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Renewing hope in Iraq

MISSION NEWS | Kaley Payne

Thursday 16 July 2015

If you talk to an average young person in Iraq, they’ll tell you they want to leave, says Mike Bassous, the head of Bible Society Lebanon who also oversees the society’s work in Iraq and Syria. “They do not see hope here.”

This week marks one year since the Christians of Mosul (across the river from the ancient city of Nineveh) were told they must make a choice: convert to Islam, pay a protection tax, leave or die. A mass exodus of Christians had already begun after Islamic State militants seized the city in mid-June 2014. The ultimatum served to flush out those who hadn’t already left, and it flung the plight of Mosul’s new refugees onto the world stage.

Today, Mosul is an Islamic State stronghold. The Christians whose ancestors occupied the city for centuries are gone. Most fled to Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq, where they were crammed into refugee tents or camped out in churches and halls.

A Bible Society team has been working in Iraq since 2003, one of the only home-grown providers of scriptures in the country. Mike Bassous, who leads the team, says they’ve always been interested in a “holistic ministry” in Iraq. He knows being a Christian in this part of the world is about as hard as it gets. “Jesus prophesied that we will have a very difficult life here. He never said we were going to have peace and joy. No, we’re going to have hard times,” he says.

We have to recognise that this is our destiny. This is our purpose as Christians living in the Middle East.

“He also said that we would be a minority; that we would need to be ‘salt and light’. We have to recognise that this is our destiny. This is our purpose as Christians living in the Middle East.”

When news broke of an emerging refugee crisis in northern Iraq, Bible Society rushed to be of assistance. In the following months – with the help of supporters around the world, many of them from Australia – Bible Society distributed over 4300 emergency packages with food and hygiene products, 750 blankets and mattresses and 250 stoves for cooking. It distributed close to 5000 scripture portions to those refugees who requested them.

Photo (above): Bible Society distributed over 4300 emergency packages with food and hygiene products, 750 blankets and mattresses and 250 stoves for cooking to Iraqi refugees in 2014.

“Many people left everything behind when they fled,” says Mr Bassous. “Some didn’t have clothes or anything to sleep on.”

Today, most have a roof over their heads – thousands of pre-fabricated housing units were built to shelter the overwhelming number of refugees who flooded into the region. The basic physical needs of the refugees are being managed, still with considerable support from overseas aid.

But there are deep wounds among Christian refugees. The emotional and spiritual needs of the Christian refugees are something Bible Society now wants to address. “Every Christian family in Iraq has a story – a sad one. They haven’t overcome this, they are still in trauma.”

He says almost every Christian he has met recently in Iraq says they want to leave. From the refugee camps in Kurdistan, many have left already to Jordan and Lebanon, and on to Europe, north America and Australia, looking for a better life.

“One woman told me, ‘I don’t want my baby to be born and to have to live through anything that we have been through’, ” says Bassous. “How can you argue with that?” But the mass exodus of Christians from the region is crippling the local church in Iraq whose leaders remain committed to stay.

“The massive emigration that is now occurring is leaving my church and other churches weaker. This is a deeply sorrowful reality,” writes the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, in Kurdistan, Bashar Matti Warda. “We who are part of the church hierarchy are very often tempted to encourage our parishioners to stay – keep the presence of Christ alive in this special land. But truly I and my brother bishops and priests can do no more than to advise young mothers and fathers to take all the necessary considerations into account and to pray long and hard before taking such a momentous, and perhaps perilous, decision.”

Bassous believes Christians in the region need to regain their hope, through the Bible. He is praying that many of the Christians still in Kurdistan will reassess their God-given purpose in being “Christians of the Middle East.” “Many of [the refugees] will never be able to leave Iraq. They don’t have the finances or they don’t have the connections outside of Iraq. They will have to remain. And they have a choice: do you remain and be here, hopeless? Or do you remain and have your wounds healed, seek hope and become a witness for Christ, wherever you are?”

It’s a choice Bassous believes the scriptures can speak into. “Let’s rediscover our purpose and look to God for why he has placed us here,” says Bassous. “For how long? Some might ask. But only God knows.”

Bible Society thanks its generous donors for supporting our 2014 Appeal for Iraq and Syria. We are continuing support for Christians in the Middle East in 2015, particularly in Lebanon and Israel.

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