Joyful Brokenness – Part II
In my previous post, I talked a little bit about some of the kids that I met on my trip to Iraq, and I’ll definitely get back to talking about them since they are the reason that I went and the highlight of my trip. But in this entry, I want to talk a little bit about what I saw of the Christian church in Iraq.
When you think of Iraq, you obviously think of Muslims. And Muslims make up the overwhelming majority of the population, but there is a sizable minority of Christians. As recently as a few years ago, Christians were about 10-12% of the population. Most are of ethnic Assyrians, who trace their ancestry and heritage in this land back 3000 years or more. The Christian heritage traces back to the mid first century AD in the western portions of the Assyrian homeland, and in northern Iraq to the mid 600’s with the arrival of Rabban Hormizd, a priest who built a monastery in Al Qosh, Iraq in 640 AD.
I spent a lot of time in Ainkawa, a suburb of Erbil that is 90% Christian, and spent a full day in Al Qosh, hanging out at a monastery talking to the priests and nuns and playing with some of the children at their orphanage. I asked a lot of questions about their history and the present situation and was very surprised by some of the answers. So here is a kind of a quick hit recap of some of my observations.
One series of questions that I always asked when I had a chance to really sit down and talk with people was what they thought of certain leaders. Here is the overview of the responses from the four priests I sat down with (though obviously an hour long conversation can’t be summed up in a few words).
Bush 41? Unanimously disliked. Not trusted. He asked the northern tribes, Kurds and Assyrians, to rise up against Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War, but did not support them when they did. Saddam retaliated against the Kurds very harshly, including using chemical weapons against them.
Clinton? Meh. Talked a lot, most of what he said was just what people wanted to hear. Didn’t really impact Iraq a whole lot.
George W? This started an animated argument among the priests. One loved him, one hated him, the other two had mixed feelings. Most had no argument with the decision to remove Saddam. All disagreed with the handling of the post-Saddam era. The big argument came when discussing what they perceived to be his motivations and that they see him as “giving up” on Iraq and agreeing to move out too many troops to soon.
Obama? Hated. HATED. I can’t overstate it. They often mocked a spit after saying his name to get the name out of their mouth. The words they used were “liar,” “coward,” “terrorist,” “traitor to the world,” and the like. While I’m not necessarily a huge fan of President Obama, it actually riled up something in me. He may be a coward, but he’s MY coward, and how dare someone else talk about him that way.
Saddam? Overwhelmingly missed. Three of the four priests said they’d take him back in a minute. The fourth said “probably.” The reasoning was simple…under Saddam you knew who your enemies were and “if you kissed the king’s ring, you got to live in peace.” Now, your enemies hide in the bushes and ambush you. There is no king to keep relative peace. I asked them, “So, Saddam attacked his own people…killed thousands, tens of thousands, and you’d still choose him?” They all said yes. I pressed my point a little, saying, “It could be said that Saddam caused the current situation by pitting the different sides against each other to keep them from coming together against him. He was always playing one side against the other, which has over decades has created the mistrust and hatred we are seeing today.” The answer from one priest was, “That’s pretty amazing for someone who grew up as a farmer and didn’t finish school. He was a gifted leader.” They were overwhelmingly willing to give up freedoms for security.
I got to spend part of my day in Al Qosh at the ancient monastery of Rabban Hormizd. Al Qosh is an ancient town (founded about 1500BC) where the Old Testament prophet Nahum was born and died (and his tomb is in the middle of the town).
The monastery was originally built in 640AD and then added on to over the years. It was amazing to have the chance to walk into the ancient, 1400 year old cathedral carved right into the solid rock of the mountain side. I got the chance to pray in the “room of darkness” where monks have gone to pray for centuries. It was a powerful and emotional experience for me. It was amazing also to have the priest give me a guided tour, translating the Assyrian and Aramaic writing on the plaques and rock carvings. A once in a lifetime experience.
Standing up on the balcony of the ancient monastery with a priest named Rony, you could see the Nineveh Plains stretch out for miles to the south. Right on the edge of what you could see through the hazy heat lay the outskirts of Mosul. The front lines with ISIS. As I discussed the amazing history of the monastery with Rony, he pointed to the ancient Assyrian writing and stone archways and said, “We have great history…” and then he point off to the south towards ISIS and continued, “But I fear we don’t have a future.”
All the priests felt the pressures of being trapped. They are pressed from the South and West by the Sunni extremism of ISIS. And the spreading influence from the east and north of Shi’a Iran and the Kurds. They would stay, until the end. But that end may not be very far off. It was a sobering reality check for me.
I asked Rony what he thought of American Christians (he had served in a church in Las Vegas, so he had experienced America first-hand). He said, “It is the same everywhere. There are Christians who are only interested in Jesus on the holy days and then those that follow Him every day.” He asked me what I thought about American Christians and my response was, “I think we too often confuse comfort of our own creation with a blessing from God.”
He didn’t understand what I meant, so I elaborated about how I believe that God often keeps us uncomfortable so we rely on Him alone. But too often, we sit in our nice houses in our safe neighborhoods and say, “God must really love me since He has given me all this.” Rony just nodded his head and said, “That’s a problem everywhere…the only difference is the size of the house.”
I also got to spend some time in a refugee camp for Christians who had fled Mosul when ISIS took over as we made two deliveries there. Mosul once had a thriving Christian community that numbered in the tens of thousands or more. But after ISIS took control of Mosul on June 10, 2014, that changed. The change was slow at first…for the first few weeks, as ISIS reinforced, the Christian community was respected. But on June 29, ISIS declared a caliphate (Islamic government) and started to impose its harsh interpretation of Islamic law. On July 14, ISIS issued an ultimatum to the Christians. Convert to Islam, pay the tax as an infidel (handing over all their possessions and leaving), or die. The deadline was July 19. On July 14, there were about 20,000 Christians left in Mosul. On July 19, it is reported that there were 20 who refused to leave and are presumed to have been murdered.
ISIS marked the houses of the Christians with the Arabic letter ‘nun’ which stood for “Nasrani” (Nazarene) to indicate the Christians. Those who resisted ISIS were killed. Men, women and children were beheaded. In some cases, heads were mounted on spikes in public parks as a warning. Nuns were kidnapped. Priests killed. It was a systematic persecution. Religious genocide.
I was with those Christians from Mosul on July 19…the one year anniversary. I remember reading news reports last summer questioning a lot of the stories coming out of Mosul. One story on a major newspaper website openly said that the marking of the houses with the N letter never happened, that it was purely a propaganda invention. I talked with men and women whose families have lived in Mosul for generations who were there and lived it. I saw pictures from some of their phones of what happened. This refugee camp had a giant heart with the Nun painted in the middle of it as a reminder and a memorial. There is no doubt what happened.
I asked one of the men what specifically we could be praying for. He said, “Hope.”
That’s what so many of them seem to be lacking. They lack hope for a future, especially a future in Iraq.
“Where can we go? What can we do?” he asked. “We can’t go home. There are no jobs for us here [in Erbil], we are stuck with no future. And without a future, where is the hope.”
That was the recurring theme from the Christians I talked with. They have a long-term hope with Jesus. But short-term, they are hopeless. And after a year of complete desperation, they are falling even deeper into that hole.
But then there were the kids. The kids still had joy. And where there is joy, there is hope. And so I still have hope. I love my shirt from the group “Hope Iraq” that calls it “Outrageous Hope” for Iraq. I have that outrageous hope that won’t ever quit.
Because with Jesus, there is always outrageous hope.