Watching the news from Syria and Iraq this past summer, I have felt a deep sense of horror at the extreme violence being visited upon community after community. For a while, the savagery of the civil war in Syria had become so awful that there was a tendency for the major news outlets to stop broadcasting the latest news and simply provide aggregate numbers of those displaced (in the millions) or killed (in the hundreds of thousands).
But then ISIS exploded onto the scene, having been disavowed by Al-Qaeda for being too extreme and barbaric even for that terrorist organization (hard to imagine, but true). As ISIS moved rapidly into northern Iraq, they celebrated their advance with ever more brutal acts of savagery—crucifixions, beheadings, mass murders, forced conversions and the systematic capture and rape of women, boys and girls. ISIS’ message to any who do not follow their own brand of extreme Islam has been clear: convert, leave or die. For the Yazidi minority, the choice was even starker: convert or die.
ISIS has forced more than a million people to flee for their lives, and most have fled into the Kurdish-controlled region of northeast Iraq where they are now living in rapidly constructed camps, schools, churches, parks, partially constructed buildings, and anywhere else they can find space and shelter. Among these internally displaced persons (IDPs) are tens of thousands of Chaldean and other Christian minorities who are being persecuted simply because they bear the name of Christ.
Over the summer, as I read passages from the Spirit of Prophecy in my personal devotions, I became convinced that simply being horrified is not enough. Rather, if the whole world is to be bathed in the splendor of God (Rev. 18:1), and God’s glory is His character (Ex. 33:17-34:9), and His character is one of agape love, then God’s end-time movement has a solemn responsibility to tangibly demonstrate His character of sacrificial love to people caught in chaos. People will be drawn to respond to the call to “Come out of her, My people” as they move from communities riven by chaos and violence to a community of disciples manifesting love and compassion for one another.
As AFM leadership discussed and prayed over these matters, we decided to revive our Refugee Ministry Project and endeavor to raise an initial $30,000 in gifts and pledges. We received confirmation that ADRA International was not planning any response at that time, and we had extensive discussions with Church leaders in the Middle East to ensure we were acting with their blessing and prayers. Within three days and after fewer than 10 personal calls, we reached and then surpassed our initial funding target! By Tuesday evening (August 19), I was on a plane with a volunteer colleague (a friend with prior ADRA experience like myself) to Erbil, northern Iraq. Our goal was clear: to identify an AFM refugee ministry strategy.
We spent one week in Kurdistan visiting with key agencies of the UN and with local community, religious and civic leaders. The local atmosphere was tense, as the fighting with ISIS was less than an hour’s drive away, but we claimed the promises of Psalm 91 and moved forward in faith. We visited camps and listened to the testimonies of those who had survived the bloodthirsty onslaughts of ISIS. Our hearts were deeply touched as family after family told us how they had chosen to leave everything behind rather than deny their love for Jesus. Rev. 6:9-12 suddenly became very real.
We met three young Adventist tentmaker missionaries who had found work in Kurdistan with secular employers specifically to be able to share the Three Angels’ Messages. A small ADRA team arrived to work on registering an office in Iraq, and we enjoyed sharing ideas for possible future ministry. We were blessed as we worked in close cooperation with the single Iraqi family that provides leadership for the handful of Adventists in Iraq.
By the end of our week in Iraq, we had agreed on a shower and latrine project with the local Iraqi Adventist leadership, providing showers and latrines for thousands of IDPs. That project is now moving forward.
In the departure lounge at Suleymanieh International Airport as I was leaving Iraq, a Sunni Muslim businessman approached me and asked what I was doing in Kurdistan. When I told him I am an Adventist pastor, he shared how sick he was of the violence in Islam. He asked me what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We had a long conversation, and when it was time to leave, he gave me his email address and asked me to stay in contact. What an incredible privilege we have to represent the Prince of Peace!
But what of the future? We are praying that God will continue opening doors for ministry in Kurdistan. By His grace, we plan to continue providing tangible assistance for immediate needs and also a longer-term missionary presence that will minister to the impacted communities and invite people to follow Jesus Christ. In fact, God has already identified a suitable missionary family of Middle-Eastern heritage for this ministry!
If the Holy Spirit has impressed your heart as He has mine, and you share this vision of lovingly and faithfully representing our Lord and Savior among weary communities in war-torn Iraq, I appeal to you to partner with AFM through prayer and by supporting our new Refugee Ministry Project. Pray for God to open the doors for at least two missionary families to launch to Kurdistan, for the safety of the handful of Adventists in the region, and that one day before the throne of God, men, women and children from the war-torn communities of northern Iraq will joyously worship the Lamb that was slain.