As Christmastime returned to Iraq in 2014, Pastor Joseph found himself caught up in the usual busyness, along with the increased time spent serving persecuted Christians following the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).
In the midst of the chaos, a man visiting his office in Baghdad urgently asked if he could speak with him.
“I was blind and I am seeing now,” the visitor shared. “From the date IS came to Mosul, I started reading the Koran. I wanted to tell the people, ‘IS is not true Islam.’ I read the Koran daily for four hours, five hours. I wanted to defend my religion, but I discovered IS is the true Islam.”
Joseph knows the chaos caused by the extremist group is creating rare opportunities for the church in Iraq. For example, he has seen large numbers of Muslim youth leave Islam after learning how the Koran inspired IS and its slaughter of Christians. Many of these youth eventually realise they still need God in their lives.
“They start seeking,” Joseph said. “When they have a Bible, they start reading about the real God and how God is love. He doesn’t kill people. He doesn’t hate Christians. He doesn’t hate the Yazidis. Many people come now to Christianity because they are seeking God.”
Discovering the God of love
The man who visited Joseph’s office in December had a similar experience. Shocked by how specifically the Koran inspired IS, he became an atheist.
Days later, he walked by a group of men sitting at a table outside a library. Bibles and Christian literature sat on the table.
“You have a Bible?” he asked the men. “Can I have one?”
After receiving a New Testament, he returned home and began reading. The story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 captured his attention, particularly the part in which the crowd asks Jesus what they should do with her.
“Would I stone her?” the man asked himself. He then read Jesus’ response: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”
“This is God!” the man shouted in his home. “This is the real God we should worship!”
“IS is helping us to let the people know the truth,” Joseph told a VOM worker. “I have many stories about these people who are coming to Christ at this time.”
Hope conquering despair
For each story of a Muslim coming to Christ, Joseph has several more about Muslims, particularly IS, persecuting Christians.
He regularly hears about church members fleeing IS only to encounter the terror group at the various IS checkpoints surrounding its territory. The fighters confiscate passports, ID cards and all valuables. Joseph once heard about a checkpoint guard who asked a pregnant woman for her wedding ring. Because her fingers were swollen from her pregnancy, she was unable to remove it. The guard cut off her finger, took the ring and sent her on her way.
Such interactions with IS are taking their toll on Iraqi Christians.
“They are afraid,” Joseph said. “Most of them don’t like to stay in Iraq anymore. Many Christian families immigrate to Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. They just want to leave.”
As members of his church consider how to get a visa, how to emigrate and how to leave everything behind, Joseph urges them to sit, calm down and pray.
“I just pray for them,” he said. “The church can’t say ‘stay’ or ‘leave.’ The church should say, ‘pray’ and ‘God will lead you.’”
Despite these challenges, the numerous stories of Muslims leaving Islam for Christ give Joseph hope in his country’s future.
“I think, spiritually, it will be better,” he said. “All of us are praying and we believe in prayer, that God will take our country to a better place than before.”
As he commits to pray for his country, Joseph asks that western Christians join him. “Pray for the church in Iraq and the people in Iraq,” he said.