Iraq: Despite thousands fleeing ISIS, churches are full of new believers

Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been forced to flee Iraq as Islamic State continues to tighten its grip, but still people are turning to Jesus, a church leader has told Christian Today.

Rev Sami Dagher, president and founder of all Alliance churches in Lebanon, has churches all across the Middle East, including 22 in Syria, six in Lebanon, and three in Iraq – one each in Dahuk, Irbil, and Baghdad. He also has two Bible schools, one in Beirut and another in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, and is just starting a church in Cairo.

Having been working and leading churches in Iraq since 1990, Dagher has seen significant changes in the region. He lived there under the reign of Saddam Hussein, and was once able to give a Bible to the dictator, who sent a gold watch in return and a letter thanking Dagher for his gift. At that time, it was illegal to open churches, so Dagher started one congregation under the pretence of it being a nursery, and encouraged Christians to eat together when they met, so if they got caught praying by the police they could say they were just thanking God for the food.

Rev Dagher estimates that 80 per cent of his original church congregation in Baghdad have left since ISIS began gaining influence.Samaritan's Purse

Since ISIS began gaining influence in Iraq, life has got even worse for Christians and swathes have been forced to convert to Islam, leave their homes or risk being killed. Many are now refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, but there are also believed to be around 2.8 million internally displaced Iraqis, some in makeshift camps but many living in abandoned schools and other buildings. Dagher's ministry has partnered with Samaritan's Purse to provide food, aid and shelter to some of those most in need in places such as Irbil and Dahuk.

According to the BBC's Lyse Doucet in Baghdad last September, ISIS militants were closing in on the city, and the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East then reported that jihadists were "less than 2km away". However, it has as so far remained free from ISIS control.

Dagher estimates that 80 per cent of his original church congregation in Baghdad have left, but "the church is still full with new people coming," he says.

"We have about 400 people every Sunday in Baghdad, and about 30 per cent of those are from different religions." Currently, 73 people who have converted to Christianity are waiting to be baptised in the church.

Christians in Iraq are afraid of ISIS, Dagher added, but many Muslims are coming to Christ, despite the risk. "They are seeking to see the truth, and they can't find that truth maybe in their religion." While orthodox churches in the Middle East do not allow Muslims to worship there, the evangelical churches have opened their doors.

Kevin Sutter, president of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Frontier Missions, recently claimed that there is a spiritual revival happening among Muslims in the Middle East, and though Dagher said that the word "revival" may be too strong, many Muslims are becoming disillusioned with their faith, and looking to the Church for answers.

"They see people who will put a bomb around themselves and go kill themselves and others and say 'Allahu Akbar' [God is great]. They see a man take another man, cutting [off] his head with a knife and saying 'Allahu Akbar'. They can't really can they do it in the name of Allah?" he explained. "They want to find the truth."

A YWAM worker also reportedly met an ISIS militant who had become a Christian. "I'm not surprised," Dagher responded to this story. "God can do miracles."

The Middle East is a dangerous place for him to be, but despite having a British wife and children, and therefore able to move to the UK, Dagher – who is now 79 years old – says he will continue to plant churches until "they put me six feet underground".

"The Holy Spirit has given me the courage to stay and shepherd, and bring light to a dark place," he says. "We have titles in the word of God, and one of the titles we have [is that] we are ambassadors for Christ...we have the ministry of reconciliation. If all the ministers leave Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, who is going to reconcile people to God? Who is going?

"[We also have] another title – we are the light of the world. Syria is a dark place, Iraq is a dark place, Lebanon is a dark place, Kurdistan is a dark place and the light is leaving it – who is going to shine there?

"According to God, we have to shine in the dark place, and if it's dark, one candle will make a difference."

Rev Sami Dagher was in the UK with Samaritan's Purse. Find out more about their work in Iraq here.