|Publisher:||Tyndale House Publishers|
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They Say We are Infidels
On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East
By Mindy Belz
Tyndale House PublishersCopyright © 2016 Mindy Belz
All rights reserved.
* * *
Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning.
* * *
Insaf Safou had ten thousand American dollars to give away. They were measured in tens, twenties, and fifties and distributed among dozens of white envelopes. Each bore the name, penciled in soft lead, of a family in Iraq. Some were written in Arabic, some in English. None of them meant anything to me.
"You will take how many thousand through customs for me?" Insaf asked.
We had known each other for maybe one minute and were riding in the backseat of a two-door sedan belonging to a mutual friend, wedged together with luggage tumbling over our shoulders and jammed at our feet. After my overnight stay in Amman, our mutual friend, an American living in Jordan with her family, had collected us one after the other from different street corners. Arab drivers flew past, honking their horns. We were on our way to Amman's Queen Alia International Airport on the outskirts of the city, then on to Baghdad in Insaf's homeland.
Insaf's question hung in the air, close. She stared at me, unblinking. I wasn't sure I'd met an Iraqi Arab Christian before, certainly not one so bold. Her round face and pronounced cheekbones were welcoming. But her dark eyes flashed, demanding.
The white envelopes fanned before me like a royal flush, and I wondered what I'd gotten myself into. I stuttered in reply, then looked back to Insaf's face, a moment ago taut with the power of a just cause, now giving way like glass across a floor. She laughed.
"I am only thinking business before pleasure, and forgetting we must first become friends."
It was December 2003. Nine years earlier, Insaf, her husband, and their two small children had left Iraq. Like many Iraqis who faced threats under Saddam Hussein, they made their way to Jordan, then to Turkey. After seven years as refugees in Istanbul, they immigrated to Canada.
When I first met Insaf, Iraq had been liberated from the grip of Saddam Hussein, and she was on her way back to Baghdad for the first time since her departure. From a compact red carry-on case at her feet, she retrieved a thin notebook with a flowery cover and handed it to me. Inside, written in a careful hand, were the names of families in Iraq who were to receive a portion of the money she carried, and the amount. She had arranged the list with space for each recipient to sign his or her name, so that when she returned to Canada she could show the donors that their money had been signed for and delivered.
The families in Canada who donated the money were Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians — Iraqi exiles whose roots extended from the mountains of the upper Euphrates Valley to the plains of Nineveh and down to the southern desert.
Before I met Insaf in Amman, we had talked once by phone — a kind of interview to see whether she would permit me, a reporter, to accompany her on this homecoming. I learned then that Insaf had been born into a Catholic family in Kirkuk. As a young woman, she started attending the Kirkuk Evangelical Church, an Iraqi-led congregation established by Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in 1941. She considered herself a born-again, evangelical Christian.
Now I leafed through her flowered notebook, impressed. We were perhaps ten minutes into our relationship, nearing Queen Alia airport, when I agreed to take several packets of money across the border. I folded the envelopes and buttoned them into a leg pocket of my cargo pants, wondering whether I might have been too quick to trust the enterprise of this petite yet sturdy Iraqi.
Insaf was a woman both weighed down by the world and freed from it. The weight showed in the slump of her shoulders and in her pale, creased face. She was forty-five years old, and two years in the West hadn't erased the physical toll of a lifetime living under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Her country was at war, Saddam and his loyalists were hiding somewhere, and Insaf knew only a little of what lay ahead for her when she reached Baghdad. Would she find her extended family, her friends, her old neighborhoods? Yet when she spoke, she was full of confidence and her eyes glistened. They darted over me during our conversation with the passion of a free spirit, of a girl.
Insaf was a refugee who had made countless homes in four different countries with her husband and two children. Her cloistered upbringing included Catholic schools in tenth-century abbeys. She knew privilege and poverty; she knew what it was like to wake up with a missile embedded in her kitchen wall; and she knew four languages as a result of her sojourning.
I'd spent my life wholly in the United States, living on the Eastern Seaboard in two different states not far from where my forebears had arrived in America in the 1600s. I'd had a charmed childhood where church came in brick buildings with white steeples and the Middle East appeared only in the burlap and hay used to make a Nativity scene each year for the baby Jesus. Together, Insaf and I had to bridge chasms that were wider than the ocean we'd crossed to get to the Middle East.
