Wednesday, 17 December 2014

US Pastor Who Supported Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan Heads to Iraq With Yazidi Activist; Says Christians Can Pray, Give Money But Should Put Their Bodies on the Line

NEW YORK — A New York City pastor who visited Sudanese Christian mother Meriam Ibrahim during her detention in the Muslim-majority country for blasphemy has partnered with a U.S.-based Yazidi activist to travel to Iraq to assess the humanitarian crisis of the religious minority group that has been targeted by the Islamic State. The men said they also hope to win the release of Yazidi women and girls abducted by the jihadist group and used as sex slaves.

The Rev. William Devlin and Texas-based Yazidi human rights advocate Murad Ismael were traveling to Erbil, Iraq, this week to "assess the humanitarian condition of the Yazidis first-hand" and "will also be seeking the release of women and young girls kidnapped by ISIS," they told The Christian Post in a series of emails and phone conversations.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, abducted scores of Yazidi women and girls in August as they attacked their towns in the Sinjar Mountain area in the Nineveh province in northwest Iraq. ISIS cornered many of the tens of thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, where some died from hunger and dehydration before the international community stepped in to help. The United States was among the countries offering humanitarian aid, in addition to carrying out airstrikes and training local forces in their military engagement with ISIS militants, who have already seized cities in Syria and Iraq. Reportedly, hundreds of Yazidis still remain on Sinjar Mountain, defending themselves against the Islamic State's unrelenting attacks.

Yazidis, whose 4,000-year-old faith has been tied to Zorastianism and reportedly predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have been targeted along with Christians, Shiite Muslims, and other Iraqis who do not subscribe to the Islamic State's extremist brand of Sunnism and interpretation of the Quran. Iraq's religious minorities, including anti-jihadist Sunnis, have been ordered to convert or pay a tax to avoid being executed. Sunnis are only second to Shiites in terms of Iraq's Muslim population, which accounts for 99 percent of the country's 32.6 million people (based on July 2014 estimates).

The Yazidis reportedly number upwards of 700,000 worldwide with 3,000 said to be living in the United States. But they no longer have a centralized home after thousands of years of being established in Iraq, a mournful Ismael told CP over the phone on Monday. The 31-year-old Yazidi emigrated to America in 2009 after working as a translator for U.S. forces in Iraq. Ismael, a research assistant at the University of Houston, told CP he was unsure of the fate of his relatives and many friends back home, although he has been in contact with others in Erbil.

"It's just unbelievable that life for a half-million people, for 600,000 or 700,000 people worldwide and half-million in Iraq just changed between a day and a night," said Ismael, whose mother lives with him here in the states.

He seemed to be in shock as he related how ISIS had attacked his village of Khana Sor in northwest Sinjar.

"The home is not in place anymore, the place that I grow up, the place that I have so much connection to it," said Ismael in heavily-accented English. "The people that I know, I don't even know where they're at."

When they learned of the devastation and displacement of their Yazidi countrymen this summer, Ismael and others from the religious group in the U.S. immediately sprung into action, launching the and the Sinjar Crisis Management Team to help support "the victims of genocide." The group, which includes members of the Yazidi community from across the U.S., organized a die-in outside of the White House and a protest at the United Nations in NYC. Some of their members have returned home to deliver supplies and support. They have also held meetings with anyone who will listen and can help, like government officials and religious leaders, like pastor Devlin.

Devlin told CP that he and Ismael came together after a radio producer who had featured the Yazidi activist on his show heard the Christian pastor speaking on another radio program expressing his desire to visit Iraq. After being introduced and discussing the situation, Ismael and Devlin made their plans to fly out to Erbil, where the U.S. has a consulate.

Ismael and Devlin flew out New York City for Iraq on Tuesday. The men do not plan to stay for longer than two weeks (Devlin's stay will last one week) in their effort to offer humanitarian aid to the surviving thousands of Yazidi men, women, and children who fled with ISIS on their heels and have taken refuge at various camps in Iraq, Turkey, and in the Syria northeastern Kurdish town of Derik.

Devlin told CP that upon his return to New York City he plans to tap his connections at major Christian nonprofits, like Samaritan's Purse and World Vision, to relay what they hope to discover as the best route for foreign aid to enter the country. On Aug. 8, the Federal Aviation Administration banned U.S. planes from flying over Iraq, determining the ongoing conflict with the Islamic State a heightened danger. However, Samaritan's Purse, run by evangelist Franklin Graham, followed up its October delivery of supplies to refugees in Erbil by airlifting 60,000 shoeboxes packed with necessities and toys to refugee children on Dec. 10.

