Martyred Convert Leaves Widow, Five Children in Northern Iraq
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, March 14 (Compass) -- Kurdish Christian Ziwar Mohammed Ismaeel was shot dead in front of his taxi stand last month in Zakho, the northern-most city in the Kurdish safe-haven of Northern Iraq.
According to local security authorities, the Kurdish convert’s self-confessed murderer believed he was “fulfilling the will of Allah” by killing an apostate from Islam. “I don’t feel guilty for doing it,” the killer told police investigators after his arrest.
A taxi driver, Ismaeel was waiting in a line of taxis on the morning of February 17 for his turn to load up passengers for the drive from Zakho to Dohuk. About 8:30 a.m., a stranger approached the station and began talking with him.
Fellow taxi drivers said that Ismaeel offered a cup of tea to the man, who then began to demand loudly that Ismaeel deny his faith in Christ and come back to Islam.
When Ismaeel refused, saying he could not stop believing in Christ, the stranger asked him to step aside and talk privately with him. Just seconds later, eyewitnesses said, the man pulled out a machine gun and started shooting point-blank at Ismaeel. A total of 28 bullets were pumped into Ismaeel’s head and chest before he fell to the ground, dying on the spot.
Throwing his gun at the slain Christian’s body, the attacker shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greater,” the first words of the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic) and fled the scene on foot. Several taxi drivers chased and caught the assailant, turning him over to local police.
The arrested assassin, later identified as Abd al-Karem Abd al-Salam, has been jailed under the jurisdiction of the Dohuk governate. Said to be a member of the Islamic Union, the murderer had spent two years in Afghanistan, and reportedly carried a photograph of himself taken with renegade Afghan leader Gulbuddin Hekmetyar. About 40 years of age, he is the father of 10 children.
According to the local chief of police, Abd al-Salam told investigators after his arrest that the Prophet Mohammed had appeared to him in a dream, telling him to kill Ziwar. Political and security officials are investigating the killer’s possible links with the handful of radical Islamist movements in the region.
Because Islamic law requires the execution of apostates who forsake Islam, some townspeople in Zakho have said they expect Ismaeel’s killer to be released after completion of the criminal investigation. But despite the religious sensitivities of the case, the local police chief has stated that he will demand the death sentence for Abd al-Salam.
Northern Iraq’s regional Kurdish administration encourages a tolerant form of Islam, although it is officially secular.
Ismaeel, 38, had converted from Islam to Christianity seven years ago, after reading a Bible given to him by a friend. “He just grabbed the truth and ran with it,” an expatriate Christian who had lived in the Zakho area in 1998 told Compass. “He was always exhorting other Christians to be bold, to not be afraid.”
Ismaeel’s openness in talking about his new faith had prompted death threats by some of his own relatives, who were initially advised by a Muslim prayer leader that he should be killed as an apostate. But Ismaeel survived their attempts and refused to go into hiding, declaring that he would never deny Christ, even if his family killed him.
He was arrested two years ago when policemen found three Bibles in his car, and again in May 2002 when police interrogators warned him that some people objected to his Christian witnessing. Charges were not pressed against him in either incident.
Ismaeel is survived by his widow Layla and their five children, none of whom have publicly converted to Christianity. The three sons (Zervan, Nachervan and Ephraim) and two daughters (Hosan and Lozan) range in age from 18 years to an infant born last September. The family had lived in a small housing development on the outskirts of Zakho, where they had started a family project of raising geese.
Local Christians said the three older children all quit going to school soon after their father’s death, intimidated by accusations from their schoolmates that he was killed for becoming a Christian. “We decided to find them some other school,” a local pastor confirmed yesterday.
In the wake of Ismaeel’s murder, the local Christian community has taken responsibility for the care and support of his family, in mutual agreement with the family’s tribal leaders. Their commitment includes raising finances to buy a house for Ismaeel’s family and cover their living expenses, as well as help the eldest son find a job.
“This family lost Ziwar because of the church, not because of any other problem,” the tribe told church leaders after the murder.
“So they are considering Ziwar’s family as no longer from their tribe, but as a part of our church,” a local pastor explained to Compass. “The church now has a good relationship with his wife and children, and with his brothers and brothers-in-law.”
The family’s agreement on this issue put to rest fears that some members of the tribe might try to avenge Ismaeel’s murder in an ongoing blood feud against those they held responsible for his death. “When blood is shed here,” a close Christian friend of Ismaeel told Compass, “it is not just a cup of water.”