The sweltering horde scuttled like a monstrous ant colony into Friday prayers at the Great Mosque in Mosul, Iraq. It was the first week of Ramadan, 2014—the day the new caliph would make his appearance, and a fledgling era would begin.
Faisal and Medo fought the crushing crowds in the 108-degree heat to claim standing room at the Great Mosque for the momentous speech. The two men had shared friendship since they were preschoolers and knew each other so well they could finish each other’s thoughts.
At first, Medo had joined Faisal in assuming the best about the coming of Daesh1. Just weeks before, together they had waved flags and welcomed the Islamic State, swelling with optimism as the people of Mohammad’s Arabic heritage stepped back into leadership. But as the first few weeks unfolded, Medo’s enthusiasm faded as Mosul became nearly unrecognizable. ISIS control had unleashed a harrowing reality, far from what Medo had in mind.
Just one month before, Medo’s beloved Mosul University was one of the most influential educational and research centers in the Middle East. His childhood dream of discovering a cure for cancer triggered his pursuit of a pharmaceutical science degree. But when the Islamic State made the university its headquarters, more than 8,000 books had been destroyed as well as some 100,000 manuscripts. The greater wisdom of ISIS dictated that the campus needed a cleansing if it were to serve as the Islamic State’s new capitol. For now, classes were cancelled and the one remaining responsibility for students was to register for service in the ISIS military.
As if the incineration of his educational dreams weren’t enough, Medo also feared for his family—especially his sisters. In one of its most despicable moves, ISIS had begun applying its “theology of rape” as an excuse to abuse the women of Mosul. According to ISIS leadership, all women were fair game for those “in the fight,” and even girls under age ten were forced into so-called marriage with soldiers. As a result, the female population largely cowered in their homes.
To Medo, the most grievous spectacle had become the absurd mistreatment of Christians. Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis and Kurds lived amenably in this spiritual and ethnic puzzle that worked like few places in the Middle East. But June 2014 marked a turning point in the history of Mosul. ISIS burned to the ground dozens of churches. Yazidi women had become a special target for use as sex-slaves. It appeared as if no other religion would ever again be tolerated in Mosul. And non-Muslims were not the only ones to suffer. Any form of Islam that did not comply strictly with the Islamic State’s ideology was forbidden.
Yet Medo dared not reveal his thoughts today. Faisal, envisioning only life as a soldier for the caliphate, would not comprehend the turmoil in Medo’s heart. To him, today was the most important date in history. Suddenly the clamor around Medo dwindled to a deathly quiet, the change startling Medo from his hidden thoughts.
“Medo,” Faisal whispered, his hand across his mouth directing the words toward his friend, “can you believe it? He’s here. The caliphate has begun, and we’re a part of it.”
ISIS crews spread throughout Mosul and painted the Arabic letter “N”—“of the Nazarene”—on every Christian home in the city. The next morning, over 100,000 Christians threw together the few belongings they could manage and were forced to evacuate Mosul.
Medo, feigning enthusiasm for “the cause,” gathered with other ISIS soldiers outside the home of the Nimri family—all Christians and all long-time friends of Medo’s family.
“Medo, what are you doing here? I can’t believe that you…”
Swallowing his shame, Medo signaled the father to stop talking.
“Please go while you can,” Medo whispered to the man he had loved since a child. “I will never forget you and your family. And…pray for me.”
He stepped quickly away from his family friends and began shouting again with ISIS men who were taunting Christians scrambling to load their cars and get away. He spied Faisal and was horrified as his friend beat a man who tried to keep his young daughter from being taken away by an ISIS leader. Faisal, Medo knew, was not simply playacting a role. He relished this newfound authority and poured himself into his new identity as an ISIS soldier.
Shrieks exploded behind Medo, and as he whirled toward the uproar, he spotted a two-year-old boy, lying on the ground, frozen in fear. A man in black stood over him, holding the muzzle of a semi-automatic rifle against the child’s forehead.
The man barked at a weeping woman on her knees several feet away. “Will you let your son join the Islamic State now, or shall I blow his head off?”
Several yards down the street, young girls were being dragged away from crying families. Lust-driven jihadists rushed toward the young females, intent on grabbing their share of the spoils.
The knots in Medo’s stomach had become chronic. Following the Christian exodus, Medo pulled away to collect his thoughts on a walk by himself. As he turned from a side street onto a main thoroughfare, his thoughts were rudely interrupted as he encountered the fate of the few Jesus followers who had chosen to stay. What he saw made him retch. Four men about his age, nails driven through their arms and legs, hung on crosses about fifty yards away. A pair of ISIS soldiers attended the crucifixion site, standing a stone’s throw from the crosses.
Medo froze and stared at the bloody scene, longing to help these Christian men who served as an example of the cost of remaining in Mosul. He felt strangely drawn to them, taken aback as he observed them praying and singing. Medo could just barely make out the words, but what he heard was even more astounding than the crucifixions themselves. One asked God to forgive the ISIS soldiers. The others, voices barely above a whisper, sang a praise song: “Zeedo el-Maseeh tasbeeh . . . Praise Jesus Christ more and more.”
