Islamic State Losses Offer Glimmer of Hope for Displaced Iraqis

April 16, 2015

The gospel spreads quickly among families sharing cheap apartment buildings in Erbil, such as this complex accommodating 350 refugee families from Qaraqosh.

Military victories against the Islamic State (ISIS) and the U.S. president's affirmation of the Iraqi prime minister's handling of the war on Tuesday (April 14) give displaced Iraqis a glimmer of hope, but they see little chance of returning home soon.

Having retaken Tikrit from ISIS on April 2, the military forces battling ISIS are claiming substantial momentum. Instead of continuing north toward the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, which many of the displaced Iraqis call home, Iraqi forces went south and west into Islamic State-held territory in the vast province of Anbar.

Iraqi refugees longing to return home to Mosul, Qaraqosh and surrounding areas have been living in tents and run-down apartment buildings in Erbil and Dohuk since last August.

"Up to this point people are still so disappointed, especially the ones that live in tents. They don't have buildings, and they are very disappointed about that because they don't have any sign that they will return very soon," said the Iraqi leader of an indigenous ministry to the refugees. "Most of them asked the government if they can return or if the government can return their area from the terrorists. They say, 'No, if we let you return you will be under the range of the missiles or whatever bombs they have there,' so they can't."

In his visit to the White House, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi had hoped to obtain drones and other U.S. weapons in the fight against ISIS. President Obama instead pledged a much needed $200 million in humanitarian aid to those whose lives have been disrupted by war. He also affirmed the success of Prime Minister Abadi, who took office in September with Shiite support, to unite Sunni and Kurdish fighters.

Shiite militias from Iran also have played a role in victories against ISIS, and the U.S. and Iraqi leaders spent a good part of their 40-minute meeting discussing the role of Iran, which both leaders fear is trying to expand its influence in the region. President Obama said "any foreign assistance" in the war must go through the Iraqi government, with Prime Minister Abadi adding, "We are also keen to bring all fighters under the control of the state and under the command of the commander of the armed forces."

The United States has deployed more than 3,000 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces and provide security, intelligence and logistical support. U.S. coalition airstrikes were key in retaking Tikrit from Islamic State militants on April 2.

ISIS took Mosul in June 2014 in a surprise attack that drove thousands of Christians and others from the country's second largest city, where the militants carried out gruesome atrocities. The White House remains opposed to sending troops and has warned that helping Iraqi forces, Kurdish fighters and Iranian militias unseat ISIS from Mosul will involve a lengthy process. At the same time, Kurdish fighters reportedly are already trying to enter the city.

Most of the refugees, especially the Christian ones, came from villages in the Nineveh Valley, which separates Erbil from Mosul, the indigenous ministry leader said. With assistance from Christian Aid Mission, the ministry was able to place many of them in apartment buildings, and as people from Muslim, traditional churches, and other backgrounds came to Christ, churches emerged.

"We ended up having something like a church in each building, and that is a very, very good tool for people who never heard about the Lord," the indigenous ministry leader said. "Even some refugees from a traditional church background don't know Jesus Christ. They don't know Christ as their personal Savior, don't attend church, and they don't have the Bible."

Iraqis displaced since last August are awaiting signs that the Islamic State will be defeated and they can return home.

As Christianity spreads in refugee camps in northern Iraq, the Islamic State is putting up fierce battles to retain the land needed for its self-proclaimed caliphate. More than 1,900 U.S. coalition airstrikes have helped recover 25 to 30 percent of the territory the Islamic State seized last year, the White House said this week, but there have been setbacks in the battles for Anbar.

In Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Governorate less than 70 miles from Baghdad, Islamic State militants last week took an area north of the city, Albu Faraj. After vehicle and suicide bombs tore open the way for ISIS militants, they killed 15 members of families of police and military personnel in their homes. Hundreds of families reportedly fled.

An Anbar provincial official urgently called on Prime Minister Abadi to send reinforcements and supplies.

One reason for Iraq trying to retake Anbar now is that it is largely Sunni territory that would presumably involve less involvement from Iran's Shia militias, who were uneasy partners with the Iraqi and Kurdish forces that took Tikrit. The more the United States supports Prime Minister Abadi in fighting ISIS and smoothing relations with Sunnis, the reasoning goes, the less influence will be left to Iran.

Iraqi security forces began attacking ISIS towns in Anbar Governorate on April 8 in what is hoped will be a lead-up to retaking territory in Nineveh Province, including its capital, Mosul. Displaced Iraqis in refugee camps hear talk of the imminent liberation of Mosul and other areas from ISIS, but they see no serious signs of what would be a huge operation with many civilian casualties, the ministry leader said. Meantime, he said, he and his team are still seeing unprecedented openness to the gospel.

"In the present situation, almost everybody is open to listen to you, because most of the people are brokenhearted; they lost a lot, and they have no hope," he said. "So whatever you give, whatever you show, they just bow their heads, they cry with you, and they will accept what you say."

Besides providing food, clothes, diapers, baby formula and paying medical bills and expenses for emergency operations, the ministry also operates a mobile medical clinic out of a van outfitted for the task. It reaches at least 80 people per day; all of them hear the gospel and receive a Bible, as well as prayer.

"I love Muslims; my ministry is reaching Muslims for Christ," the director said. "In this time of disaster, I would say that 90 percent of them are very open to the gospel. Last week 30 people got saved and joined the church."