Ambassadors for Peace in Iraqby Huda Nassar
Following our very successful 'Ambassadors for Peace' Programmes in Syria, through which we had already trained over 200 young Syrian Christians, we were invited by Tearfund, a leading Christian charity, to continue our work in Iraq. Tearfund is a Christian relief and development charity that works in partnership with Christian agencies and churches worldwide to help the marginalised and dispossessed through education and practical help. In Iraq, Tearfund have been responding to the physical and psychological needs of those whose lives have been devastated by the rise of the so-called Islamic State. Recognising our work as a potential major contribution to the lives of Iraqi Christians, Tearfund invited me to go to Iraq to set the stage for our very first Young Peacemakers Programme in that war-torn country.
What is the situation of Christians in Iraq? The 2003 invasion of Iraq saw an increase in violence against Christians; Iraqi churches have been attacked, and priests have been kidnapped or murdered. As the situation in Iraq deteriorated, Iraqi Christians have been on the move; for example, many left Baghdad for the apparent safety of Mosul, only for Mosul to fall to the so-called Islamic State. IS then declared that all Christians in their territories must pay an extortionate tax, convert to Islam, or die. As a result, the Christians have turned to the Iraqi Kurds in Erbil and Duhok for protection, and this is where we went to lead our Young Peacemakers programme.
I travelled to Duhok in July 2015 to meet with representatives of Tearfund and the local agencies there, including CAPNI (Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq) and many of the local churches. They were very supportive, and we could not have succeeded without them.
Huda and Rachel Swift [Tearfund] meeting representatives of CAPNI and local clergy; far right: meeting The Revd Ashty Elisha from The Ministry of Tourism
In September 2015, The Revd Nadim Nassar, Director of the Awareness Foundation, and I welcomed 60 young Iraqi Christians to a hotel in the centre of Duhok. We had hoped to use a monastery, but it was no longer safe due to the closeness of so-called Islamic State fighters.
It was a great leap for the Awareness Foundation to begin our ministry in Iraq. We had planned to train up to 50 young Iraqi Christians on this visit, but we were overwhelmed and amazed when 60 turned up! We work hard to be ecumenical, and this has become a hallmark of our work in the Middle East. In Iraq, we were blessed to welcome young people from every denomination, and a number of clergy too. Just as the Christians in Lattakia, Syria, now include Christians from all over that country, so many of the Christians now in Duhok had come from Baghdad, Mosul, Nineveh, Qaraqosh, As Sulaymaniyah and Bashiqa.
Over four days, Nadim and I talked about the basic skills and qualities of the leader, examples of community leadership during conflicts and wars, and how to repair relationships and rebuild trust. To compliment the teaching, we offered workshops on how to identify a local crisis, how to analyse and propose solutions, how to encourage ecumenism, and how to spread a culture of peace and an understanding of the other.
For the young people taking part, this was the first time that they had ever met ecumenically. In Iraq, unlike Syria, the Christian communities are clearly divided along denominational lines, and the young people of one denomination have almost no connection with those of another. We witnessed this when we began, but over the course of the four days, the young people made a genuine attempt to build bridges with their fellow Christians, even working together to plan ecumenical activities for the future, such as visiting each other’s churches. Nadim and I felt that our work really paved the way for a new attitude of respecting and accepting difference, and this can only be beneficial for the many diverse communities in Iraq.
For the young Christians who have become Ambassadors for Peace, this may well have been a turning point in their lives. They are looking forward to seeing us again when we return to help them even further on their journeys in 2016!
We would like to thank:
- Tearfund for enabling us to take the Ambassadors for Peace Programme to Iraq;
- Mushtaq Afreem and CAPNI for preparing the way for us and for inviting the young Iraqis to participate; and
- All the churches who lent their support to our work and who are now supporting those who took part.
Their support and generosity helped us to spread hope and to empower the young Christians of Iraq to start building peace and reconciliation in their communities. The work has just started, and we have so much more to do!