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A church in the Nineveh plains.

Nineveh: In the Eye of the Storm

A church in the Nineveh plains.

I’m writing this from the city of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq. I am deeply troubled by what I’ve seen and learned here. The impact of our efforts to assist displaced and persecuted Christians is significant, but so much more is needed to help our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It’s a huge relief that ISIS is finally on the run, but the persecution of Christians in Iraq and throughout the Middle East will not end with the defeat of ISIS. The inhumane brutality practiced by jihadists towards Christians is well publicized, but the untold story is the open discrimination and increasing cruelty toward innocent Christian families. Believers courageously cling to their faith in spite of persecution and some are dying for it. All but a few feel abandoned, and many think that the rest of the Christian world doesn’t care about them. We need to change that.

In Haiti, there’s an age-old Creole proverb that says, “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” It’s a metaphor that can be interpreted in a number of ways, but its essence is — once you overcome a great problem, you are faced with a clear view of the next challenge (and there’s always a next one!). In this case, ISIS was the proverbial mountain that had to be climbed, but for millions of Christians in this part of the world, there are even bigger mountains of discrimination and persecution on the near horizon.

A soldier prays in front of a candle on the ground.

Bill Horan standing in the remains of a church.

I have met with church leaders and grassroots Christian groups here in Northern Iraq; all are passionately committed to assisting displaced Christian families that once lived in the Nineveh plains, an area written about in the Bible with the story of Jonah’s aborted mission to warn the residents of Nineveh, and his time in the belly of a great fish. This region has long been the one area in Iraq where Christians could live peaceful and productive lives — but ISIS changed that by forcing legions of believers to flee, destroying homes and churches and subjecting those they caught to such torture that hardly anyone has the will to return.

Under the protection of a heavily armed escort of Christian Syriac militia volunteers, David Darg (VP of International Operations), Diego Traverso (Manager of Special Projects in the Middle East) and I visited what was once the largest Christian community in Iraq. Up until August of 2014, Qaraqosh was home to over 50,000 Christians, but that once-flourishing safe harbor is now a smoking ruins and most former residents that we spoke with this week said they are too terrified and discouraged to ever return.

Operation Blessing staff with the guard protecting them.

The central government of Iraq is at odds with the regional government of Kurdistan in a tug of war to control the Nineveh plains. Both Iraq and Kurdistan claim to offer Christians and religious minorities freedom of religion, but there is an ever increasing amount of anti-Christian influence on Baghdad, plus the Kurds have their own designs on independence. This all adds up to a continued struggle for Christians who choose to stay in the region, and leaving is not an option for many. I met a man who moved his family to Jordan two years ago where they were safe, but laws there made it impossible for him to get a job. So when he ran out of money, he brought his family back to Iraq. They are staying with extended family in Erbil, but that cannot go on forever.

A hurricane of political and theological warfare rages between the Sunni and Shia factions in the Muslim universe. The storm swirls around Christians and has torn their lives apart. Now, they are in the eye of the storm, a temporary lull while attention is on ISIS. But they know that as soon as the smoke clears, they will again be the target of hatred. Where can they live in peace? Many are heading for Jordan, some to Australia and a few to America, but wherever they go, they will be starting over with few resources, connections or work permits.

Operation Blessing is firmly committed to help Christian families secure a soft landing wherever they settle.

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