I had seen war before, in Bosnia and in Sudan, and had made one trip to Iraq before this war, but I knew little about what to expect. Working for a small independent publication like World magazine, I had no bureau awaiting me in Baghdad, no hired translator or bodyguard. As most journalists would do, I would spend a few days as an embed at a U.S. military base north of Baghdad, seeing how the war was going from the perspective of American servicemen and women. At a combat hospital, I would witness the hard labor of Americans working around the clock. I would watch the helicopters ferry in the wounded, including an eighteen-year-old Marine with his face blown off by an improvised explosive device (IED). I would see how the doctors and nurses rose from their cots and headed to the operating room at any hour to bind up the wounds of war.
Insaf had her own combat mission, and I made the journey with her to witness an exile's homecoming and a family reunion as once-displaced Iraqis were returning in the months after Saddam was toppled. I came to see through her eyes how the U.S. invasion transformed her ancient homeland and to witness life outside the protection of soldiers, where Iraqis encountered the war every day. But by crossing the border with money in my pocket, I had become, in a sense, her accomplice. We would embark together, find out how much her country had changed, and discover the high cost of going back.
* * *
Once at the airport, Insaf and I climbed aboard the small Beechcraft plane that would fly us to Baghdad. Captain Chris Erasmus and copilot Rudolph Van Eeden sipped thick coffee out of squat paper cups as they waited for permission to take off. December mornings in Amman break overcast in a cool, dull haze. Erasmus was less concerned about the weather and more about military clearance. His twin-engine turboprop was a workhorse in war zones. But flying into Iraq's capital city, nearly nine months into the U.S.-led invasion, had just gotten hairy.
Erasmus and Van Eeden had started piloting humanitarian flights over Baghdad in November. Their carrier, Air Serv International, had been founded in the 1980s for just this type of mission. Each flight before takeoff, they waited to get a slot from air-traffic controllers a thousand miles away, operating out of the U.S. air base in Doha, Qatar. Receiving a slot meant they could enter Iraqi airspace knowing that they had some U.S. military cover.
A week earlier, slots had grown scarce after militants fired a shoulder-to-air missile that had hit a DHL cargo plane during takeoff, forcing it to make an emergency landing with one wing on fire.
After that, aircraft dodged attacks every day from the ground near the newly reopened Baghdad International Airport. Commercial airlines grounded passenger flights in and out of Baghdad. U.S. Central Command clamped down on available slots, reserving the Iraqi airspace for military flights. Humanitarian flights by Air Serv International were the only option left for civilians. As we blew on our coffee and waited, the pilots explained to me that permission to fly into Iraqi airspace, when it came from Doha, now came with a disclaimer: Fly at your own risk.
"In other words, you might get shot down," said Erasmus.
"And don't come crying to the U.S. military if that happens," added Van Eeden.
In May, Air Serv took three hundred passengers a month into Iraq. By November, its manifests were running a thousand a month, so it added another Beech1900D, a nineteen-seater, and brought on Erasmus and Van Eeden. Demand for seats stayed high as travel by car went from dangerous to out of the question. The road from Amman to Baghdad was a shooting gallery, especially if a Westerner was caught traveling on it.
None of it worried Erasmus or Van Eeden, who had flown in other wars, most recently the one in Afghanistan.
"Ever been shot at?" I asked.
"We don't know because we've never been hit," Erasmus replied.
* * *
Many Americans expected the U.S. forces to come home after they watched on-screen as Marines pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square. The Coalition Provisional Authority settled in under Paul Bremer, embracing the call of President George W. Bush to oversee a "global democratic revolution" in the Middle East led by the United States: a mission with a breathless urgency similar to the Berlin Airlift that began in 1948 or the defense of Greece in 1947.
Eight months later, as I headed to Iraq in December 2003, the country was in disarray. Saddam and his sons were on the run, along with most of the disenfranchised officials from his Baath socialist party, but no successor government had been properly stood up. The streets of Baghdad overflowed with sewage. Roads remained blocked, cratered from U.S. bombings during the invasion. Electricity flickered. In some areas, running water ceased.
Americans didn't appreciate how war-weary Iraqis were from the start. Bremer and others entered Baghdad energized, confident they could put abstract ideas about democracy and freedom to work and full of zeal about their own skills in political engineering. Iraqi statesmen who had been exiled during the Saddam Hussein years, having spent the previous decades in London or Washington, had similar thoughts. Iraqis who had stayed in their homeland had struggled to survive two wars in the past decade, not to mention the daily crush of life under a dictator. They were ready for change, but Saddam had conditioned them to expect order, not the chaos that ensued.
While the Americans tried to figure out Iraq, the jihadists came with a plan. From Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere, they came to fight the occupation. Some militant groups offered three thousand dollars for every U.S. soldier killed. Coalition casualties numbered between thirty and fifty a month, then suddenly spiked to 110 in November. The word on the street was that Saddam himself was directing the resistance, sometimes disguised as a taxi driver, a woman, or a nomad.
