Beth Ross swapped the comforts of Sydney for one of the world’s war-torn countries, to help remind persecuted people they matter.
Visiting Iraq for a week recently, the young editor and writer travelled with local representatives of charity Open Doors. Rebuilding after years of civil war against Islamic State forces, Iraq is surrounded by ongoing conflict across its borders (notably Syria).
“Iraq was quite different to what I expected.” – Beth Ross
“Just you being over there to encourage them reminds them that they haven’t been forgotten by the rest of the world,” explains Beth about meeting Iraqi Christians in the country’s north.
“At the same time, we got so much just from meeting with those believers. Our faith was shaken and changed and deepened, just by sitting with people who were willing to risk everything for Jesus. It reminds you that you are serving a very real God.”
Beth files stories and produces podcasts for Open Doors. But this was her first trip to the front line of what it and other Christian charities enable – practical and prayerful support of persecuted Christians around the world. Despite Christians not being able to publicly identify in Iraq, the country used to have about 1.5 million Christians. That number is estimated to have plummeted to about 300,00, after years of Christians being killed or forced to flee under threat by ISIS (or the earlier threat from Islamic jihadist group al-Qaeda).
Having formed an impression of Iraq by watching from afar, Beth was amazed by the reality. “Iraq was quite different to what I expected,” reports Beth. “We see the Iraq that the media puts forward and every part of it is a war zone and it’s in constant chaos. When I got there and met people who were going about life as normal, I was quite surprised.
“One minute, we’d be driving along and there’d be tanks and things like that off in the distance, and we’d be reminded that this is an actual war zone. And the next moment, we’re sitting down drinking chai tea in a café with people and it’s like nothing is going on at all. We felt like Iraq is a tale of two countries.”
However, Beth says every Christian she met had been affected by Iraq’s recent turbulent history, including US opposition to former president Saddam Hussein and battling al-Qaeda and ISIS.
“For most of them, the only thing they said they were still hanging on to is Jesus.” – Beth Ross
Spending most of her time in northern Iraq, Beth got about 20 kilometres from major city Mosul. Liberated last year from ISIS control, Mosul locals still fear sleeper cells. Such ongoing effects of war are the fabric of everyday life in Iraq, a nation where converting from Islam to Christianity is illegal. All Iraqi Christians share a common experience with struggle – and turning to Jesus for sustenance.
“People would start sharing their story and it would turn out that they were IDPs (Internally Dispossessed Person) who had fled from Mosul. Their brother had been killed by al-Qaeda or their house had been attacked or church burned down. Things like that,” she says.
“It felt quite normal but, as you got into conversation, you realise they have come through unimaginable hardships. For most of them, the only thing they said they were still hanging on to is Jesus.
“We had one of them say to us that when you have nowhere else to look, you can only look up to Jesus.”
In a Catholic church, the priest showed them candle stands at the altar. He shared how his two closest friends from Bible college were killed in 2010 in a Baghdad church – along with about 60 other people – when al-Qaeda suicide bombers blew themselves up. The candle stands are from that Baghdad church and still bear the blood of those killed. “He refused to clean it off because that was the price they were willing to pay for Jesus in Iraq.”
“That really capped it all off [about] the attitude of Christians over there.”
“I don’t think God calls us to be comfortable …” – Beth Ross
Beth has been stirred to be more bold in her Christian faith (“The Christians I met in Iraq wouldn’t hide their cross, regardless of what it cost them”) and not to be lukewarm. When she asked Iraqi Christians about what it looks like to be lukewarm in the Christian faith, they responded quickly: “Someone who only cares about themselves. Someone who was pursuing a nice, comfortable life. And someone concerned more with their own safety than sharing the gospel with their neighbours.”
Anytime an Iraqi described that sort of Christian, “I honestly thought they were describing me,” Beth admits. But she’s been stirred and empowered by her Iraqi experience. So while she promotes staying informed about the lives of Christians in other countries and seeking practical ways to help them – such as prayer or donating to supporter organisations – Beth advocates going to meet with them, where they are.
“I definitely recommend people travelling because, as much as they are risky countries to go to, I don’t think God calls us to be comfortable and be more concerned with our own security than to risk building up the body of Christ.”