We hadn’t done anything, but we were there with them. Standing close enough to feel their grief. So close that our tears fell on each other’s shoulders while they shook. These were no longer just stories. These were people. Friends. Precious friends.
We were at a peace camp in northern Iraq, a region that has seen some of the world’s most brutal atrocities in recent years. The camp gathered together young people from different backgrounds to share their stories and their desires for peace. But God had something even more amazing in mind. On the second day of the camp, there was a talent show when participants were given opportunity to get to know each other better by sharing their gifts. One of the North Americans sang a song, an Iraqi told a joke, and some of the Yazidis performed a dance.
But everything changed when Amar, a young Yazidi from a nearby refugee camp, approached the front to read a poem. It was brutally honest. He spoke openly about the horrors of war that he and his family had experienced, how Muslim extremists had invaded their village and forced them to escape to a nearby mountain. Many fled barefoot, the trails scorching their feet as they ran towards safety. Amar had climbed the mountain twice, carrying his family members who were not strong enough to make the journey. They waited for days without water, without food and without hope. Those who remained in the village were either killed or captured. Others died on the mountaintop from exhaustion and dehydration. Those who survived ended up in refugee camps within the borders of their own country. White tents lined up row by row, separated by dusty trails. Thousands of tents. Thousands of people. Thousands of sad stories.
As Amar shared, his face was marked by grief. Upon finishing his poem, he looked into our eyes. The room was silent. The talent show was over.
Then he told us that, just a few days earlier, his friend had received a message from the extremist forces demanding an exorbitant ransom for the return of his sister. “What should I do?” Amar asked.
His question hung in the air. No one answered him. He turned to those of us from North American and asked again, his voice getting louder, “What do you think I should do?”
One of my co-workers, Dan, rose to stand next to Amar. He addressed the group, explaining that there was very little at that moment that any of us could do to change the situation. But he also said that he believed in a God who cared, a God who hears the cries of the oppressed. He asked Amar if we could cry out to God on his friend’s behalf.
As we circled around Amar to pray for this missing girl, many of us in the room began to weep. Dan felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit to proclaim freedom into this situation and to cry out in a loud voice. He warned us all so that we would not be shocked.
From the depths of his soul, Dan cried out: “Freedom!”
It was deafening.
Seconds later, a young man echoed the cry from the back of the room: “Freedom!”
The emotion in the room was palpable. The hope was real.
We invited others into the circle, those that also had loved ones who were still missing or known to be kidnapped by extremist groups. More than half of the people in the room stepped forward while we offered fervent prayers to God on behalf of their suffering. There were many more tears as the circle tightened. Brothers and sisters of different nations stood shoulder to shoulder.
As the prayer time came to a close, one of the young Yazidis at the back of the room presented a large white poster board inscribed with a message that he had just written:
“Dear Christians who have come from long distances away to plant peace flowers in our lands, we do welcome you on this land. We like sharing thoughts with you. You are a piece of us now and we are the same to you.”
What happened next was even more amazing. One of the participants stepped forward to address the group. His name was Habib and he was an Iraqi Muslim. His own family had been refugees twice and found themselves attending a peace camp the year before in a neighboring country. Moved by what his family shared with him about their experience, Habib was eager to participate in this peace camp, in a country that he still calls home. He said that he had something to say specifically to Amar and the other Yazidis in the group.
“I am a Muslim,” Habib began, “and I am sorry for how my people have treated you. We have allowed extremist groups from within our midst to persecute you and torture you. We have ignored you in your plight. As an Iraqi Muslim, I want to ask your forgiveness for what we have done to you.” The impact was immediate. One of the Yazidi men approached Habib and embraced him. As the two men hugged, a sense of hope and love filled the room. People were once again moved to tears and their hearts yearned for peace like never before.
For those of us in the room who were praying and asking God to reveal himself to these people, the presence of God’s Spirit in the room was unmistakable. In the midst of all the darkness and pain in this region, God was shining his light. The Prince of Peace had come to show the way.