* * *
From the air, the midday December sun cast long shards of light. We made our way from the chalk-white hills of Amman to the flat, burnt desert city of Baghdad. The flight took us east across a six-hundred-mile stretch of desert. Insaf settled in to talk with two aid workers from Germany, both of whom were heading to Iraq to teach the logistics of holding elections. My seatmate was a consular-affairs officer from the U.S. State Department, just transferred from Cairo to the newly reopened embassy in Baghdad.
What was the hardest thing about serving in Iraq? I asked him.
"Working the overnight desk," he replied, "and the late-night phone calls from American women who married Arab men and want out."
He invited me to visit his office, located inside the military-protected Green Zone, after I settled in.
The plane cabin was spartan, with bottled water in a cooler as the only refreshment. But conversation was lively, full of the kind of diverse interests and perspectives that everyone hoped to see take root in the "new Iraq." The nineteen passengers included the aid workers from Germany, an Egyptian pastor, an American teacher who lived in Jordan, relief workers from Sweden, and a couple of U.S. diplomats wearing suits.
Below us lay the border between Jordan and Iraq, a literal line in the sand. Border checkpoints were visible from the air, the sunlight glinting off razor-sharp concertina wire marking a fence line that stretched in both directions. We neared the Euphrates and saw the wide lines of irrigation canals first built by the Babylonians. Dirt tracks in the barren desert gradually became paved roads, then highways. Date groves dotted the sandscape, walled compounds surrounded flat-roofed houses, and finally the city came into view. At ten thousand feet, Erasmus leaned the controls left for the corkscrew landing we'd been briefed about in Amman.
High over Baghdad International, Erasmus steered the plane into concentric circles down to a quick, stomach-churning dive onto the runway to avoid heat-seeking missiles. As the plane spiraled, it took us over the presidential palaces. Each sprawled like a vast oasis in the desert. Al Faw, nearest the airport and surrounded by aquamarine water, was built by Saddam Hussein after the Iran-Iraq war and had sixty-two rooms plus twenty-nine bathrooms. Then As-Salam came into view, a six-story palace already taken over by the U.S. military and visibly damaged from the U.S. "shock and awe" bombing runs. From As-Salam ran underground tunnels to other palaces, to government offices in central Baghdad, and to the airport. We made another circle, and there below was the Republican Palace, where the United States and its Coalition Provisional Authority had their headquarters. This vast complex reached into the city itself. Saddam had reportedly built eighty-one palaces while he ruled Iraq, and U.S. military commands had taken over nearly all of them. Inside, they created barracks and chipboard office cubicles, running cables for Internet and phone service across patterned marble floors.
From my bird's-eye view, the palaces formed outsized symbols of the excesses of the now-deposed regime. They made for odd bunkers to garrison U.S. forces. Iraqis thought the Americans might be repeating history. As one journalist pointed out, "If you're trying to convince a population that you have liberated them from a terrible dictator, why would you then sit in his throne?"
Iraq was a different place since my first trip. Eighteen months earlier, I had crossed the Tigris River in an outboard motorboat with help from the Syrian security directorate and Iraqi Kurds. That way I avoided Saddam's media minders, but I couldn't stray outside the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where a U.S.-led no-fly zone made it possible to maneuver without the regime's oppressive scrutiny.
Unlike those furtive comings and goings, this time Insaf and I would enter Iraq legitimately and with stamped passports. She was chatting it up with other aid workers on the plane while secreting her cash and steeling her nerves for this, her first trip back. With her coming and her thousands of dollars, Insaf sought a resolution, not only from decades under Saddam but from centuries under Islamic rule.
Excerpted from They Say We are Infidels by Mindy Belz. Copyright © 2016 Mindy Belz. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
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Table of Contents
ContentsMap of Iraq and Syria, xi,
Preface: Pay Money, xiii,
PART I: War and Peace,
1. Insaf's Journey, 3,
2. Right of Return, 11,
3. No Guarantees, 19,
4. Fire like Cold Water, 35,
5. The War Before, 51,
6. Window of Opportunity, 63,
PART 2: Chasing Peace,
7. Vanished, 81,
8. Crusaders and the Mujahideen, 91,
9. Places of Exile, 105,
10. The Keeper of Nahum's Tomb, 127,
11. A Church of Martyrs, 139,
12. Fasting and Flight, 157,
PART 3: Inside the House of War,
13. The Coming of a New Caliphate, 171,
14. The Death of One American, 185,
15. The New Jihad, 197,
16. Emptying Mosul, 213,
17. Enlisted, 229,
18. The Final Fall, 239,
19. Fighting ISIS, 255,
20. Cities of Refuge, 269,
21. A Garden by Night, 285,
Time Line of Key Events in Iraq and Syria, 303,
About the Author, 321,
What People are Saying About This
This sensitive, informative, and beautifully written book possesses all the immediacy and emotional power of a novel. Yet it combines meticulous reporting of real people with an enormous knowledge of the contemporary Middle East.
