August 5th, 2014
12:13 PM ET
Opinion by Jeremy Courtney, special to CNN
(CNN) –We had no idea what we were doing, so we helped everyone.
My wife and I moved to Iraq in 2007 to assist in relief and development. We have since made friends on all sides, deep behind “enemy lines.”
Since the fall of Mosul to Sunni militants in June, the world has struggled to accept the failure of the American project in Iraq, the rise of “political Islam” and the marking of Iraqi Christians and other minorities for death or expropriation.
The world may watch from afar and denounce all Iraqi Muslims as militants bent on conquest. But up close, the reality is very different.
It was a Muslim cleric who may have saved this Christian's life. And I'm not the only one.
Even as jihadists justify their atrocities in the name of Islam, millions of Muslims are standing in solidarity with Christians who have been expelled from their homes.
In Najaf, displaced Christians are being housed in the most revered holy site in Shia Islam. Sunnis, Shia, and Christians worship side by side in Baghdad, praying for the peace and future of Iraq.
Our first six months in Iraq were difficult. The lack of electricity and water, the drive-by shootings, the explosions that more than rattled our windows — they shook our souls.
It wasn’t until we began helping a little girl who needed lifesaving heart surgery that we could drive back the gripping fear. Working with her father to save her life injected meaning into an otherwise confusing conflict.
Soon after, word began to spread that we were helping “last chance children” who had been rejected by the other humanitarian aid organizations. The larger organizations looked at pediatric heart surgery and saw nothing but risk.
We spent tens of thousands of dollars sending children outside the country to Israel and Turkey for surgery. Soon Sunnis and Shia, Kurds and Christians were lining up in our office in search of hope.
One day in a hotel lobby I bumped into a Muslim cleric decked out in robes and headdress and found myself fumbling for words. We had been taught to fear these types of clerics. They were supposed to be the crazies who promoted suicide bombings and sectarianism.
But that wasn't the case with Sheikh Ali.
“Peace be upon you,” he said with a huge smile. “We are here as a conference of Muslim scholars. We are against the terrorists.”
The sheikh welcomed me for tea with 10 other clerics and, at great personal risk, welcomed me deeper into his life.
Over time, Ali joined our effort to eradicate the backlog of children who were waiting for these lifesaving surgeries. He introduced me to Muslim leaders. He told me stories about fending off Shia militias as they sought to capture his neighborhood hospital and turn it into a partisan outpost.
When a top Sunni cleric issued a fatwa calling for our death because we sent children to Israel for surgery, our lives turned upside down.
It was Sheikh Ali who defended us against his friend, arguing that if we had saved just one life, as the Quran said, it was as if we had saved the whole of humanity.
He may have saved our lives with that move, but he fell out with the cleric after sending us a baby girl from his own mosque who needed surgery.
Demand for our work at Preemptive Love Coalition rose as international news reported on Iraq's shocking birth-defect crisis. We stopped sending children abroad and partnered with the Iraqi government to train Iraqis in their own hospitals.
Heart surgery is full of meaning in every culture, but especially in Iraq, where fathers find themselves begging anyone who will listen to donate blood while their child lies vulnerable in the operating room.
Once enemies have each other’s blood coursing through their veins, or your nemesis is holding your child’s heart in his hands, it is impossible to hate without condemning oneself, as well.
We know the world is not all rainbows and roses. There is a version of Islam out there that is dangerous and scary.
But there are far more Muslims like Sheikh Ali.
There is a lesson to learn from the fatwa that called for our death: It’s not violence or pre-emptive strikes that terrify the terrorists. They need violence to be done against them to justify their cause.
But pre-emptive love — shown through heart surgeries or simple hospitality — upends our simplistic stories and threatens hatred everywhere.
Or, in the words of the fatwa issued against our work:
“We must stop [these heart surgeries] lest it lead our children and their parents to love their enemies!”
God willing, Preemptive Love Coalition will mark our 1,000th operation next month in Iraq, with the help of Christian donors and Muslim sponsors like Sheikh Ali.
One thousand children, with thousands of fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles across Iraq.
We’ve drunk their tea, celebrated miracle birthdays, and prayed for their children as they go off to school. The Iraqis we are training will save the lives of tens of thousands more.
So, in the end, I have to admit the cleric was right: Pre-emptive love does work. It destroys enemies by making them friends.
Jeremy Courtney is executive director of Preemptive Love Coalition, an international development organization in Iraq, and author of "Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time." The views expressed in this column belong to Courtney.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.