On The Run
The rapidly dwindling Christian population in the Middle East has prompted the Archbishop of Canterbury to warn of ‘Christian extinction’ in the birthplace of the faith. Release’s Andrew Boyd travelled to Iraq and Lebanon to meet persecuted Christians being helped by your support.
Kurdistan in northern Iraq has declared itself a safe haven for refugees. About 160,000 fled to its major city, Erbil – many to get away from Islamic State (IS) forces when they advanced from the south. Even after IS was declared defeated, its fighters still launched 1,200 attacks in Iraq.
Today, Release partners in Kurdistan are reaching out to refugees, Christian and Muslim alike.
Before the troubles, Erbil was in the grip of a construction boom. Today, many half-finished buildings are occupied by refugees such as Amera and her family. Her home today is above a vacant concrete shopping mall, in the shadow of the city’s historic ancient citadel.
Amera used to live in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, on the historic plains of Nineveh. But Qaraqosh was exposed and alone and perilously close to Mosul, the major city captured by IS fighters in June 2014.
‘When we saw rockets being fired we knew we had to leave,’ Amera told me. The first rocket was fired at a church service and killed a woman. The second exploded during her funeral.
‘Everybody took what they could and started leaving,’ she said. But the old and sick had to stay behind.
The family piled into a pick-up truck at night and headed out. ‘By then the fighters had shut the roads,’ takes up Doaa, Amera’s daughter. ‘We were praying. We trusted Jesus to open the roads for us.’
It took them 11 hours to reach Kurdistan. ‘After we got to Erbil, we heard that IS had taken over the whole town,’ says Amera. ‘We thank God we managed to flee before they came.’
Another refugee who escaped from Qaraqosh, 20-year old Clark, told me how IS fighters opened fired as he was trying to escape by bus. ‘I saw them shooting and I was afraid,’ he said.
‘But I have a very strong faith. I knew Jesus would never leave us.’
At one time some 5,000 Christian families lived in Qaraqosh. Today, however, it is mainly Muslim, since many Christians are too frightened to return.
Despite all they have suffered at the hands of terrorists, Amera says, ‘We raised our family to forgive our enemies, as Jesus tells us. If we saw an IS fighter now, we would pray for him.’
Thanks to your support, Amera’s family and many other Iraqi refugees have been given practical help by Release’s partner Jamal. He told me:
‘God put it in our hearts to help refugees. From that day, we have provided whatever they need: blankets, mattresses, heaters, cookers and food.
We give aid to these people every month.’
‘Thank you for your support,’ says Amera. ‘Without it we could not live. Please keep praying for us. Many are still emigrating because there is no security in the region.’
Jamal took myself and Release CEO Paul Robinson to a Muslim refugee camp, where we helped hand out bags of clothing. When the last bag had been gratefully received by outstretched hands, the camp chief turned to Paul:
‘We would like to thank you so much for your care and love for the people who live in this camp.’
‘It’s not just us,’ said Paul, ‘there are many Christians in the UK and Ireland who want to help you. We share God’s love by giving aid.’
But food and clothing alone will not give these children a future. Your help also supports a school for refugee children. When I visited, the pupils were singing a rousing rendition of the Kurdish national anthem.
‘The head teacher, a Muslim, says our partner is like the hand of God in everything he is doing here,’ says Paul. ‘This is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to children in this environment.’