“Whatever happens, Jesus will be with me.”
*representative image used
The sound of honking cars disturbs the silence in the prayer room. Layered on top of this street noise are distant explosions. Iraqi Monk Raeed looks out the window. Cars line up to leave the city. What he has feared for weeks has now come true. The ISIS army is approaching. Raeed calmly grabs his stuff. “Whatever happens, Jesus will be with me.”
Raeed is how you might picture a monk. His gestures are calm, and silence seems to be his natural state. 15 years ago, he chose a life dedicated to prayer in a small monastery community. Himself, four other monks and Jesus – that was it.
But Raeed’s silent life was severely shaken shortly after he followed his calling. On the way to Baghdad with one of his fellow monks, disaster struck. One moment, Raeed was chatting with his friend, and then, out of nowhere, a crash followed by the sound of crunching metal.
Driven over by an American tank, Raeed ended up in a coma. He was the only survivor in his car. Waking up to this reality was the hardest thing he has ever had to cope with. “I didn’t understand. I said to the Lord: ‘We are serving You, why does this happen to us?’”
He didn’t receive a clear-cut answer to this question. Raeed shakes his head: “But what happened deepened my faith. It brought me back to my calling. I had promised to obey Jesus when he said ‘Whoever follows Jesus should not look back.’ So I did, together with my brothers in the monastery.”
But tragedy struck again ten years later. “ISIS came to our city, so we had to leave.” The monks joined in the slowly moving traffic jam of people in panic. For one night, they slowly moved forward in uncertainty until they reach the safer city of Erbil. Hard times followed when they were thrown into the deep end as monks, taking care of the many displaced people around them. Once again, Raeed remembers his calling: ‘Follow Jesus no matter what’.
It is two years later now, and Raeed leads evening prayer time in one of the refugee camps just outside of Erbil. The monks set up their monastery in the middle of a refugee camp for Christians. There are so many that attend the porta cabin church that many have to stand in the doorway. They join in the calm tones of a hymn filling the twilight sky.
When the service ends, the parishioners leave the church. Brother Raeed stands outside to greet them. Some parishioners stop to ask him a question or just have a little chat. Signing up for a life of prayer, Raeed had never expected this dazzling crowd would be his place of service. But he doesn’t look back. This is where Jesus has led him.
Together with a group of nuns, the brothers now provide spiritual guidance to this newly formed group of believers. ‘Monk Raeed’ even became ‘Father Raeed’ as the need for priests is high. “Alone I am weak, but God guides me and consults me in this new task. I don’t have to be anything supernatural, I just have to be here with the people in the church because God needs me to be here.”
The lives of the believers in Father Raeed’s congregation have been turned upside down, and many challenges occur as people have to adjust to life in displacement. But within these shaky times, Father Raeed teaches his people to trust in the One he has learned to depend on. “It is all about Jesus. Jesus is the core of this church, He is the Rock we build on. And whatever might happen, our Rock will never disappear. He will always be here.”
When asked how Iraqi believers should carry on in such turmoil, he responded, “Believers in Iraq should stay connected to God in prayer.” And he invites Christians around the world to connect, as well. “Even though I am very thankful for all the material help we get, I am most thankful that people around the world connect with God and with us in prayer for Iraq.”