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.
One Man's Story
One morning in Feb. 2008, 21-year-old Karzan 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.
"I was standing on the street talking to my friends, when these four men jumped out of a pickup truck with guns," he remembered. "It happened so quickly."
A few minutes later, Mohammed found himself inside a dimly lit prison cage.
His family got word of his conversion and alerted authorities.
Click play for more on the state of Christians in Iraq with Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs.
"The men threw me up against the cage and started punching me in the stomach, kicking me and hitting me on the head," he said.
"The guards were yelling and shouting asking me to renounce my faith in Jesus Christ. I said no," Mohammed continued. "They said I had committed a crime by leaving Islam. I told them I would not go back. They kept hitting me."
Jesus Loves You!
When that didn't work, the guards did more.
"I was dragged into another cell, hung upside down and electrocuted," Mohammed 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," he 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 Church Reaches Out
Today in the Northern Iraqi town of Erbil, Mohammed is slowly healing and trying to get his life back together. He's getting some help from 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," Hazim Jarjis of Kurdzman Church said. "Mohammed had no place to go and so we took him in."
Hazim Jarjis pastors the Kurdzman Church, a thriving congregation that has more than one thousand believers, 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 in Northern Iraq, the Kurdzman Church has become a sort of refuge for those fleeing persecution.
"We've helped 18 such families this last year. So many of them pay a high price for accepting Jesus. The least we can do is provide a safe place for them," Jarjis said.
Founded in 1991, the Kurdzman Church 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 here 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," Jarjis explained. "We hold regular pastor's conferences and conduct evangelistic outreach to the community."
Northern Iraq has became a refuge for thousands of Christian families fleeing religious persecution in other parts of the country.
"There's a reason we have peace here in Northern Iraq," Jargis said. God is giving us the opportunity to minister and be a blessing to those who have lost everything."
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," he said.
*Originally aired January 31, 2009.