Reaching Out to Iraq’s Displaced, Suffering Christians


From Baghdad to Northern Iraq:
An Interview with an IDP

The following is an interview with Nazani,
an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) living
in northern Iraq. The only furnishings in
her lounge are a carpet and a small
television. The kitchen contains a small
table, four plastic chairs, a cooker, a small
cabinet and a donated refrigerator. The
bedroom contains two single beds and
three mattresses.

Q: Tell me how you came to live here.

A: We were living in Baghdad and left
because the situation was becoming very
violent. Fighting, car bombings and suicide
bombings were increasing and then they
began kidnapping people and demanding
huge ransoms. When children also began
to be targeted, we became very afraid.
Our children’s school was quite a distance
from our home and we were always afraid
because it was in an area where there were
many bombings. Every day, all we could do
was pray for their protection. On one
occasion, a car bomb exploded in front of
their school. We then decided it was time
to leave.

Q. When you left Baghdad, were you able
to bring anything with you?
 

A: No, we left everything behind. We tried to
sell a few items, but time was short. It wasn't
possible to bring too much because if you are
stopped at the checkpoints and the soldiers
see you are moving, they may not let you
come into the city without a special permit
from the government. We had a large house
in Baghdad but left with only the clothes we
were wearing and what we could put into a
few bags in the car.

Q. As a wife and mother, how do you feel
having left so much behind?

A: First of all, I am a wife and must follow my
husband. As parents, we needed to put the
safety and security of our children first. We
needed to take care of them and that meant
sacrifice. Of course I miss my family, friends
and personal belongings, but I had to
sacrifice those things for the sake of my
children and husband.

Q: Do you have food every day?

A: Not always, so we take care with what
we have. Sometimes, I make small meals
to make sure there is leftovers for another
day.

Q: What do you hope for the future here?

A: All I can hope for is good health for my
husband and children. We were facing many
problems and hardships in Baghdad, so
coming here has been a good thing. We
have somewhere to live and everything
else is up to the Lord. I trust he will look
after us.

Q: Would you like to go back to Baghdad
one day?

A. Yes. It is the place where I was born. I
have my family and friends there.

Q. How can Christians in other parts of
the world pray for your situation?

A. The most important thing for us is our
faith in God. It is very helpful knowing that
others are praying for us to remain
strong in our belief.

Iraqi Christians are on the move, fleeing from the violence in their country. Many Christians are leaving because they have been threatened by Muslim extremists who want them permanently removed from the country.

Some Iraqi people are fleeing to northern Iraq. They are called Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Others are attempting to find refuge in Syria, Jordan or in the West. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently said that the number of IDPs now stands at 2.3 million. An additional sixty thousand people per month are now being displaced in Iraq; this averages to two thousand people per day!

A movement considered to be the “second wave” includes IDPs and refugees who were unable to move earlier, but now must move because of the violent situation. They have left everything behind and are living on their cash in hand. The influx of refugees to northern Iraq has increased unemployment and dramatically heightened the cost of living.

Christian IDPs and refugees need relief supplies, housing help and spiritual counseling. Open Doors USA supports them by providing food, housing, heating, clothes and medical care. In Syria and Jordan, Open Doors helps with similar relief for the neediest families among the refugees. Through helping the refugees, Open Doors has the opportunity to establish a relationship of trust, which could revive the faith of nominal Christians who are frustrated with religion because they feel their spiritual leaders did not care for them properly.

Background of IDPs in Iraq
While there has been a history of internal displacement of people within Iraq over the past forty years because of human rights abuses and internal and international conflict and war, the situation has worsened in recent years. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have been displaced since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In 2003, 500,000 to 600,000 Christians lived in the country. Today, Iraq’s Christian population is estimated to have dropped below 450,000. With approximately two thousand people leaving daily, many of them Christians, the future of the Church in Iraq is bleak.

Due to the growing IDP problem, Open Doors, working through local partners, decided to assist Christian IDPs and help stem the hemorrhage of believers from some of the oldest Christian denominations in the world—namely, the Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean churches.

Thousands of people are arriving in the northern region of Iraq known as Kurdistan. Since 1992, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has had a separate parliament, elected by popular vote, called the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly. After 2003, Kurdish politicians have been represented in the Iraqi governing council. The autonomy of the KRG has resulted in this area of Iraq enjoying relative peace and a growing prosperity compared to the rest of the country. This has made the region a magnet for the many IDPs unable to leave the country. 

In the northern areas of Kurdistan, especially Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymania, it is estimated there are about twenty-four thousand IDP families. This relatively safe haven gives some relief from the daily challenges and fears associated with living in southern Iraq; however, it also brings fresh challenges. Among those arriving in the area are numerous Christians often singled out for additional persecution by the Islamic groups operating to the south of the Kurdish border.


In the northern areas of Kurdistan, it is estimated there
are about twenty-four thousand IDP families.
  

While some Christians have managed to flee with large amounts of money and are able to begin a new life in a new home and establish new businesses, the vast majority arrive with nothing but the clothes they wear.

Problems Identified
Last winter, there was a great need to help IDPs survive the harsh weather. In one village, over 120 people had been identified as having no money to rent houses in the city or buy kerosene. Fuel is very expensive (bottled gas for cooking and kerosene for heating) and, for many, impossible to afford.

Many of the IDPs are city people with jobs in offices or government departments. Now, having moved to a rural area, they find themselves struggling to live as country people. They want work, but there is none. The infrastructure of the villages cannot cope with the number of people arriving. This creates frustration and a feeling of hopelessness, especially for the men who feel they are failing their wives and children.

One of the greatest and most urgent needs facing those who have arrived in Kurdistan is practical relief to help them survive the harsh winter. Temperatures can plummet to below zero. Food is hard to come by, especially for those without ration cards. Blankets are often too few in number. In addition to obvious practical help needed, there is also a spiritual void in many hearts which needs addressing. Along with providing humanitarian help, an opportunity exists for meeting the spiritual needs of those who belong to the oldest churches in the world.

Having undertaken further research and working closely with three local Christian organizations in a spirit of multi-denominational partnership, a project to meet the immediate needs was put into action. At the start of November 2007, 1,070 families have been helped with basic necessities. Preparations are complete to help many more families in the coming months.

Story of One IDP Mother

Umm Salaam1 left Baghdad just over a year ago. Many killings and kidnappings were taking place and she became afraid for the safety of her children and husband. Their decision to move to their ancestral village in the north of the country, however, meant leaving everything behind. Although the family had not been directly threatened, they felt very insecure and feared it was only a matter of time before they would be singled out as Christians and therefore targeted by Muslim fundamentalists. This fear increased as more and more Christians in their neighborhood of Dora were targeted and some friends were forced to pay money to the Muslims in order for their businesses to be allowed to continue. They were told they should become Muslims or leave the city.

Umm Salaam was very grateful for the relief received. While sharing her story, she held the copy of a Children's Bible she had been given. Holding the Bible to her chest, she quietly said, “This is the biggest help for anyone; my son will love and treasure it.”

Endnote

1. Name changed for security reasons.  

 


Jerry Dykstra is media relations coordinator at Open Doors USA. He travels to countries such as China, Vietnam and Mexico to meet with persecuted believers.