I got an email about a month ago from a man named Robert. He was trying to get in touch with Firas, a young Iraqi man who worked with the ministry at St. George’s Memorial Church, an evangelical church led by Maher, an Iraqi pastor whose story is the last story in A Greater Freedom.
More than a year had gone by since I last heard from Maher and we ended our emails on bad terms, I’m sad to say. He was upset with me for not following through on some promises and though I tried to explain and apologize, we never really came to a resolution. The biggest reason for the misunderstanding I believe was a lack of understanding about cultures – me with his, and his with mine, something we were unable to resolve through the sterile field of email. Regardless, I still believed in his incredible ministry that God gave him there in Baghdad and I’ve often thought about him and wondered how his church was doing.
Robert contacted me again last week with an article he had found while doing some online research. He had bad news. Maher and his entire leadership team have been missing since September.
Maher, his wife Iman who led the women’s ministry, his son Yehyah, an 18-year-old with a passion for music who led the praise and worship, Firas, the associate pastor of the church, and a driver were coming back from a church conference in Jordan and never returned. Their last contact was a cell phone call Maher made to a member of the church and he said they were 3 to 4 hours away from Baghdad. That placed them between Fallujah and Ramadi, a stretch of road that’s considered the most dangerous in all of Iraq in terms of attacks; not just from insurgents, but common thieves and criminals hoping for a quick way to make some cash.
At first, the church thought the group was kidnapped and taken hostage as is often the case in Iraq these days. Ransoms have become a solid source of income for those not willing or unable to find real work. But it is now December and nothing has been heard of the group. No vehicle has been found, no personal effects, and no bodies. The group is now presumed dead and the church has the painful task of figuring out where to go from here.
When Jim, the photojournalist I worked with, and I visited St. George’s with Maher two years ago, they had roughly 150 members, many of those new believers. The reports I have found from September and October indicate that the church had grown in numbers, to almost 800, making it the largest church body in the city. Most of these were new believers. Of course, God takes the main credit, but I know his servant Maher played an incredible role in leading these new followers to Christ.
When I think of Maher, I think of his smile first. Maher had a smile that beamed from ear to ear – he radiated the love of Jesus. That’s what I think of next about Maher. His passion for preaching Christ.
This passionate Iraqi pastor had only been a Christian for 10 to 15 years. He discovered Christ when Jesus came to him in a dream, and then his brother, an ex-patriate living in Australia, sent him a Bible. Maher devoured the words and he has followed the Bible literally and to the letter. No denomination has been his source of instruction; just the Bible. That was enough.
Though Maher’s church was very prominent, and he grew to be well known, the vicar for St. George’s, Andrew White, doesn’t believe that their disappearance has anything to do with their faith. It’s possible that they were the victims of a random crime, but there’s no way to prove it either way until some evidence is found.
Maher emailed me shortly after the book went to press, expressing concerns that Iraqi pastors speaking with the media were being targeted by Muslim extremists and asked us to change his name, even though he had told us in Baghdad to use his real name instead of an alias as we had suggested. We immediately changed his name and all other Iraqis mentioned in the book. But despite the danger, I found out later that Maher continued to do interviews with press like Fox News and World Magazine, offering a voice that needed to be heard through the clutter that mainstream media were streaming.
I’m still praying that Maher and his family and church staff will be found alive. The reason I still have this hope is because Maher has been through a perilous situation before. He was imprisoned by Saddam’s men before the war started, and has an incredible testimony of how God watched over him and rescued him. I keep hoping that God will do the same thing in this situation.
I am waiting to get permission from the publisher to offer his story as a pdf that you can download for free and read without having to buy the book which I believe is now out of print. I’ll let you know what I hear.
I’ll leave you with some links to reports about the disappearance as well as some quotes from Maher himself. Please keep this family and this church in your prayers. Maher’s 21-year-old daughter is still in Baghdad. She has grandparents, Iman’s parents, who lived next door to the family, but I can’t imagine the emotions and the questions she must be dealing with.
A couple of personal notes: There’s a wide variety of misspellings among the stories – calling Maher’s wife “Mona” and spelling their last name Dakel, instead of Dakhil, which is the spelling Maher gave to me. Also, many stories refer to Maher as an Anglican. Though the church building is owned by the Anglican church, and it was insisted by the Anglican vicar that services be conducted using Anglican liturgy, Maher was a charismatic non-denominational pastor along with many of those we saw in the worship service. I’d like to say more about this but for now, I need to just leave it at that.
Lost in the Sunni Triangle – Christianity Today
Baghdad Church Deals with Leadership Loss – Church Executive Magazine
Five layleaders from Baghdad church missing – Anglican Journal
For information about Firas, the associate pastor, and additional photos, visit Robert Jiminez’s web site, PraiseChapel2000.com.
“We don’t want your ministry, and we don’t want the gospel preached,” the man said, unlocking the door of Maher’s small media room, insisting he take his belongings elsewhere.
“But I haven’t done anything wrong,” Maher protested.
“You don’t like to obey my orders, do you?” the man asked Maher.
“I don’t like disobeying my Jesus,” Maher replied…
“Jesus filled us with a bigger purpose. Just living day by day, He filled us with a greater ambition to tell the people about His grace and His good news.
It was that bigger purpose that kept Iman going the day after Maher was taken. “Jesus gave me a peace that Maher would come home.”
“I want Christianity everywhere, but this is a spiritual war,” says Maher. “Out of about twenty-five million Iraqis, we are one million Christians against twenty-four million Muslims. I don’t think they will agree.”
*All quotes taken from A Greater Freedom: Stories of Faith from Operation Iraqi Freedom (Broadman & Holman, 2004).