Mindy Belz’s book should be nominated for Book of the Year! The world cannot continue ignoring the genocide and persecution in the Middle East. Read this, then buy copies for all your friends.
To be a Christian in Iraq and Syria is to live in mortal danger. Churches are bombed, pastors murdered, children kidnapped. Families whose ancestors have survived two thousand years in the region where Christ and his disciples walked now risk elimination by Islamic terrorists. Journalist Mindy Belz has spent more than a decade covering persecuted Christians in the Middle East. They Say We Are Infidels is her brilliantly reported account of what it means to be a follower of Jesus there. It is the harrowing and often inspiring story of men and women of unshakable faith.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As a Christian, I believe in intercessory prayer. However, with this book it opened my eyes to places I could be aiming my prayers besides my standard places. Mind Belz was able to tell the story of the Middle East as if an objective reporter. She talks about the plight of the Iraqi Christians from the time immediately before Hussein fell through 2015. These Christians face torture that we do not know, whether here or in their homeland. In Iraq they could be killed, raped, kidnapped and more. This book also tells how being on the run from ISIS is in the Middle East. At the very least Christians should be called to prayer for these fellow Christians or even more. We could become involved politically or at a local level. I found this book very moving. I was given this book by NetGalley and Tyndale House Publishing in exchange for my honest review. This book may be found at Amazon through HERE! Or Barnes and Noble through HERE!
In an effort to understand the heart of a nation, journalist and World Magazine editor Mindy Belz spoke to its people. To connect the dots between ancient civilizations, a modern-day dictator, and a political force that operates with fiery religious zeal, Mindy joined forces with an Iraqi-in-exile, Insaf Safou, with whom she learned and followed the path of dreaming and waiting — while letting no grass grow under their feet! Insaf’s concern for the displaced Christians of Iraq keeps her returning to her homeland with offerings of love and gifts of cash for basic necessities of life, thus introducing Mindy to the unseen and under-reported drama that forms the narrative of They Say We Are Infidels. Mindy’s travelogue unfolds in twenty-one chapters, each of which could stand on its own, and she documents a breath-taking array of pandemonium: life in big-city Baghdad with unreliable electricity and insufficient supplies, a flight from danger with fifteen people stuffed into a mid-sized vehicle, a Caesarian section performed because there’s no time for normal labor and delivery when the world is falling apart. When the stated choices are leave, pay the penalty to stay — or be ready to die — people flee by the thousands. With twenty years of journalistic experience, it is no surprise that Mindy’s account of post-Saddam Middle East is anchored in historical fact and political backstory, while at the same time being deeply disturbing. Public displays of violence toward Christians are reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s pogroms against European Jews, and the message is clear: Christians are no longer tolerated, and funded by seized assets gained through door-to-door looting, ISIS is in a position to carry out its agenda. Kidnapping children, selling them into slavery of all kinds, destroying churches, interrupting every normal function of life with their sweep of violence, ISIS moves freely through the Middle East, destroying and eliminating the nine years’ worth of gains won by the United States military. Mindy helps her readers to understand the complex “tug of blood and history” that keeps a people group hanging on in hope while Christian villages continue to empty: spiritual roots that go back to the time of Jonah, a vibrancy of culture that spans centuries, and a fellowship of faith that is incomprehensible in the face of our Western tendency to remain scattered strangers in spite of shared church affiliation and weekly worship. This is not a pleasant or comfortable read, and I found myself identifying with Mindy as she compared her safe, secure, party-planning and cake-baking years with the experiences of women attempting to raise children and preserve a way of life in a land that was home to 1.2 million Christians in 2003, but had hemorrhaged down to an anemic 500,000 by 2011. Although I read voraciously, I have remained largely uninformed about the danger and the destruction that has become the new normal to Middle Eastern families. Reading about the efforts of self-funded volunteers who risk their lives and resources to make a small difference, witnessing the fragile light of those believers who choose to stay in their homeland in hopes of helping through educational and humanitarian efforts, I realize that my ignorance is a luxury the world cannot afford. One church in Indiana raised sixty thousand dollars to assist a struggling body of believers that fled Mosul in 2014. Their generosity provided eighty families (that’s aroun