Mark Foreman and Joel Parker
Iraq, ISIS, and Understanding Culture Mark Foreman and Joel Parker Tell the Story of A Forgotten Hope
America today has grown in ways technologically never imagined. It’s more racially diverse, great strides have been made in medicine and health, and overall there is hope, but it is also politically polarized and unpredictable. Terrorism is present, and many live with some level of fear. Pastor Mark Foreman and filmmaker Joel Parker set out to help westerners better understand culture and those persecuted for their faith in the heart of conflict, Iraq. Taking multiple trips, with minimal security, they went to an IDP [Internally Displace People] camp, talked with ISIS survivors, questioned politicians and loved the people. But they also saw heaven touch hell. They saw the division and devastation, they got caught in crossfire with the enemy, they felt firsthand the vying for power that leads to horrendous acts and causes world terror. So why go? Why make the documentary Iraq: A Forgotten Hope? Why not just let the information come from main news outlets and compartmentalize the Middle East as Islamic and evil? Their response is because of the faithful that live there and the hope they place in Jesus. These two men wanted to find out how a country that had approximately 2.5 million Christians living in Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein, now has only about 250,000. Many have fled for safety, but the ones that stay now face the wrath of ISIS. Risen sat down with Foreman and Parker to learn more about the culture in Iraq, tackling fear and anger, and hearing about the brave people that live out their faith under the most extreme circumstances.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Carlsbad, California
Risen Magazine: When most Americans think of Iraq, it’s Saddam Hussein, the Persian Gulf War (‘90-91), the Iraq War (’03-11), Axis of Evil and terror that comes to mind. So it’s fair to say, not positive things. What was your perception of the country and how was it shifted, or confirmed, when you actually spent time there?
Mark Foreman: I have found that wherever I travel I end up loving the people. There are the exceptions, but the rule is the people are often amazing. In the part of Iraq we were in, which was Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, it’s even more so that way. Not only are the people amazing, but the people actually love Americans, so it makes it easy to travel to that part of the world.
Joel Parker: It was interesting being in a place like Iraq with all the politics that have surrounded that country for the last twenty years and to get to see some of those policies lived out. War is a tragic thing; it’s a horrific thing. To know that I’ve been on the voter’s side of that for half my life instilled in me a weight and gravity to voting. Because you could go to two different neighborhoods and one would be very supportive of a certain policy or a certain president; you go to the next town and they could be very supportive of the opposing president with the opposing policies.
MF: I think to use the word “Iraq” is very difficult because of the melting pot of people that are in Iraq. What we see is a country, but to be in Iraq you have all the forces of Islam converging. You have Wahhabism coming from Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism is extreme Sunni but short of ISIS, so the whole orthodoxy of Sunni Islam coming out of Saudi Arabia is wanting more leverage in Iraq. Then, you have next door, Iran, which is Shia Islam and they have their influence not only through Iraq, but all the way into Syria and all the way into Hezbollah of Lebanon and they’re wanting more influence.
Iraq post-Saddam Hussein has become this pawn: this battlefield where the forces of Islam are fighting for more control, and then you have a country like the United States who either shrewdly or naively, but I think more naively, enter into that making some possibly horrendous blunders. The removal of Saddam, in my estimation, was a huge blunder because – even though he was an evil man – he was the kingpin that kept all the other drug lord type leaders at bay. Then he was removed, and it became a killing field for all these powers vying for power including the rise of ISIS.
I think what is happening right now in Syria is similar. Assad is a very evil man, we decide he needs to go and what we don’t realize is that we create vacuums that both have people internally vying for power and has created the greatest refugee crisis ever known to man. Most people would not point the finger at ourselves as having created it, but I don’t know who else to point the figure to.
RM: I read that in Iraq, something like ninety-five percent of its thirty-six million citizens are Muslim. What did you find when it came to faith and especially Christianity?
MF: Christianity has existed in that part of the world for six hundred years before Islam did; so when Islam came along, it was familiar with Christianity. Mohammed calls it the people of the book as well as Jews. The idea of Muslims and Christians living near each other is not new: it’s not a novelty. They’ve done this for centuries, but the thing that drew us to the story of the movie was the fact that there was approximately 2.5 million Christians living in Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein and now there are about 250,000 Christians living in Iraq. It is because most of them have fled since it’s not safe, and those that have stayed, many of them in the north, have now faced the wrath of ISIS.
It brings so much anger up in me that anyone would harm a person in the name of God. It’s unconscionable.
RM: Unfortunately, everyone in the world now knows the acronym ISIS. Within the film, you guys got the opportunity to talk with some survivors. What stood out to you most about their stories?
