About a month after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, two of us at Focus on the Family traveled to Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. Our goal was to determine whether or not open doors existed for Focus to minister to Iraqi families in that war-torn country. At 4:30 a.m., we piled into two GMC Suburbans and departed from Amman, Jordan for the 10-hour drive to Baghdad. Keep in mind, although the war had ended, Iraq was still very much a hotbed of violence.
We arrived at the Jordanian/Iraqi customs at 8 a.m. where we met a Discovery Channel cameraman who offered this perspective. “You know,” he said, “the German Ambassador’s vehicle was shot up by some gunmen during his trip to Baghdad just two days ago, and a Jordanian man was killed by some thieves on the highway you’ll be traveling on.” That got our attention. He added, “I’m here with some folks from CBS News and we’re going in an armored truck. I’d highly recommend that you wear some protective body armor on your drive.”
Armored truck? Body armor?
In lieu of protective coverings, our drivers wisely stayed together with a convoy of other vehicles on the road, believing that there’d be strength in numbers. We had heard numerous stories of roving bandits in small vehicles whose strategy was to force people off of the highway and then rob them of their valuables. And when we approached such hot spots of violence like Fallujah and Ramadi—towns where a number of American soldiers were victims of sniper fire—we drove more than 130 MPH to minimize our exposure.
The closer we got to Baghdad, the more we observed bombed-out bridges, charred Iraqi tanks, and overturned cars littering the landscape. At one point we heard the unmistakable whirl of three Apache helicopters which had swooped down to check us out. By God’s grace, we arrived without incident in Baghdad at 4:30pm. With minutes to spare, we reached the Petra Hotel just before the nighttime curfew went into effect.
I’ve done my share of traveling and witnessed just about every imaginable situation. But it was a first for me to check into a hotel where a tank was parked outside of the building while U.S. soldiers frisked suspicious people on the street corner. Another unforgettable moment was our tour of a wing of Saddam’s primary palace and a special room (now being used as a chapel) that had been used by Saddam as an informal courtroom.
We took turns sitting on the three green and gold thrones once used by Saddam and his sons, Uday and Qusay, as they listened to various cases and decided on people’s fates. Reed Olson, then Focus on the Family Director of International Relations who, incidentally, did a fantastic job making arrangements for this trip, was told that Saddam referred to himself in this place as “God,” and that Uday would sometimes order that the heads of his enemies be delivered to him on platters.
For five days, we had a series of incredible meetings, one of which was with key contacts at the Catholic Maternity Hospital in Baghdad. While we were there we learned about two nuns who had been shot returning from the vegetable market the day before. One died and one survived at least for a day. She told the head nurse that when they were shot, the shooter made this threat: “We will come back and kill all of you Christians once your Christian ‘Uncles’ from America are gone.”
It appears that his terrible statement is now coming to pass. According to Archbishop Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk, “A total of 750 Christians have been murdered in the past five years.” And, the International Christian Concern (ICC) reports that four Iraqi Christians were killed on April 1 and 2 in Baghdad and Kirkuk in what appears to be part of an on-going ethno-religious cleansing.
Having arrived on the scene shortly after Saddam’s brutal dictatorship ended, I witnessed first hand the seeds of hope that religious freedom would be allowed to blossom in that newly liberated country. Unfortunately, such has not been the case, at least not for Iraqi Christians. In fact, some 600,000 Iraqi Christians have been forced to abandon their homes and take up residence as refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It grieves me that, for the most part, this mass exodus of displaced Christians has been underreported here in America.
As reported by Persecution.org, Jonathan Racho, ICC’s Regional Manager for Africa and the Middle East, said, “The suffering of Iraqi Christians has been beyond description and is not over yet. More than ever, the Iraqi Christians need our prayer and support.” Referring to the four tragic deaths earlier this month, Racho said, “The latest martyrdom of our brothers should serve to awaken churches in the Western countries to come to the aid of their Iraqi brothers and sisters.”
Saddam Hussein may be gone, but the threat against fellow believers remains high. Join me in praying this month for those who are suffering for their faith. And, pray for us as we continue to explore ways to distribute our marriage and family resources in Iraq.