One man’s head hung awkwardly, but when he raised it up to take a breath, he smiled at Medo. Medo could see that the four men were at peace. But he felt like killing himself.
As he stood in front of the four crosses that day, something changed in Medo. He had never felt more ashamed to be part of something. Overwhelmed by despair and listening to the final gasps of the man who had smiled at him, a jolt of courage ignited his own heart. The reluctant terrorist knew he would abandon ISIS the first chance he got.
His decision made, Medo turned and headed home, questions swirling in his brain. Who are these people? My group is killing, kidnapping, raping, and torturing them. Yet this man smiled at me. Why? God help him and be merciful to him. Will I be able to get away? Even if I die, it will be better than taking part in this hideous world.
“Faisal, where are we going now that all Christians and Yazidis are miles from Mosul?”
Three months later, with an escape plan forming in his mind, Medo talked one night with Faisal as the two men lounged in the living room of a house that once belonged to a Christian family.
“I think it doesn’t matter which way we go, Medo.” Faisal puffed with pride and offered his assessment. “We are doing Allah’s business, and he gives us victory after victory. The fall of Mosul is proof enough. Don’t you see Allah’s hand of blessing on us, my friend? Nothing will stop us now!”
The evil tone in Faisal’s laugh turned Medo’s stomach. He could see in Faisal’s eyes that his best friend had lost his soul to the Islamic State.
So that night, Medo made a run for it.
Crossing through Duhok, Nineveh, and then on toward the Mosul Lake Dam, Medo asked Allah to protect him and did his best to dodge ISIS checkpoints. An escape to Turkey through the help of a stranger in a Christian village landed him in Istanbul following an intricate journey. An escape to the Turkish capitol, though, offered no immediate solution to Medo’s problems.
He walked the streets of Istanbul, processing thoughts about the cold-blooded brutality he had witnessed during the previous six months. He mourned his city, his friend, and he walked and walked. ISIS had destroyed his life.
The screams of young girls dragged from their parents, helpless to elude their fate as ISIS sex slaves filled his mind. He thought of the thousands of Christians from whom the Islamic State took everything, gloating as the devastated families left the city with nothing. He replayed each murder—most horribly, the crucifixions he felt sure he would never forget. Why had the Christians of Mosul behaved with such honor while losing everything? Every night without fail, he pictured the Christian men on crosses praying for their killers . . . and singing . . . and smiling.
“Hey, are you from Iraq?” Medo startled at the voice and looked up to see an Iraqi man standing, a few feet away. “You look shell-shocked. Can you believe how our country is falling apart? The Islamic State needs to go down, man! If they get full control, our country is doomed!” He extended his hand. “I’m Sameer Dawoud—and you are?”
Sameer wore a friendly smile. Medo summoned one in return.
“I’m Medo Nasrallah. It’s nice to meet another Iraqi.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, you look to be in bad shape, brother. Why don’t you come with me tonight? I’m guessing you could use a friend or two, and I’m meeting with a few other Iraqis, then grabbing dinner. Join me?”
Later that evening, Medo stood with Sameer on the sidewalk outside a white building in the northern section of the Istanbul peninsula.
“Is this what I think it is, Sameer? Is this a church?”
Sameer sensed his new friend backpedaling and put his arm around Medo. “My mistake, Medo. I didn’t even ask if you are Christian or Muslim.”
“I’m a Muslim, Sameer.”
“Well in this place, bro, it doesn’t matter. Christians and Muslims are both welcome. Please stay for at least ten minutes, and if you feel weird after that, you can take off. Okay?” Sameer raised his eyebrows. “But I think you’re going to like it.”
Sameer held open the door to the meeting room, but as Medo stepped inside, he stopped as if paralyzed. For several seconds, he simply stared at the group gathered in the room. He glanced at Sameer, then raised his hands to cover his face and began to sob.
“Medo! Are you all right?” Sameer wrapped both arms around Medo and hugged him warmly. “Why are you crying, my friend?”
“I know this song they are singing.” Medo choked out the words. “I’ve heard it before.”
Zeedo el-Maseeh tasbeeh . . . Praise Jesus Christ more and more.
A Word from Medo
My heart melted when I again heard that hymn of praise the men on the crosses had been singing. The believers in Istanbul were so alive, and they sang with the same deep-seated joy as the crucified men in Mosul. Their peace didn’t depend on the circumstances around them.
After two weeks in Istanbul, I gave my life to Jesus. The lives of these people convinced me that Jesus is the way to God. Sameer followed up the worship experience by giving me a Bible, and I devoured the New Testament, cleansing my mind with the very words of God. Images of life and hope replaced my mental images of death and misery.
As for me, once I gave my life to Jesus, my family disowned me and cut off all communication.
Because of their abiding hope in Jesus, the Islamic State did not defeat the Christians of Mosul. The Arabic “N” is now known around the world as a symbol for Christians who are not afraid to declare their love and loyalty to Jesus the Nazarene. My tent now has “N” on it.
1 An Arabic acronym for “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”