MF: For me, that moment was the most poignant moment of the whole time. I still get emotional. [Tears up] I felt like I saw hell and heaven touch. If you’ve been in a refugee tent with twenty young girls that all have been held multiple times in the arms of ISIS, it grips you; that’s hell. But we got to see them being impacted by American believers who were a therapist and an English teacher; that was heaven. When we were shooting the film, Joel said to me, “Why don’t you just take a walk and reflect on camera what happened in the tent.” I couldn’t. I think the hell part of it is, for me, being a pastor, we’re all familiar with the atrocities of war and this is not an exception, it happens. But to do it in the name of God… it brings so much anger up in me that anyone would harm a person in the name of God. It’s unconscionable.
RM: The two of you were at risk not only by traveling to Iraq, but also were in the bunkers and close enough to see the ISIS flag on their turf. Could you feel their presence in the country? Why put yourself in harm’s way to share this story and bring these images to others?
JP: At both ends, one thing that stood out to me was when we drove to the front lines. One of the days when we were the General and the Peshmerga, everywhere we would go, traffic would stop. I mean, these guys are heroes; they were the last line of defense. No one was going to save civilization, but the Kurdish stepped up and contained ISIS. It was amazing, so they are heroes everywhere we went. But the closer we got the front lines, [there was a shift.] We came into this little farming village, maybe ten homes, and we noticed that as our vehicles drove by we weren’t being waved at, we were being ignored. I asked, “What’s going on here?” The response, “These are ISIS sympathizers.” To see actual families and little kids who were siding with ISIS in this whole thing was really disturbing.
Then, we left that location, and the guy we were with said, “This is what they’ll do. They’ll go out, they have cell phones buried and they’re communicating right now to ISIS that they don’t know who you are, but they know that either Europeans or Americans have just entered this little compound, and we will be martyred or something will happen.” That was guaranteed and, sure enough, about two hours after we left, a suicide bomber ran in and blew himself up.
MF: I think the motive of the whole movie was to tell the story, particularly of persecuting Christians, and then secondarily persecuted minorities that have also been attacked by ISIS like the Yazidi girls. That was how the movie was first given birth. You realize that there are our brothers and sisters risking their lives every day, but the rest of the world doesn’t know it. The flipside of that is, I think, the western church is weakened and anemic when we don’t understand what it is to live in a restricted or persecuted setting. I think we are benefited in the west when we hear the stories of our brothers and sisters. It has a twofold purpose.
We want Christians in the west to begin to care, because when we’re inundated with media, we get a ton of information out of the Middle East, but we get very little compassion. It’s all focused on the bad.
RM: When it comes to anxiety and anger, how do we as Americans find that healthy balance of caring and being aware of the atrocities (overseas and even domestically with racial tension and politics) that are happening, but not too much as to where it consumes or alters the way we live?
MF: It came to what we’re wrestling with at the end of the movie; what do believers in Iraq do as all this is in their backyard, and what do we do with former ISIS soldiers, and what do we do with people that might be anti-Christian or perceived as the enemy? I think I wrestle through it in the movie.
When you encounter someone that is anti-me, I think the Gospel message is to move towards them not run away from them. Obviously, we take safety precautions. I mean, you didn’t see us running at ISIS screaming. There are certain safety precautions we take even here in the states. We have insurance; we drive on the right side of the lane. We lock our doors when we go to bed at night. It’s exactly what God did in the narrative of Christmas. We were largely anti-God and He moved towards us. He crossed that infinite gap between heaven and earth and came near us. For some, it’s going to take a while; it’s not going to happen overnight where people trust. But shrinking the gap, building the trust realizing that we both are humans and only I may have the message of the love of God. What I told my kids raising them is that the safest place is being on the offense not on the defense, and I think love is a great offense.
To me, I think when it comes to terrorism, the whole world gets the fact that any nation that’s going to be a nation needs to vet who’s coming across and who’s entering. I mean, vetting is just what we all do when we do a job interview. When you date you’re vetting. Vetting is normal, but never, I think, to be fearful of someone because of race, creed, or color. They’re humans. When it comes to Islam, just like so much of religion around the world , first and foremost, it’s culture not religion. Every person is not waking up thinking about God and the orthodoxy of their faith. They’re thinking, “This is what my mom did, this is what my uncle did, my grandfather did; this is how we eat and this is how we dress.” Just as we have cultural Christians, it just exists. The beauty of the Gospel is that we have a dream of heaven with every nation, every tribe. That’s our dream and heaven will be more beautiful because of that. So I think there are some people in Iraq that are supposed to be in heaven.
RM: You were able to get a few of the political and religious leaders to have conversations with you and speak on film. What did you gather from your time spent with them? How do you take something that has had years, decades of one practice and change it? Do they want change?