Also on Devlin and Ismael's agenda were the unknown number of Yazidi women and girls (and women of other faiths), which apparently include prepubescent children, abducted by ISIS militants in August who were sold or kept as sex slaves. The jihadists have attempted to justify such abuse with the Quran, which Islamic scholars and religious leaders have outright condemned.

Earlier this month, the Islamic State published a pamphlet, reportedly written by the group's Research and Fatwa Department, that explains how female slaves no matter their age should be treated as war booty by the crusading militants. The rape and abuse of non-Islamic females is permissible under Sharia, or Islamic law, according to the pamphlet.

According to Newsweek: "In September, 120 senior Muslim scholars and imams from around the world, including Sheikh Shawqi Allam, the grand mufti of Egypt, wrote an 18-page open letter to ISIS, calling its members un-Islamic and condemning the treatment of Yazidi women."

"We will try to assess the situation and we will of course try to free them or rescue them, which we may be able to help but most likely we will not be able to do much of that," Ismael told CP.

"We will be assessing the situation and using all our connections to see if we can free any of these women," he added. "The situation is just very very complicated, especially for pastor William. It will be his first interaction with this subject, so I want to help him assess the situation and see any connection that he has. … We will see that we can do about this because we feel that we are losing time and we feel that those women are vanishing basically, and that (nothing) has been done to free them."

Ismael did not sound quite as confident about a rescue operation as Devlin, who told CP that he was expecting God to do "miraculous" things during their trip to Erbil.

The Christian pastor and activist was greatly anticipating somehow meeting with ISIS for the purpose of rescuing the women and young girls that were abducted by the Sunni extremist militants. He did not indicate that he expected to reason with the jihadist group, but instead told CP that he would be flying out Tuesday with "redemption money" provided by his sponsors that he planned to use, if necessary, to buy the freedom of these enslaved women and girls, which also include Christians. He also insisted that, if presented with the opportunity, he would tell the violent extremists "about the love of God."

Devlin, who serves at Infinity Church NYC and was co-chair of the Right to Worship New York City, has previously traveled to hot zones in Gaza and the West Bank, Syria, Iran, and Cuba to assist and encourage persecuted Christians. He was most recently featured by CP this summer after he traveled to Sudan to pray with Meriam Ibrahim during her asylum stay at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.

Ibrahim, 27, had been prevented by Sudanese officials from leaving the country after a court vacated her death sentence for apostasy. The woman, married to a naturalized U.S. citizen, had been accused of converting from Islam to Christianity, although she denied having ever been a Muslim and insisted that she had been raised as a Christian. Ibrahim, and her two small children — the youngest born during her mother's imprisonment — had been detained for nearly a year. Ibrahim, her husband, Daniel Wadi, and their two two children live in New Hampshire, where Devlin occasionally visits them.

In explaining what he feels is his calling to go to the "hard and dangerous places," the 61-year-old pastor told CP that he was hoping to start a movement that would inspire U.S. Christians to live out their mission as radically as Jesus Christ and his apostles did in the first century, many of whom were martyred for their faith.

"I do believe that the American Church is addicted to personal peace, comfort, and affluence, and that we need to do everything we can to go over to these hard, dangerous, difficult places and support our sisters and brothers in Jesus," said Devlin.

"If I was sitting in Erbil, Iraq, being threatened with ISIS militants coming to kill me and my wife and children, I would want somebody from America to come over and help me," he added. "So we can pray, we can give money, but I call it the ministry of presence.

"It's one thing to say, 'Yeah, I'll be praying for you. Here's some money to help you.' But it's yet another thing to go with our bodies and to say to them, 'We're here to encourage you. We're here just to be with you.' That's what Jesus said. He he said, 'I am with you even until the end of this age.' And when you think about it, God left heaven to come to earth to practice the ministry of presence because He knew that the world needed a savior."

Turning to the Yazidis being persecuted by the Islamic State, Devlin added, "What a great testimony that we can tell the Yazidi people, that I can tell them personally once I get there ..., 'I love you and I'm here to help you' and 'I left the comfort of my home back in America to come here and be a presence among you.'"

Devlin and Ismael, accompanied by a female reporter and potentially a fourth person whose presence among the small group was not confirmed by press time, were expected to arrive in Erbil on Thursday morning.

In the video interview below for CP Newsroom, conducted in August, Pastor Devlin explains why he travels to countries where Christians face religious persecution.

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