Like many Christians returning to Iraq, Ihsan and Lara have lost their home and experienced tragedy in the conflict with ISIS. Thanks to our supporters, the Bible is bringing comfort and hope as they begin to rebuild their lives.
The ancient town of Nineveh, now encircled by the modern-day city of Mosul in Iraq, has had a chequered history. In the Old Testament, God spared it from destruction, having sent the reluctant prophet Jonah there. But in recent years, it has been the scene of mass devastation as the so-called Islamic State and Iraqi authorities fought for control of the city. ISIS’ grip on the city ended in August 2017 and now hundreds of families are returning.
I travelled there to find out what life is like for returning Christians and how we can help them. The journey to the Nineveh region was shocking and painful with extensive damage in every direction assaulting my senses: houses and churches ravaged by fire, looted and in some cases riddled with networks of tunnels.
Resilience in the face of destruction
Walking through the abandoned market and seeing the rubble that had once been the homes of Christian families, it was hard not to feel demoralised. But, I was also struck by the amazing resilience of the refugees when I visited Al-Tahera Church, formerly one of the biggest and most beautiful churches in Iraq, and observed a small congregation praying with their priest amidst the chaos of the ransacked building.
I met a young Iraqi couple called Ihsan and Lara, both from nearby Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq. They have two children and Ihsan used to work as a blacksmith, until ISIS took over their city in August 2014. They had no choice but to flee their beautiful new home which had taken six years of sweat and sacrifice to build.
But Ihsan’s deep sorrow was for his mother’s death not the house. She died a few days after they fled Qaraqosh in the church hall which they shared with other refugee Iraqi families. Still traumatised by his mother’s death, he said, “Nothing is more important than my mother, she was everything to me. Imagine that you lose your mum in this situation.”
'Persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed...' 2 Corinthians 4.9
I accompanied them to Qaraqosh to inspect their house, which had become a pile of stones. Like many returning Christians, the first thing the couple did was to remove the letter “N” in Arabic which had been daubed on the door, meaning ‘Nasrani’ (Christian), to indicate that there were Christians living there and the inhabitants could be killed. You may be familiar with this symbol as people around the world took it up on social media to show solidarity with Christians in Iraq.
I saw lots of graffiti on the Christian houses. Some said ‘No more church – the Islamic state is remaining and expanding’ but many of these had been overwritten with statements like ‘Jesus is the light of the world’ and ‘God is love.’
Ihsan said: “We have to return because this is our life and home, our history, and the church always helped us. Bible Society also did a good job. We get strength from their help. I believe God permitted the pain to realise the good and the love.”
“We bear witness to Jesus and his resurrection when we live here like our Christian ancestors. There are 2,000 years of history behind us, how can we deny that?” As I left Ihsan and Lara I felt the power of God and the certainty of their trust in him.
Your support is making a difference
Thanks to our amazing supporters, Bible Society is able to provide Bibles and food packages which are distributed by the local churches. Our Bible-based Trauma Healing program is also helping refugees to talk through their experiences and discover God’s love for them. Please join us in praying for the Iraqi Christians who are still living as refugees in foreign countries. They are physically and emotionally exhausted, living in terrible conditions. Now, as their cities are freed from ISIS, a few have started to return. Churches and other organisations are helping them to rebuild their houses, but the feelings of uncertainty and unsafety are still deep in their hearts. Thank you for standing with them.
* This article was written by a Communications Officer at Bible Society of Jordan.