Dongguang Church in Shenyang, north-eastern China, in a 2014 photo. (Open Doors International)

A Christian from China’s underground Church says he feels safer working as a missionary in northern Iraq than he does at home. Such a perspective might seem somewhat surprising: but it says more about returning stability to parts of northern Iraq than it does about possible dangers in China.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Sunday (16 July) published a 2,000-word article on Chinese missionary couple Michael, 25, and Christy, 23, who left for northern Iraq just after their wedding last year.

It said there are hundreds or even thousands of Chinese Christians working as overseas missionaries, many of whom work as businessmen or teachers. (In June IS claimed responsibility for the deaths of two Chinese nationals suspected of preaching Christianity in Pakistan. The pair, identified by the Pakistani authorities as Lee Zingyang, 24, and Meng Lisi, 26, had been abducted in the Balochistan city of Quetta in late May.)

Michael and Christy live in a guarded compound – 60km from territory that was until recently held by militants from the Islamic State group – which serves as a refuge for Yazidi women and children who fled persecution.

The paper did not publish their full names or precise location because of security concerns in both Iraq and China.

“It is not as torn up by warfare here as much as outsiders would read in the news. I actually feel safer here,” Michael told SCMP. “Life could be described as normal here.”

Michael and Christy said they were prepared to stay in Iraq indefinitely. “What we do is not rare among mainland Chinese Christians,” Christy told the paper, adding: “There are many others out there who love Christ relentlessly and dedicate their lives to God’s kingdom.”

Christy sews garments with Yazidi widows to help them make a living and she and Michael sometimes give English lessons to local children, many of whom are orphans or come from single-parent families.

Michael said they did not explicitly talk about their faith, out of respect for the local culture. “Preaching gospel in a Muslim country is illegal,” he said. “If you convert a son, you are literally asking his father to kill him.”

“We only wish to spread positive values,” Michael said. “Even if we were to build a church one day, it would be as subtle as the one we have in China. There wouldn’t be extravagant structures, the focus would be on our inner connection with God and the quality of fellowship.”

Michael said being brought up as a Christian in China had helped him adapt to missionary work in a tough environment.

“In China, our faith has been heavily suppressed,” he said. “When faith is hard-earned, it is more genuine and sincere.”