Crisis in Iraq: Muslim Converts Face the Greatest Challenges

June 26, 2014

When ISIS militants seized control of Mosul two weeks ago, thousands of Christians joined the mass exodus of residents fleeing the violence in Iraq´s second largest city.

A few have stayed, barricaded in their homes and afraid to step foot outside. Some went to Baghdad. Many headed north to the Kurdish region, where they have relatives and where Christians are generally welcomed.

One segment of the population, however, has nowhere to go—Muslims who have converted to Christianity.

Referred to as Muslim background believers or “MBBs,” these individuals are considered problematic for both Muslims and Christians in the Middle East. Muslims view a fellow Muslim´s conversion to another religion as traitorous and believe it is their duty to kill that person. Christians, on the other hand, are suspicious of MBBs and may question if their conversion is genuine. Some congregations are reluctant to allow MBBs to worship with them, either out of fear they are spies or that angered Muslims will attack their church.

Rejection by their families and communities forces many Muslim converts to ultimately go into hiding.

“There are hundreds of MBBs already that have been taken in and cared for by ministries in the region,” said Steven Van Valkenburg, the Middle East director for Christian Aid Mission. “Some came from Syria when the war broke out there. Now with the situation in Iraq, the Muslim converts are really stuck. They don´t know what to do.”

Due to the overwhelming influx of residents from Mosul, the Kurdish autonomous region agreed to accept only those who had family members living there. Shiite Muslims escaping the Sunni-led ISIS jihadists flocked to the Kurdish area. Christians found refuge, too.

“It was a bit harder for the Muslim converts to go to Kurdistan because they didn´t have somebody they knew to receive them,” explained one ministry leader that has been helping several families find sanctuary.

With assistance from Christian Aid, the Middle East ministry is doing all that it can to help “smuggle” some of these families out of Iraq. Thus far the ministry has evacuated 32 families from Mosul to another country in the region.

These families left Iraq with nothing more than a few suitcases of belongings. The leader expressed an urgent need for financial support to provide housing and food for approximately 130 people.

Currently the ministry is trying to find living arrangements for the families and is looking at renting apartments that can accommodate four families. That´s eight apartments at a total cost of $9,600 per month.

The price to feed one person per day is about five dollars. However, that means the ministry´s expenses will amount to $650 per day just to provide food for 130 individuals.

In addition, the families need foam mattresses for bedding, clothing, toiletries, towels, dishes, and cooking utensils. The ministry has also been covering transportation expenses to relocate the families outside of the country.

With millions of Syrian refugees spread throughout the region, Iraqis know finding a place to live and a job is extremely difficult. Many Syrians believed their country´s civil war would be short-lived. Three years later, they are still unable to return to their home communities.

Now Iraqi refugees wonder how much hardship they must endure–and for how long–before they can reclaim peace.

Muslim converts face an even grimmer reality check. They may never be able to go home.

In the meantime, they can apply for refugee status with the United Nations. That process usually takes an average of 17 months, according to the ministry leader. Given the growing list of refugee crises in the Middle East and other parts of the globe, however, that timeframe will most likely drag on into years of waiting.

Iraqi believers face an uncertain future.

And then there´s the larger issue: What country will take them?

“We heard about a 23-year-old Saudi girl that supposedly someone in Canada was going to help out, and he couldn´t do anything for her. Then she went to the U.S. embassy in a Middle Eastern country,” the ministry leader said. “She got refused the visa because she mentioned that she was a Christian convert. She was told, ‘We don´t want problems.’ She couldn´t get a visa, and she cannot go back to Saudi Arabia. So things are a bit complicated.”

The situation is likely to worsen as more Iraqis, whether Christian or Muslim, seek an escape from the sectarian violence that threatens to deteriorate into full-fledged civil war.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis became displaced in early June when the Sunni jihadist group, called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), took over Mosul, Tikrit, and other northern areas as they marched toward Baghdad. The group immediately instituted sharia law in the conquered communities.

The ministry leader reported that in Mosul, ISIS supporters were spreading anti-Christian messages from car loudspeakers throughout the streets of the city.

“They were calling for the destruction of all churches, to burn them down, so believers are freaked out. This is not only directed at evangelicals, but everyone who is a Christian,” he said.

Along with assisting the 32 MBB families, the ministry would like to help believers who are still in hiding in Mosul, as well as those who arrived safely in the Kurdish area of Iraq.