Easter Sunday, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan—The thing about cancer is that you cannot flee it. Cancer gives you one choice: How will you deal with it?
I was diagnosed with cancer at Thanksgiving, just after my last trip to northern Iraq. I go regularly for my job working with religious and ethnic minorities here, an effort that is a constant reminder of our need for hope. As you might imagine, my diagnosis brought to a screeching halt our plans and hopes for the future. Most difficult of all was imagining our five children, ranging from one to 8 years, without a father.
For seven years, we had been unable to have children. Having tried everything else, we prayed. God then gave us five kids in seven years. Our last child, Jonah Robert, had been born less than a month before my first trip to northern Iraq in October 2014.
How could this cancer take me away now?
We prayed, and we asked our friends to pray for us. As a family, we prayed that the cancer would glorify God. No matter what happened, we wanted our example to speak to the grace and goodness of God. We believed that God would answer our prayers in whatever he did.
At Christmas I had five hours of aggressive surgery to remove 8.1 centimeters of cancerous lymph nodes from my left shoulder. Since then, and through the six weeks of radiation, I have been what they call in cancer-lingo NED: no evidence of disease.
The cancer has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. Because of it, people all over the world, of all faiths and none, prayed for me. I believe God answered those prayers. I believe I am NED and not dead because of them. As a result, I now have deeper relationships with God, my family, and all those who prayed for me.
More important still, the cancer taught me a vulnerability that I had not had before. I had always believed that my hope as a Christian was rooted in a Christ who was meek enough to suffer, die and rise from the dead, but now I had a hint of what that was like — to have new life through the power of prayer to a risen Christ — and it was comforting.
So here I am, on Easter, one week after my radiation was complete, back in northern Iraq, with communities of Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities struggling to consider how they will bring hope to their own cancer: Their total lack of trust in one another. The Islamic State is not the cause, but rather an accelerator of the disease.
And as news comes that security forces are about to chase the Islamic State from Mosul, the question of how the region will face its illness is looming large. And having seen the power of prayer with my children and my disease – situations that seemed intractable – I turned again to God this week, considering the hope of Easter against the hopelessness of the region’s cancer.
Sunni Arabs do not trust Shiite Arabs or Shiite Persians. Sunni Kurds do not trust Sunni Arabs. Christians and Yazidis do not trust the Kurds. And while some can escape the region, the overwhelming majority cannot flee this cancer. Their only choice is how to respond in how they treat one another. So far the pessimists have the upper hand.
And so this cancer metastasizes: between and among all the groups as each becomes defined against the other. It is as natural as it is understandable, and those of us from outside the region cannot judge those in it. Everyone, especially the ethnic and religious minorities against whom the Islamic State is waging genocide, is vulnerable, with no control of or hope for the future.
This destruction of trust also exists between those in the region and those who can help, from the outside. It seems that the rest of the world can barely tolerate dealing with the symptoms of this crisis—refugees—while having no stomach for its roots.
The West is indicted twice – we refused to defeat the terrorism at its point of origin and now refuse the refugees who have resulted. The refugees don’t trust us, we don’t trust them as the disease – lack of trust – deepens and spreads around the world.
I’ve watched Iraq up close for the last few years through my organization, the Institute for Global Engagement, and our initiative The Cradle Fund. Its goal is to help rescue, restore, and return Christians and other ethnic and religious groups to their Islamic State-occupied homes such that they can practice and live their faith, free from fear. We work with both grassroots groups of religious minorities as well as from the top down, through the Kurdish government.
The loss of hope I see now – much heightened since I’ve returned after my cancer treatment – is the greatest evidence of this disease. As the Assyrian Patriarch Gewargis III told me on Maundy Thursday last week: “The thing we suffer most is not having hope for a future.”
That is because it means that there is a loss of trust in God.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).
We must believe that God keeps his promises to us. And I have seen prayer work in my life, through my children and my cancer.
This trip, our NGO is working to keep hope alive through two conferences aimed at bringing different types of people together. Kurdish Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir has told us that these conferences must address forgiveness and inclusion, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is the most practical thing to do. Someday the Islamic State will be defeated, and as the Kurdish Representative to the United States, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, told our group a year ago: “We are all going to have to live together again.”
If we don’t have a plan for people here to live together post-Islamic State, the zombie-son-of-Islamic-State will fill the vacuum. People must have hope that they can do this.
When Mosul fell to the Islamic State in June of 2014, one of the first things the Islamic State did was to blow up the tomb and mosque of Jonah. Mosul is modern-day Nineveh. Jonah is revered by Jews, Christians and mainstream Muslims for finally going to Nineveh after disobeying God.
Could a day come when there is no evidence of disease such that Jews, Muslims and Christians—from the region, and the world—have sufficient trust to rebuild the tomb of Jonah, together? Could a day take place, soon, in anticipation of rebuilding the Tomb of Jonah, such that those who fled the Islamic State to Kurdistan might participate in practical programs and discussions that begin to build trust again?
Are such ideas delusional? This weekend someone told me that “reconciliation” is a Western concept. I had to remind him that reconciliation is a Middle Eastern concept, as Easter teaches through the Resurrection, through prayer and hope.
It’s as possible as being told there’s no evidence of disease where there once was Stage III cancer.
It’s as possible as a fifth child in seven years named Jonah.
But first we must pray.