While many churches in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, have stepped up humanitarian efforts following 2014’s surge of Internally Displaced People (IDPs), locals admit that some of this aid comes with strings attached.
“There’s a big problem between churches in Iraq,” explained *Sharine, a Kurdish Iraqi woman who has been heavily involved in relief work.
According to OM partners in Kurdistan, some pastors are power-hungry, gathering dollars from as many Western aid sources as possible but limiting distribution to IDPs who pledge allegiance to a particular building or denomination.
Certain churches offer paid and furnished apartments to people who have lost homes, but only if they show up to a set number of services, Sharine explained. And once families are settled into new living situations, woe to them if they choose to attend a different church or start a home discipleship group.
At a time when Christian unity could transform communities of persecuted minorities fleeing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), denominational divisions have instead created deep rifts of suspicion among clergy members.
Thankfully, one local pastor has chosen to walk a different path when distributing aid to IDPs, Sharine and onsite OM workers testified.
“We are very thankful”
Getting into *Nabi’s office one June afternoon meant squeezing through a crowd of IDPs waiting for weekly food vouchers provided through the church.
“Today, we’re distributing 1,000 instead of 500 [coupons],” Nabi explained, noting the swelling number of people outside.
While the church couldn’t provide any additional help, volunteers did offer cold water to those waiting in the midday heat.
With each family receiving approximately $25 USD towards food, the small slips of paper being passed over the church’s front gate total more than $10,000 USD weekly.
Nabi said that 6,400 families were already registered, with more coming every day.
The vouchers are printed with anti-counterfeit protection, numbered and stamped with the church’s logo. They’re also valid at two local supermarkets, preventing one vendor from jacking prices.
“When I go shopping, I see people using these coupons,” observed *Albert, an OM worker involved in partner relationships and distributing relief funds in Kurdistan.
A majority of the IDPs receiving food coupons from Nabi’s church are Christians from the Mosul area, but also Arabs from Anbar and Yazidis.
“When they came here, they said, ‘We are very thankful. You didn’t ask where we are from and what’s our faith,’” Nabi remembered, revealing the underlying tensions present in many religious-based aid operations.
It’s tough to be constantly on the giving end, however.
“This country is bleeding the Christians,” Nabi described, talking about the steady stream of Iraqi Christians who have left Iraq before and since ISIS invaded.
Not only is Nabi overseeing an expanding relief effort–including food coupons, help with rent and education initiatives, he’s also shepherding a church that’s seen a 75% member turnover in the last year.
“This is somehow overwhelming,” said *Danielle, Albert’s wife.
Even as head of his church’s relief efforts, Nabi acknowledged that life in Iraq has not been easy. Especially the children suffer from the situation, he explained.
“Our children, they cannot express themselves well. We don’t give that freedom to our children. In the schools, they cannot talk. In the churches, they have to be silent,” he said.
“This is why we don’t do well in the interviews. We grow up like that. Why? We are always afraid.”
Nabi once visited a Finnish kindergarten, but when he left the classroom, he wanted to cry because the teachers had taken such good care of the children. “I was very sad. My country will never be like that,” he said.
Talking about a new school he’s dreaming of building on a 3,000-square-metre parcel of land, allocated for a park but currently unclaimed, he emphasized: “This school will be different, just to let them express what they want.”
As the first wave of the refugee crisis has passed, Nabi agreed with OM’s Syrian and Iraqi project relief manager that continued aid should begin to implement development elements. But like the illusive educators to run his hoped-for school, investors and small business mentors are imperative to success.
IDPs who could receive micro-loans–creative means of kick-starting a new existence–need follow-up to make sure they don’t get discouraged in the beginning stages of business and instead settle for cheap cash made from selling off their newly acquired equipment.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Nabi said, nodding at the idea of finding people with business acumen and discipleship capabilities to head up this process.
“But even if we have someone in the church, we’re not going to be able to pay them for that. We have some people who work as volunteers, but after one year, it’s exhausting.”
Albert and Danielle, who attend Nabi’s church, said his persistent dedication to caring for the people of Iraq has been inspiring: “In all the struggles, we see in our pastor a fresh and genuine love for Christ and a great desire to give the good news to all people. We appreciate his sound teaching.”
- Pray for Pastor Nabi and his church to persevere in loving the IDPs God has brought to their doorstep.
- Pray for sufficient funding to meet physical needs and for more business-minded workers who can oversee budding development projects.
- Pray that Iraqi pastors would have integrity in receiving and distributing aid to IDPs.
- Pray for unity among traditional denominations, so that God’s love may heal a broken land.