Richard Hall / PRI
Ibrahim, 17, looks through the gates of a church damaged by ISIS fighters in Bartella, Iraq. (Richard Hall / PRI)

Seventeen-year-old Ibrahim* found himself trapped in the northern Iraqi town of Bartella along with his elderly mother in 2014. The website of the US-based Public Radio International (PRI) tells the story of what happened to them after Islamic State jihadists had expelled all the other Christians and installed themselves as the town’s new rulers.

Ibrahim and his mother survived two years under IS, during which time they were “beaten regularly and tormented by IS fighters”. Ibrahim was also periodically imprisoned and whipped. “They would take me from the house and take me to a prison. They would sometimes keep me there for three days. Every time, they would give me 25 lashes, shave my head and then release me,” he told PRI.

But the reporter continues: “Immediately after his release last year, Ibrahim said his Christian faith had got him through the ordeal… After holding on to his faith so tightly in the face of repeated attacks by the zealots holding him, he let it go.”

The brutality of the IS jihadists caused him to reject firstly the ideology to which they subscribed, then to reject “all religion”.

Ibrahim told PRI: “There were a lot of questions in my mind about Christianity already. I started to question it before ISIS. After ISIS I went to research more. I discovered what religion was really about.”

His change of belief has made him feel alienated from his friends, whom he has not told. He and his mother are trying to emigrate to Canada and he wants to become a scientist.

Atheism in Iraq is rare, but accounts of people leaving their faith have become increasingly common since the fallout of the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. The pattern is thought to be linked with disillusionment with extremist forms of religion.

*Not his real name