“I think we are living on a volcano.”
So says a Christian pastor* from northern Iraq, in the region known as Iraqi Kurdistan. In one day, his city of 35,000 people was inundated by a wave of 55,000 refugees fleeing the violence of ISIS. People were living in parks, in empty buildings, wherever there was a space to sit down. To provide shelter for them all, the city opened its schools and churches opened their buildings. This one pastor’s church shelters 600 people, and feeds 500 families a week.
Working among the refugees, he hears their stories…
- One woman came home from Turkey to help her blind father. She was captured by ISIS; her father escaped with neighbors.
- A family made the grueling trip to northern Iraq—a trip made twelve times longer by roads choked with refugees. Their eighth daughter, only two months old, sickened and died six days into the journey.
- An ISIS “prince” released a father and mother but kept their three-year-old daughter for himself.
No easy answers
The pastor offers no glib answers to those whose lives have been so terribly wounded by this war. As he prays with them, weeping along with them, he knows hope and comfort can only come from God’s Holy Spirit. He knows, because he himself seeks refuge in that same Spirit. Each day, he repeatedly slips into his own room to pray, asking for God’s strength to go on ministering to broken, hurting people.
Like Peter trying to walk to Jesus on the water, in danger of drowning when he took his eyes off Jesus, the pastor says,
“This is our situation now. Every day, every moment, we should be looking at Jesus. Without that, we cannot survive.”
So he continues to share the good news of Christ: that there is hope and forgiveness and peace in Him alone. As the pastor gives food to the hungry, he reminds them, “This food is good for one or two days. But if you take Jesus Christ in your heart, that’s going to affect the whole of your life and your eternity.”
Trusting amid turmoil
In the midst of their turmoil, people are turning to Jesus. And they’re coming from two different directions.
From one side come some Iraqis who always thought of themselves as Christians. They were born into non-Muslim families. Yet they had never read the Bible to know the faith they professed. Through the discussions they have with him, the pastor says, “now they understand why Jesus was put on the cross for them.” For the first time, their faith springs from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Others turn to Jesus from Islam. The pastor explains, “ISIS makes the picture clear for Muslims of what Islam is standing for.” While many would like to believe that the violence ISIS perpetrates does not represent true Islam, the pastor points out that their actions are those prescribed in the Koran toward unbelievers. In stark contrast, Muslim refugees are receiving food, blankets, shelter and necessities from Christians. Intrigued, many ask for a New Testament to read Christ’s teachings for themselves. When they come to Matthew chapters 5-7, the pastor reports, “Muslims recognize this can’t be said by man.”
The pastor pictures Jesus having spread “a big net” to draw people to Himself. “ISIS is pushing Muslims toward this net.” These Muslims see ISIS actively carrying out the words of Mohammed, and then see Christians actively carrying out the teachings of Jesus. They run to Jesus for His saving grace.
Relatives of the Christian pastor, living in other countries, repeatedly beg him to take his family and flee the approaching danger. Others in his church have left. It’s not un-biblical to protect one’s own family. Why stay?
The pastor and his wife believe they are right where God wants them to be.
“This is God’s call for our life,” he says. “He is responsible for us and He is going to keep us. We must be faithful.” Instead of fleeing, then, he prays that God will preserve Iraqi Kurdistan as a place of refuge.
Besides, the pastor points out, “the church in Iraq is light and the church in Iraq is salt for this nation, for this land. If you take the light and salt from this land, then there is no meaning for this land,” he says. With all the bloodshed that has occurred, he feels God’s judgment is looming over Iraq. He reminds his church that long ago God said He would have spared Sodom from destruction if it had contained just ten righteous people. Iraq will suffer the same fate if the church vacates now. There will be no hope of the refugees ever returning to their homes.
Asked what he would say to Christians worldwide, the pastor replies with the same message he tells his own church:
“Wake up! The Lord is shaking the Church. . . The Church in the whole world should be waked up and onto their knees, asking, ‘Jesus, come!’ Not ‘Jesus, come save us from what’s happening,’ but ‘Jesus, come because we are longing for You. We have no one else who can be with us.’ The love relationship that’s with Jesus Christ is what’s going to help us to continue and be a witness to other people. We should wake up and fight for the right thing.”
This pastor fights by staying in Iraq, on his knees.
*(name withheld for security)
Listen to this Iraqi pastor tell his own story at www.vomradio.net in an interview entitled, “Iraq: Heaven is Rejoicing,” air date August 28, 2015.
Describe a time you saw a Christian actively living out the teachings of Christ.
In what way can you be salt and light to your own land?