The Church Can Move the World by Loving Its Enemies

A young Iraqi boy prays inside St. George’s Church in Baghdad. (Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)

Months into the invasion of Iraq by ISIS, I emailed a friend in Baghdad to check on his family and his church. Islamic State militants by that time controlled one-third of the country and could reach Baghdad by car in 40 minutes. Bombings were up in the city.

Dawlat Abouna is a deacon in St. George’s Church. He had a library in his home where he kept documents tracing his Christian ancestry in Iraq to A.D. 1117. He loaned me history books and translated documents for me as I wrote a book about Iraq. So I asked: How is your family? With so much turmoil, are worship services continuing?

Dawlat answered: “Oh yes! We have started two new groups here at the church—one to pray for our persecuted brothers in the north, and one to pray for our enemies.”

I don’t know any churches in the West with meetings dedicated to praying for enemies. And if the enemy breathing down my neck were ISIS, starting such a group would not be the first thing to come to mind. We live in a society so polarized that loving one’s enemies in any active, intentional way is foreign, maybe even a little absurd.

Yet Dawlat and the faithful at St. George’s know and practice something deeply important, if rare, something history and Scripture tell us is what Christians do, what makes them distinct.

Not long before Dawlat’s email, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, preached from a mosque in captured Mosul: “Terrify the enemies of Allah and seek death.”

ISIS teaching on terrorizing enemies isn’t a distortion of Islam; it’s woven into the Quran, the sayings of Muhammad (the hadith), and its history, which began as brutal conquest.

Preaching in Egypt last month on a Muslim Brotherhood channel, Egyptian Salafi leader Mohamed al-Saghir said “suicide bombers” are the greatest resource in the Muslim community, boasting that they are found nowhere else.

Writer Nabeel Qureshi, himself a former Muslim, writes in No God But One, “The historical Jesus never sanctioned violence and endorsed absolutely nothing like the Crusades, whereas the historical Muhammad engaged in jihad as the greatest deed a Muslim can perform.”

Jesus made “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” a byword and reconciliation the essence of his ministry: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

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Mindy Belz