Ainkawa, Iraq — During his days in Baghdad, Father Douglas Bazi survived a gunshot to the legs, a kidnapping that lasted nine days, and three explosions aimed at the Christian community. He watched his church shrink from 2,600 members to only 250, some of his flock perishing and many more fleeing. So when Bazi ministers to hundreds of refugees living in flimsy tents in his Ainkawa churchyard in Kurdistan, he can relate to their suffering.

“I tell them [their current situation] is not because of what God did,” Father Bazi tells me. “It is what humans or politics did. . . . We belong to God. We don’t belong to anyone else. God saved us in the past, so let’s account for the same God, because he’s going to save us. But we have to put our hearts with God and not anyone else.”

Iraq’s Christian refugees have already chosen their faith over their comfort, but that doesn’t mean they’re not enduring a spiritual crisis in addition to a humanitarian one.

Iraq’s current turmoil has displaced more than 1.8 million people in total, many of them Christians. Some estimates suggest that between half and two-thirds of the 1.4 million Christians counted in Iraq in 2003 have since fled from central Iraq, many of them to Kurdistan. Destitute, refugees now live in tents, unfinished buildings, or under bridges. Today, 214 families — more than 700 people — have sought refuge in the front yard of Father Bazi’s church, Mar Elia.

“Just think about their spiritual life — how can they live like this?” Bazi implores. “But as Christians,” he adds, “we have to get inside the pain. Christ said, ‘Carry your cross and follow me.’ So if we take that cross, perhaps in 20 years’ time, we will say it was a time of opportunity because we did believe.”

Many Iraqi Christians tell me that their faith is strong, that they love Jesus, and that they pray constantly. At a Sunday Mass, so many worshippers attend Mar Elia that the building can’t hold them; they crowd into the aisles or stand in the doorway or on the porch.

But instead of discussing their faith, most of the Christian refugees told me that, especially for an American audience, they needed to talk about their immediate needs: food, warm clothing, and sturdier shelter, because a harsh winter fast approaches. Many also begged more stable countries to let them immigrate with their children, because they feel Iraq holds no future for Christians.

Constantly, Christian refugees come to Father Bazi with tough questions about faith, he says, and he’s reckoning with some of his own, too; when I ask him whether he believes God is in control, he tells me, “Write this down: That’s an interesting question.” He wouldn’t give me a straight yes or no answer but later told me, “As [Job] said, why do we accept the good things from God and not the bad?”

Bazi says he feels closest to God when he’s serving his fellow Christians. He seems to believe that it is his job to ensure that good comes out of these tragic circumstances, a project he has devoted himself to wholeheartedly. “People won’t like that I say this,” he says somewhat jokingly, “but I would clasp my hand with the devil to help these people.”

Taking a lead from the military, he keeps the Christians living in the churchyard busy, creating a routine to distract them from their suffering. Mar Elia’s churchyard now hosts classes for refugee children, and Bazi says he thinks it’s particularly important to encourage and educate the young girls.

He also creates an atmosphere of fun. On the night I attend the service, he and several other clergy host a Mar Elia’s Got Talent pageant, roping off a small area in the churchyard. Children and young adults sing folk songs, and Bazi gently teases and encourages them, offering critiques and scores with faux seriousness through a microphone. The crowd goes wild, briefly distracted from their troubles.

Bazi says that while he wants people to see the opportunities in their current hardship, he has no qualms about urging Christians to get out of Iraq if they have the chance. Some tell him they think they need to remain in the country to represent their faith, but Bazi responds, “To prove what? We want to give them opportunities. Maybe one of these children will be a leader [for Iraq]. But if we live the same life in Mosul and around it, we will remain enslaved.”

Not all Iraqi Christians agree. Mar Elia’s Sister Samar Barkho, also originally from Baghdad, tells me she thinks God has given Iraq’s Christians a peacekeeping mission in their country. By forgiving others, Christians can help Iraq move past some of the old grudges that continue to play out violently.

“Difficulty gives me strength, gives me more belief in God because God exists through every situation,” she says. “I want to give hope to others to have more belief. . . . We don’t hate any people because God says love your enemies. We hope to make them understand that we are not their enemies. We are just people who love to live in peace together, because we are sons and daughters of this land just as they are.”

Sister Samar tells me if she had one request for Americans, it would be that they keep praying for Iraq’s Christians.  

Likewise, Nadeen Nabil, a 20-year-old woman originally from Ainkawa, says the conflict with the Islamic State has deepened her dedication to both God and her country. Though she’s not currently a refugee, Nabil lived in Baghdad during much of her teenage years, so she’s no stranger to persecution. She says she and her fellow Christians have learned to pray and trust God through hardship.

“Jesus saved us,” Nabil says, “and he will always save us. No matter what happens, we will never let go of our Christ. . . . Our suffering will end eventually. But no matter what happens to us, we will be more attached to our religion, have more faith in it, and never let it go.” 

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.