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American Christian in Iraq works to save lives

An American Christian living in Iraq talks about religious tensions there and the work he's doing to resolve them.

Jeremy Courtney, an American Christian living in Iraq, talks about religious tensions there and the work he's doing to resolve them.
Jeremy Courtney, an American Christian living in Iraq, talks about religious tensions there and the work he's doing to resolve them.

Jeremy Courtney, an American Christian living in Iraq, talks about religious tensions there and the work he’s doing to resolve them.

From the Abu Ghraib tortures to the more than 100,000 civilian casualties, solemn and sickening headlines have told of the true cost of the Iraq conflict. Finally, we’re hearing some good news about a different kind of American intervention.

His name is Jeremy Courtney, and he is executive director of Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC), an international development organization based in Iraq that provides lifesaving heart surgeries to Iraqi children and training for local healthcare professionals. The storied Middle Eastern nation has experienced a spike in birth defects as a result of sanctions and exposure to chemical weapons or depleted uranium. One out of seven children in Iraq are born with a physical defect, and the cancer rates are higher than Hiroshima.

Living in Iraq with his wife and two children has been fraught with difficulty. At one point, a fatwa calling for his death was issued by Muslim authorities. But he has stayed and his work has made incredible strides toward creating peace between communities at odds. His new book, Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Timetells the harrowing tale of his experiences there. Here, we talk about his experience living in Iraq, the struggles his family has faced, and what he thinks of American tensions in both Syria and Iran.

JM: You and your family were in Iraq during the war. Did you think the war was unjust?

JC: No, I did not think the war was unjust. Or, perhaps more accurately, I did not think about it. Looking back now, I can see that many people were tapped into the conversation, but none of the people in my life (and I was in seminary at the time!) were questioning the legal justifications, potential outcomes, unintended consequences, authority, or threat potentialities that were being used to lead us into war.

It was not until my wife and I moved to Iraq as unarmed civilians and befriended the very people who were most affected by Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the U.N.’s violent and oppressive sanctions regime, and various U.S. interventions that we began to see the entire conversation through more nuanced perspectives.

JM: I imagine that an American Christian embedded in the Middle East—even a well-intentioned one–might cause some Iraqis concern. How were you and your team received? Any animosity toward you?

Book cover courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Book cover courtesy of Simon and Schuster

JC: We’ve been called every name in the book: life-savers, CIA, hope-bringers, missionaries, Zionists who harvest the organs of Iraqi children for experimentation. But we’ve been called good Christians and we’ve been called the “best Muslims.” People across the world—all of us—are funny in the assumptions we bring to the table and how that affects the boxes into which we place each other in an effort to make sense of the world around us.

In general, we’ve been received with great hospitality and gratitude. Whether a family whose child is in need of a lifesaving heart surgery, or a local government health director who has benefited from the services and training that we help organize, the people with whom we directly work are benefiting from the partnerships that we’ve committed to together. And that is a cause for celebration as we save more lives, develop Iraq’s infrastructure through training, and ultimately wage peace together through cooperation.

My book, Preemptive Love, outlines some of the more extraordinary things we’ve experienced, both in terms of animosity—like the fatwa issued against us calling for our death—and the generosity extended to us by our Muslim neighbors and friends from across the country.

JM: In the Middle East, is “American” synonymous with “Christian”?  How are Christians perceived and received there?

JC: I have seen a widespread association among Iraqis between Americans and Christians or Christianity. Domestically, they have an experience and context of Christianity that has nothing to do with Americans—so it would not be accurate to say that Christianity is synonymous with America, or even the West. And Iraqis certainly know many Muslims in America and know that America holds out freedom for Muslims and people of all faiths. But official American policy is probably widely associated with the thoughts and values of Christianity, which, of course, is consistent with an idea that many Americans have sought to promote and even fought to “reclaim” for generations.

This is a double-edged sword. When U.S. soldiers show up after President Bush says he will be patient in this “crusade” against terrorism, when crosses are used as totems, when Bible verses are inscribed on sniper rifles, it is difficult to expect an Iraqi to understand the war in something other than “Christian” terms.

On the flip side, however, when our medical teams from the International Children’s Heart Foundation in Memphis or For Hearts and Souls in San Antonio show up in Iraq to save lives, they are also seen in “Christian” terms, even though this no more accurately describes every person on their teams than it describes every person in the military or diplomatic corps. Of course, Iraqis are savvy and understand that stereotypes are just that, and most are eager to make real relationships and base their conclusions about “Americans” or “Christians” on actual experiences with real people.

JM: What are your thoughts right now on the situation in Syria?

JC: The situation in Syria has not occurred, and cannot be solved, in a vacuum. What is going on there has much to do with the last few decades of U.S. foreign policy with Iran, Russia, and China. The diminished U.S. influence in this situation has much to do with the last decade(s) of foreign policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, as well. Obviously, Syria is a hot mess. But piecemeal efforts to put out fires as they come up without a more comprehensive reposturing is nothing more than kicking the can down the road.

A unilateral strike in Syria would be ineffective—clearly our past claims about punishing the bad guys who perpetrate these things has not had the deterant effect that we were promised or we wouldn’t be in this situation again. But more importantly, a strike could have many unintended (but, by now, well-documented) consequences for the children of Syria for decades to come. Thankfully, for now it seems that the strike option is off the table.

JM: Recently, Secretary of State Kerry agreed to meet with a high ranking Iranian official. Many of his political opponents protested. Where do you draw the line between working to understand and even love your “enemies” and protecting your interests?

JC: I’m hesitant to arm-chair quarterback for others when I have not had to walk in their shoes. I’m not sure what I would do as secretary of state or president. My life in Iraq is governed primarily and ultimately from an allegiance to Jesus. My vocational duty does not require me to weigh national interests against the interests of the Kingdom of God—and I’m grateful for that, because those two “kingdoms” are often at odds. So as a Christian, I use the life of Jesus, the one who humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, as my plumb line. When I talk about preemptive love, at the base of it all, I’m talking about him.

I find it extremely difficult now to sing in personally pietistic terms about “what Jesus did for me” on the cross without eventually seeking to understand what my commitment to him would require—and liberate—me to do for others, even to the point of death.

I readily admit that such a posture may be debatable as foreign policy, in that it might undermine America’s national interests, but I can tell you, the way of preemptive love is a wonderful way to live as an individual, a family, and a community of faith.

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