JP: I think as mankind, we’re always fixated on political solutions and religious solutions – and we saw that over there. The politicians were tired; the religious were tired because there just don’t seem to be any solutions. But spiritually, there’s complete hope. We found that in this pastor who was just going about his day no different than we do here. He was just doing his best to trust Jesus and to care for those that God’s entrusted him with, and we saw those people. I mean, this church would open their doors to the hungry. These were IDPs who have been displaced from Mosul. They were hungry, it was hot and they were angry, and these are the people that he’s caring for. To visibly see how present God has been in this very hectic, and confusing, part of the world is really an encouragement to my faith.
MF: I think it would be a false hope to think the terrorism, the nationalism, the anger, is going to go away soon because of globalization. We used to live as isolated ideologies and nationalities that never had to meet except as a diplomat or ambassador, but now our cultures are just completely converging. Because of that, some cultures are threatened. We’re threatened in the west by new religions coming in such as Islam, which in the past has not been a dominant religion in the U.S., so westerners are threatened. At the same time, in the Middle East, Conservative Islam is threatened by western values. They associate western values with Christianity.
The Middle East thinks holistically; whereas we compartmentalize in the West. As everything becomes more and more western – social media, movies, fashion – they feel they need to protect these ancient ways. I think the more educated are fine with it and they send their kids to Harvard, but the poor, they feel like this is an invasion, they’re threatened, and then all they need is a militant leader to rise up and give them a spark. I don’t see it going away soon.
I believe stories like we just shared, stories of God moving today, are some of the most evangelistic things we have as believers.
RM: Speak to the importance of understanding other cultures and what that looks like from a biblical perspective?
JP: The persecuted church as a whole doesn’t want to feel alone. They’re going through something that most likely we’ll never go through as believers; they just want to know that they’re not alone in this. I think that was a primary objective of the film, to demonstrate their humanity. We want Christians in the West to begin to care, because when we’re inundated with media, we get a ton of information out of the Middle East, but we get very little compassion. It’s all focused on the bad. These are human beings who are dealing with ISIS and they’re there. They’re no different from us. They’re trusting Jesus in this situation and they’re doing their best to live out of faith and in a very difficult situation.
On our first trip, we met a couple in this IDP camp who had been displaced from Mosul. They had six kids and were living in a small tent. It was at the end of our trip, we didn’t know why we were meeting this family. The father, Muhammad says, “Let me tell you my story.” He continues, “One night I went to bed and you are not going to believe who visited me in my dream… Jesus visited me in my dream. He extended His hand and He offered me salvation and to follow Him and to trust Him, and so I did. I woke up.” He tells his wife, Miriam, and she says, “You’re dead to me, you’re probably dead to this community by the end of the day. Best of the luck to you.” In this dream whatever happened was so real to him that he chose Jesus in the situation. Then [in the tent telling the story] he turns to Miriam and she tells her story, saying, “Well, you’ll never guess who visited me in my dream the next night?” She comes back with all six kids and they say we’ve professed Christ as our Lord and Savior and they had no way of really knowing about Jesus. We’ve heard these stories in the West. The missionary comes to town and shares a story, but we’re first-hand hearing it in this tent in Iraq, and it was amazing.
MF: What Joel’s not telling you is when they first become Christians, their house was destroyed by their Muslim neighbors. They had to move to another part of Mosul to rebuild all over again because they follow Jesus, and no sooner do they rebuild, ISIS comes in. That same Jesus that came to Mohammed that night, spoke to him again, in a voice, and told them to get out now. So he gathered his family and they left everything behind and started walking out of Mosul. He finds out just minutes later, ISIS came into their house and found out that they’re Christians. By the way, they didn’t know how they were going to get past the ISIS guards to get out of Mosul. God just either numbed them, blinded them or distracted them and they just walked out as a refugee family and headed to Erbil. We didn’t put in the film because of being asked to protect the family.
RM: Incredible. Joel, you founded the Nations Foundation, a voice for reformers, and it’s been around for a while. Why did you create it and how has it evolved into adding magazines and hopefully a TV series?
JP: I believe stories like we just shared, stories of God moving today, are some of the most evangelistic things we have as believers. My heart and passion is to share these incredibly valuable stories and to put them into an artistic form that’s beautiful and gives value to the people in which we’re telling. I’m in awe of people living out Jesus in their culture. In Iraq we interviewed Jeremy Courtney who’s doing incredible work, and we highlighted Dave Eubank. These aren’t household names; most people don’t know who these guys are, but I think they’re modern heroes of the faith. They would never portray themselves that, but they’re modern day reformers.