ERBIL, Northern Iraq - Security conditions in Iraq have improved greatly in recent months. But for Christians living in this war-ravaged nation, life is still very challenging.
Since the 2003 U.S.- led invasion, dozens of churches have been bombed and many believers killed or kidnapped by radical Muslims.
Now in a corner of Iraq, one church is thriving as it provides a safe-haven to those fleeing persecution.
'They Kept Hitting Me'
"I was standing on the street talking to my friends when these four men jumped out of a pickup truck with guns, it happened so quickly," said Karzan Mohammed, a 21-year-old Iraqi who described to CBN News what it was like the moment his life was turned upside down.
A few minutes later, Mohammed found himself inside a dimly lit prison cage.
"The men threw me up against the cage and started punching me in the stomach, kicking me and hitting me on the head," he added.
One morning in February 2008, Mohammed got a taste of what it's like to walk away from Islam. A few weeks earlier, he had converted to Christianity after he said he saw Jesus in a dream.
His family got word of his conversion and alerted authorities.
"The guards were yelling and shouting, asking me to renounce my faith in Jesus Christ. I said no. They said I had committed a crime by leaving Islam. I told them I would not go back. They kept hitting me," Mohammed recalled.
When that didn't work, the guards kicked it up a few notches.
"I was dragged into another cell, hung upside down and electrocuted," he said.
But each time prison guards applied electricity to his body, Mohammed kept confessing the same line.
"I screamed: 'Jesus loves you, Jesus loves you,'" he said.
For months they tried to break him, but he would not relent.
"I smuggled a Bible into the prison and started witnessing to the guards," Mohammed said. "Eventually four of them accepted Jesus! But word got out that I was sharing the Gospel and so for weeks I was kept in isolation."
The guards finally decided to release him after he endured seven months of almost daily torture. Mohammed says it was nothing short of a miracle.
A Shelter From Persecution
Today in the Northern Iraqi town of Erbil, Mohammed is slowly healing and trying to get his life back together. He is getting some help from Hazim Jargis, who pastors one of the fastest growing churches in the city.
"His parents kicked him out of the house when they discovered he had become a Christian. Mohammed had no place to go and so we took him in," Jarjis told CBN News.
Jarjis pastors the Kurdzman Church, a thriving congregation that has more than 1,000 believers who are mostly converts from Islam.
"The church gave me a place to stay, food to eat, and the encouragement to get back on my feet," Mohammed said.
As is the case in many Muslim countries today, those who dare to convert away from Islam face intense persecution and in some cases death.
And so today, in Northern Iraq, the Kurdzman Church has become a refuge for those fleeing persecution.
"We've helped 18 such families this last year," Jarjis said. "So many of them pay a high price for accepting Jesus. The least we can do is provide a safe place for them."
Free to Preach the Gospel
Founded in 1991, the Kurdzman Church of Christ is officially recognized by the authorities in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region.
Despite the threats against Muslim converts, especially from family members, Christians enjoy a degree of religious freedom there not seen in the rest of Iraq.
"We have to be careful not to offend our Muslim brothers, but we can freely preach the Gospel. We hold regular pastor's conferences and conduct evangelistic outreach to the community," Jarjis said.
Northern Iraq has become a refuge for thousands of Christian families fleeing religious persecution in other parts of the country.
Mission of Love
Since the U.S.- led invasion in 2003, dozens of churches have been bombed, and many believers killed or kidnapped by radical Muslims.
"There's a reason we have peace here in Northern Iraq. God is giving us the opportunity to minister and be a blessing to those who have lost everything," Jarjis said.
Karzan Mohammed has lost everything, but still has his life. Today with the help of the Kurdzman Church, Mohammed is training to be an evangelist.
"The Holy Spirit protected me during my time in prison so that I can tell others about the love of Christ and how He changed my life," Mohammed said.
*Original broadcast February 23, 2009.