Gospel Advances amid Uptick in War in Iraq

October 29, 2015

Kurdish soldiers prepare for battle outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq. (File photo, Boris Niehaus, Wikimedia)

Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq faced fierce opposition in counter-offensives against the Islamic State (ISIS) this month, but in spiritual battles in the north, native Christian workers saw the gospel advance nearly unopposed, Iraqi ministry leaders said.

The coalition units in Iraq this month stepped up military strikes in Ramadi in the west and Baiji in the north, and the first U.S. fatality in the fight against ISIS occurred on Oct. 22 when Kurdish soldiers and U.S. special operations members freed prisoners held by ISIS in the northern town of Hawija. The approximately 70 hostages had been told they would be executed that day. Their graves had already been prepared.

At the same time, Christian workers doing spiritual battle in northern Iraq could barely keep up with area residents' desire to learn about Christ and the Bible, ministry leaders said. People in northern Iraq's predominantly Muslim, autonomous region of Kurdistan have long been more open to Christianity than other Iraqis, but they have been especially keen since ISIS took over parts of the region.

"They're just sick of Islam," said the director of a ministry based in Kurdistan. "People are very hungry to know about Christ, especially when they hear about miracles, healing, mercy and love."

In numerous testimonies he heard from Kurds every day, in churches that have emerged and in satellite television broadcasts with people calling in telling how they came to put their trust in Christ, the ministry leader cited an "awakening" among Muslims in northern Iraq. No one declined a Bible or the opportunity to hear the gospel, he said, though not all came to faith overnight. He spoke of giving a Bible to a Muslim receiving aid from his ministry.

"He said, 'OK, but I'm Muslim, I can't become Christian – I have a big family, and my father is a very extremist radical,'" the director said. "I said, 'I didn't ask you to be Christian. I'm not trying to change your religion here. I just want you to read the Bible and know who Jesus Christ is. I want you to have a relationship with God.'"

The Kurdish Muslim agreed, and he began reading the Bible with his wife and their many children. His house was frequently without electricity, and when the director and members of the ministry visited him, often they found him reading the Bible by candlelight. The Muslim presented the ministry leader with a list of questions he had made while reading. One day he asked the ministry leader to tell him about the prophet of Islam.

The surprised director, who normally does not talk about Islam, gave him a token bit of information about Muhammad that did not include anything offensive about the founder of the religion.

"I said, 'Why do you ask me that question?'" he said. "He goes, 'You know what? I don't like Muhammad anymore.' I was happy but surprised, so I said, 'What now?' He goes, 'I want to be a Christian.' I said, 'I thought you said you didn't want to be Christian before.' He goes, 'Oh, I changed my mind.' So he got saved."

The Word of God alone, he said, has a power to change lives and requires no embellishment. The ministry leader said he has seen that power work countless times, but it was perhaps never clearer than when administrators at a sharia (Islamic law) college recently made contact with him after they learned he was giving away Bibles. They requested 21 Bibles for a comparative religion class so they could equip Muslims with enough criticisms of the Bible to proselytize Christians.

"In a couple months, after they took that class going through the Bible, five of the students got saved," the ministry leader said. "They called me and said, 'Hey, we're done with Islam.'"

The teacher reported the conversions to authorities, who summoned the ministry director. A policeman asked him if he had tried to convert the students, and he replied that he didn't even know them. When the officer asked him why he gave them Bibles, he said they had requested them. The officer confirmed this with the teacher and asked the students why they had converted.

"One said, 'The Bible is strong, powerful; it changed our lives,'" the leader said. "Then the policeman said, 'Okay, then go, there is no case here; I can't do anything.' So he dismissed the guy and asked me, 'Is it true that the Bible has the power to change lives?' I said, 'Yes, of course. It's been changing lives everywhere.' He asked, 'Can I have a copy?'"

Kurdish Muslims are asking about Christianity and comparing it to what's going on around them, he said.

Displaced Iraqis are facing their second winter in either run-down apartments or tents such as this one in Erbil, Kurdistan.

"As terrifying and horrifying as ISIS is, they did us a great favor because they came and have shown them all the killing, saying that it's all in the Koran verses," he said. "So now we don't have to say much, we just say the truth."

The indigenous ministry leader said the gospel continues to be well received among displaced people, with 10 house churches meeting regularly in run-down apartments in Erbil, Dohuk and surrounding areas. From time to time the fellowships vanish as displaced people leave the country in search of a better life, but others spring up in their place, he said.

The ministry continues to provide aid to displaced people in tents and whatever dilapidated or unfinished buildings they can find for shelter, with needs for blankets, heaters, food and diapers still being high. First ministry members show the love of Christ by meeting physical needs, and only later do they bring Bibles, he said.

"We just help because we love them, and maybe the next time we visit we tell them about Jesus and give them Bibles," he said. "We believe in the power of the Word of God. We don't have many preachers. We don't have many missionaries, but we have the Word of God that we're able to print, purchase and deliver to the people and their children."