
“Thank you for showing us that people are still thinking of us and standing with us …” he says. “This gives us peace of mind; otherwise we could not continue.”
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 seeing the Church rise up to be salt and light in the Middle East once again. 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.