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Iraqis delighted a U.S. Christian would visit and share their story

By Deidre Jacobson

Having served in the Air Force in the early 1990s in Iraq and returned after the initial offensive ended in 2003, Jenifer Carter Johnson prays for Christians in Iraq as they struggle to survive in their war-torn country. 

She served as a crew chief  or flight mechanic on KC-135 air refueling tankers, maintaining planes on the ground and as part of the air crew in flight while in Turkey and Northern Iraq in the early 1990s in Operation Provide Comfort. 

Iraqi church
Iraqui Church

Her ministry to Iraqi Christians began after she experienced unusual symptoms following her return to England from her last deployment in 1993.

Later diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome—then changed to Gulf War Disease—she was among one-third of returning Gulf War veterans facing neurological and endocrine symptoms, gastro-intestinal bleeding, severe muscle and joint pain, mysterious hair loss and weakness in the limbs. 

“About 15,000 Gulf War vets have died since returning home as of 2002, and of the 700,000 who served—one million by the mid 1990s in the Gulf theater of operations—200,000 have applied for disability,” said Jenifer, , who lives with her husband and two children in Coeur d’Alene.

In her research to learn about her illness, she found information about the suffering in Iraq.  Using the internet to research U.S. government documents, scientific papers, newspaper archives, and British, German and French reports, and through short-wave radio news, she came to understand not only the illness she and other veterans had, but also the fate of Iraqis. 

Depleted uranium ammunition that was used in the Gulf War has contaminated the environment.  Plutonium and uranium oxide dust from these weapons settled in sand, clothing and equipment, she said.

Children in Southern Iraq picking up scrap metal developed unusual and deadly cancers.  Women gave birth to children with grotesque deformities.  Leukemia rates skyrocketed in the area. 

Adding to the toxic environment were chemical weapons—sarin and mustard agents—Saddam used in the North, she said.

Compounding the misery of the Iraqi people were the sanctions after the Gulf war.  Massive numbers of deaths occurred, Jenifer learned.

“More than 1.5 million Iraqi civilians died following the Gulf War. Ha

Through her research, Jenifer also discovered Iraq’s small community of Christians, struggling to survive amidst the misery. 

Prior to the Gulf War, there were more than one million Christians in Iraq.  Six to seven hundred thousand remain.

“Despite the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s rule, it is not commonly known that he protected Christians while he was in power,” she said.  “He sent armored cars to take them to church when Muslim neighbors harassed them. 

“Now the Christians are between a rock and a hard place. Muslims distrust them and feel they receive favor from the Americans.  Some Americans see them as no different from Iraqis we consider our enemies.”

In May 2003 after the initial offensive, Jenifer traveled to Iraq to spend nine days with the Christian community in Baghdad, listening to their hopes and fears. 

She arranged the trip with the help of her pastor, the Rev. Bob Cordes of First Christian Church in Coeur d’Alene.  He connected her with Vickie Robb, a Muslim-American woman working for Life for Relief and Development. 

Jenifer’s goal was to write articles about Iraqi Christians’ conditions and needs and to spread the word to American

Jenifer flew to Jordan and met Vickie. Peter Tokarczyk of Americares joined them as they traveled by car on one of the most dangerous routes in the world, the 12-hour journey from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad.

Baghdad was in chaos when the team arrived. Cars were driving in every direction, intersections were jammed, and drivers honked their horns in angry frustration.  There was no police protection.  Armed bandits were shooting and robbing. 

“The city was in shock” she said, “after somewhat recovered from initial Gulf War bombings of and experiencing economic sanctions.  The invasion returned the population to chaos and deprivation without basic utilities or public services.

“Large open markets selling stolen goods from looting—called Lootervilles—were located throughout the city.  Weapons of all kinds were for sale. 

“I could buy an automatic weapon for five dollars if I wanted to,” Jenifer said. “We had to take great care as we traveled. Kidnappings were common.  I was fortunate to have four Christian men as my guides and bodyguards.
They knew where there was relative safety and avoided dangerous areas.”
She discovered three Christian groups in Baghdad:  1) the Chaldeans, who use a liturgy similar to a Roman Catholic Mass; 2) Evangelicals, with a Presbyterian-style service, and 3) Assyrians, a congregation with which she was unable to meet. 

Jenifer attended worship services in which men, women and children sat together, an uncommon occurrence in Iraq.

Through a Christian woman who volunteered to translate for her, Jenifer listened to stories of Iraqi Christians. 

“They described huddling together and praying as American bombs dropped.  Many asked me if I could help them with food or water.  They were delighted that an American Christian would come to see them,” she said.
At the Holy Family Chaldean Church, she said, she heard accounts of “incredible suffering.” 

A woman sobbed as she told Jenifer: “My son was captured in 1982 during the war with Iran, and I haven’t heard anything about him since.  My other son was taken by Saddam in 1984, and I never heard from him again.  My husband has died, and now I have no food or money and no one to take care of me.  Please have the Americans find my sons.  Please.” 

Jenifer also visited a hospital where burn victims received nothing for pain, not even an aspirin.  Because of poor water quality and dysentery were rampant.

The pastor of the Evangelical church said the physical problems the Christians were enduring were eroding the faith of some and strengthening the faith of others. 

“The sanctions and the war have strengthened some of the people spiritually,” he told her.  “Their prayer life and level of trust in God have broadened and deepened tremendously. 

“Others’ faith, however, has weakened.  Fear overwhelms them.  The physical problems we face are so immediately pressing that it’s difficult to keep a true perspective,” the pastor said. 

“We trust in God to protect us, but sometimes God allows things we don’t understand,” he continued.  “We are surrounded by Muslims who want to enforce Islam on us, forcing women to wear head scarves and shooting Christians who violate their tenets.”

Through maintaining contact with friends she made on the trip, Jenifer knows conditions have not improved since she was there and the Christian community continues to suffer.

“I have learned that some American Christians find this information difficult to hear,” she said.  “Some think American troops are the only people who are our own in Iraq, but I believe one day we will kneel before Christ in heaven beside Iraqi believers as the whole family of God.”

Grateful to be American, she also believes Christians have “a higher citizenship."

She is also aware that some patriotic Americans, who display yellow ribbons and support the troops, forget the troops once they come home, are disabled and need help after the parades end.

Along with seeking opportunities to share with churches and rally support, Jenifer plans to travel again to Iraq with other Christians “to bring a sliver of hope to Christians there.” 

In the meantime she prays for the safety and healing of Iraqi Christians, asking anyone who will listen to keep them in their prayers—along with their prayers for Americans who are there.

For information, call (208) 676-9955.

Copyright © January 2005
- The Fig Tree