BAGHDAD, Iraq (BP)–It would be hard to imagine a time that Maher hasn’t smiled. Though short in stature, the Madian-born Iraqi lights up a room, whether it’s at the hospital where he helps translate for Iraqi patients, or in his church which has now held services for 10 weeks in a row.
There was a low point in his life. It came as he was being interrogated in Saddam Hussein’s military intelligence prison – the most feared prison in all of Iraq. As he heard stories of other prisoners there who had been severely tortured by the same men who were questioning him, he wondered whether he would ever see home again.
Maher Abdul Mageed was born into the Madian culture, a sect that can be traced back to the original followers of John the Baptist. Though 90 percent of John the Baptist’s followers turned to Jesus Christ after their leader’s death, some did not, choosing instead to worship John, a religion that has been passed down for generations.
Maher accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior in 1994 after first hearing the Gospel from his brother who had left Iraq for another country. Within a year, Maher felt called by God into ministry, though there was no schooling in evangelism he could obtain in Iraq. Under Saddam’s dictatorship, it was extremely difficult to preach the Gospel in Iraq; it could quickly gain someone a three-year trip to prison if caught.
A father and a husband, Maher decided to start a media ministry. By collecting audio tapes, books, CDs and videos, he reasoned it was the easiest way to preach the Gospel without being accused of specifically proselytizing for his faith. Using double-deck cassette players, he would stay up until midnight each night taping various Christian programs. His wife would then help copy the tapes while she cooked. He was eager to share his tapes and CDs with fellow members of the church he attended, the sole Arabic evangelical church in the area where he lived.
Word began to spread throughout the church and surrounding neighborhoods about Maher’s ministry, a development that concerned the local church council’s several members who also belonged to the Baath Party.
“They asked me to stop my media ministry and said it was becoming a problem,” Maher recounted. “I asked them, why? They were fearful that Saddam would close the church.”
Over the next few months, Maher tried his best to meet the council’s requests, without giving in to shutting down his ministry altogether. Still, the moment came when he was asked to do just that.
The leader of the church council confronted him on everything he had been doing – from passing out tapes to printing and distributing a flyer with the plan of salvation on it.
“I told him, ‘I’m not doing anything wrong,'” Maher said. “He told me, ‘You don’t like to obey my orders.’ I just said, ‘I don’t like to not obey my Jesus.'”
That was on Friday. The following evening, Maher was sitting in his living room chair, watching TV and eating peanuts in his pajamas and robe when someone knocked at the door.
Two men, security agents for Saddam Hussein, quickly informed him that he must not open his mouth nor make any sudden movements. A man who had frequently borrowed tapes from Maher’s ministry stood there as well. He quickly pointed to Maher and nodded to the men, leaving as quickly as he came.
Maher thought quickly and made up an excuse which got him permission to run upstairs where his wife was. He quickly told her what was happening and instructed her to hide the mountain of audio cassettes and videotapes they had brought home from the church.
In all, 10 evangelical pastors were arrested that day. Maher spent five days in a 4-by-4-meter room with five Muslims who had been accused of political crimes. When he was brought in for interrogation, a cold chill ran through his body as he was told what the charges were.
“They had been listening to the CDs I passed out,” Maher said. “One of the recordings talked about a leader’s integrity, and the fact that the best leaders in the world are Christians. To them, that meant I was opposing Saddam being the leader of the world. That was the lowest moment for me because I knew they had torture devices. I started praying.”
Five days later, Maher was released unharmed, though many of the other pastors were imprisoned until Hussein released the prisoners right before the war began.
Fast forward to the present. Since the initial bombing has ended, Maher and his family have enjoyed a new freedom to worship and share their faith with others. They have started a church which is housed in a local Anglican church building, with 90 percent of those who attend are brand-new believers.
“Jesus filled us with more purpose,” said Eman, Maher’s wife. “He filled us with a great ambition to tell the people about grace and God’s Good News.”
More than 10,000 Iraqis already have been touched by Maher’s media ministry since it began. He believes the future will only get better. “Thirty-five years of dictatorship, we are tired. Enough’s enough.”
Writer Sara Horn and photojournalist Jim Veneman were on assignment in Baghdad, Iraq, covering stories of faith among the military and Iraqi Christians there. Their complete coverage while there as well as their coverage on board the USS Truman will be featured in a book edited by Horn and scheduled for release next spring by Broadman & Holman. Oliver North serves as executive editor for the book, titled “A Greater Freedom.” (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MEDIA MINISTRY FOR IRAQ, READING THE WORD, THANK YOU, FREEDOM and FREEDOM TO WORSHIP.