Zewar Mohammed Ishmael, a former Muslim living and working in Northern Iraq, was killed in February when he refused to deny his faith in Jesus Christ.
According to the Rev David Cohen, Australian National Director of CNEC Partners International, Zewar became a Christian in 1995 and had been ‘witnessing fearlessly’ since that time.
And Mr Cohen also says that the US-led war against Iraq will lead to a hardening of opposition from ‘fundamentalist Muslims’ against Christians in Iraq.
“The war and any leadership change in Iraq won’t change the fundamentalist attitude – in fact it may harden it,” Mr Cohen said.
“There is an imminent threat of increased opposition, persecution and destruction for Christians in Iraq.”
Mr Cohen said that Zewar had been working as a taxi driver, and that most of his colleagues, who were almost all Muslims, had been supportive of him and his Christian faith. “These are indications that relationships can be okay between Christians and Muslims,” he said. “But it is Islamic fundamentalists who are going to be given fodder by the war.”
Mr Cohen believes that in the wake of a war, anyone seen to being linked to the West will suffer.
“Christians are being identified with America and Britain, because that’s where much of the support [for ministry] comes from. The West is identified as the opposition, and Christianity and the West are synonymous for many people,” he said.
Mr Cohen said that while world attention was focused on Iraq, similar situations were being faced in many of the 85 countries where CNEC/PI was involved. “This is a daily danger that so many of our people are in where there are Islamic fundamentalists. The threat is constantly there.”
Mr Cohen said that churches and Christian groups in Baghdad were fleeing from their venues even before war began, afraid that they would be attacked or have property looted or destroyed.
CNEC/PI reported that Zewar was shot on the morning of February 17, after a confrontation with a Sufi Muslim man. “The killer asked Zewar to deny his faith in Christ and to return to Islam. Zewar refused to do so, and kept saying that he believed in Christ as his Saviour,” wrote Youssif Matty, Director of the Protestant Evangelical Church in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, and Zewar’s co-worker in Iraq.
According to Mr Matty, the assassin threw his machine gun to the ground and yelled, ‘Allah Akhbar’ (‘God is great’ in Arabic) after the shooting.
Mr Matty had reported that Zewar was arrested in June 2002 ‘because of his evangelical activities’. After being released, he was working as a chef when his boss challenged him on why he did not pray five times a day, like everyone else. When he was offered $500 to pray on the Muslim prayer rug, Zewar replied,“Not for $500, not even for $5 million. I will not stop following Christ.”
With the Governor of the region, along with the head of the political party and head of police looking into the crime, Mr Matty was hopeful that further incidents would be avoided. However he added that the legal process may be pressured by ‘Islamic parties or some Islamic leaders to influence the court’s decision.