'Cry for freedom' unfolding in Middle East, Mercer says
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--A cry for freedom is unfolding in the Middle East and opening doors for the Gospel, Heather Mercer, a former captive in Afghanistan and now an aid worker in Iraq, observed on a recent six-week trip to the region.
"It's such an amazing time to be in the Middle East, especially in light of the assassination of bin Laden. The Middle East will never be the same," Mercer told Baptist Press. "We see the timing of God and the grace of God being released over that part of the world for the cause of freedom."
Mercer returned to the United States May 4 from a trip to northern Iraq, where she found "an overwhelming sense of people speaking more boldly about the cause of freedom" than she has witnessed in the nearly eight years she has been working in the country.
"As we interacted with the local people and the local government, there was a tremendous hunger in the hearts of people to live free," she said.
Along with Dayna Curry and a handful of westerners, Mercer was held captive by the Taliban for 105 days in 2001 before being rescued by U.S. Special Forces. In 2008, Mercer founded Global Hope, an organization with a goal of mobilizing the church to invest in and engage the Islamic world so that Muslims in the toughest of regions will have a chance to hear the Gospel.
"Particularly in the Kurdish area, which is where Global Hope's focus is, people are pursuing change," Mercer said. "They are in a right way challenging their leaders to provide the human liberties that all of us are entitled to, and I think because of the revolutions and the demonstrations that have been going on throughout the Middle East, more and more people are being emboldened to speak for the change that they desire."
While people she encountered in the Middle East are full of hope, at the same time they are cautious, Mercer said.
"They know that anytime change and transformation comes on the horizon, it's like a double-edged sword -- it can go towards good or it can go towards darkness. So the people are crying out for change and for liberty in a way that will bring positive change into the region."
During her trip, a main focus was encouraging Global Hope team members as they work among the locals.
"We have English teachers on the ground that are partnering with a local English school to teach dozens of Kurds and Arabs to speak conversational English, which continues to be one of their greatest felt needs," Mercer, a graduate of Baylor University, said.
"For so many, the ability to speak English is connected to future opportunity and personal freedom. If they speak English, then they feel like they can be contributors in a global community.
"In a spiritual sense, the people are hungry, and that connects to the human longing for freedom. As there's this outcry for political freedom, it's directly connected to a desire for spiritual freedom as well. There are daily opportunities to share about the love of Christ and the hope and the freedom that ultimately only He can bring," she said.
Global Hope's main project in the area has been the establishment of the Freedom Center, a 25,000-square-foot community center that will house a coffee shop and Internet cafe, a business center, an English language school, a sports and recreational facility and a copy center as well as a library, a family park and playground and a women's center.
Construction of the $2 million project is expected to be complete by the end of the year, and all but $300,000 of the cost has been raised through private donors who have a passion for that part of the world, Mercer said.
"Global Hope as an organization is committed exclusively to advancing the worship of Jesus throughout the Islamic world. Distinctively, one of our focuses is going to places that other people don't want to go," she told BP. "We have a passion to go to the war-torn countries of the world and to love Muslims in hard places. We believe those are the kinds of places that Jesus loves to walk and show Himself powerful and strong in the hearts of people who are hurting and broken and oppressed. That's where we primarily focus.
"Particularly, we're seeking to be a voice on behalf of Muslim women who find themselves either in situations of abuse or violence or extreme oppression. For many, many Muslim women in these countries throughout the Islamic world, they don't have a voice. They don't have a place that they can go. So we seek to be a voice and an advocate for them before government leaders who can help bring about change in their circumstances," Mercer said.
In the Kurdistan capital alone, anywhere from 15 to 50 women every month set themselves on fire because they are victims of abuse, Mercer said.
"They live under a tremendous yoke of oppression. The shame and honor concept in the culture is so heavy, and there is such an expectation on these women to toe a very narrow line. For many women, it's just too much."
Given the obvious security threats as westerners attempt to provide a safe place for such women and others in the community, Mercer said various precautions are being taken to guard against dangerous infiltrators.
"Anytime you're working in that part of the world, security is always a primary factor. You always have to consider security issues. Because we're in the Kurdish area as opposed to the southern parts of Iraq, the Kurds are really allies to the American people and to the West. So this is something that they desire, this is something that they've invited us to do," Mercer said.
"We have longstanding relationships with the local community and government officials, so they're very much for this work in their city. We're not in an area where there are many hostiles.
"But we do take security very seriously. We follow security protocols that have been set for the region and are constantly keeping tabs on that. The Freedom Center has 24/7 security, so we have guards who actually live on site and rotate out. The Freedom Center, like all public and government facilities in Kurdistan, is surrounded by a concrete wall. So you actually have to go through security to get into the facility."
Only a handful of foreigners live in the town where the Freedom Center is being built, she said, and the project is one of a kind.
"There's not much available. Historically it's been kind of a big village, and it's growing more and more into a college town. The Freedom Center is on a college campus with about 5,000 students," she said. "This will be the hangout place for these college students, the place where they can come and study, a place where they can construct their projects and papers."
As her attention is on northern Iraq, Mercer said Afghanistan will always be her first love.
"That whole experience 10 years ago really set the Muslim world in my heart. Out of that experience the cry of my heart became that God would allow me and people who are a part of our team to see thousands and thousands of Muslims come to know Jesus," she said.
"When I started engaging in the Muslim world, there was only one missionary working among every 1 million Muslims on the planet. Today there are three workers among every 1 million Muslims. So the cry of my heart has been over these past years, 'God, would you let my life mean a million Muslims around the throne of heaven.'
"That's really what we're living and dying for, and that's really what the mission of Global Hope is all about, gathering Muslims around the throne of heaven from places that no one wants to go," Mercer said. "That passion over the last 10 years has only gotten deeper. By the grace of God, this is what I and my husband and our team will spend our lives doing."
On her recent trip, Mercer's team members concluded they have the best life in the world.
"We can't imagine doing anything else but living in the places where civilization began and calling back out those age-old foundations and calling Muslims back to the one true God who created them," she said. "Especially at this time in history when the cry of the Muslim people is for freedom, for us there is no greater assignment in all the earth.
"It's not always easy and there are challenges and there are risks, but when it's all said and done and we know that we'll stand before Jesus, we know that He is worthy of our lives and the Muslim people that He's called us to are worthy of us to lay our lives down for them."
Mercer spoke of meeting Iraqi Christians who continue to stand in the midst of tremendous odds and boldly proclaim truth even though they know it can cost them their lives.
"We have one dear brother that we were with over the last six weeks who is on the front end of his journey with Jesus, and his own father said, 'If the community ever knows that you have decided to follow Jesus, I will kill you,'" Mercer said. "Our brother in the Lord came to us and said, 'Even if they kill me, I have to tell people about Him.' To be in a place where people know the reality of the Gospel, just as Jesus gave His life for us, they're willing to give their lives for Him. It's a really wonderful assignment."
Erin Roach is an assistant editor of Baptist Press (www.bpnews.net). For more information about Global Hope, visit www.freedomcenteriraq.org or write to Global Hope, 1220 School St., Suite #9, Spring Hill, TN 37174.