Despite Iraq’s turmoil, churches are growing
In the northeast, Iraqi Kurdistan offers a haven for Christian activity as the two rival Kurdish governments grow in their toleration of Muslims becoming Christians, Compass stated; in the south, the evangelical church is growing rapidly.
In Baghdad, a total of 15 evangelical congregations have started since the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003, according to Compass. Officially, only two evangelical churches -- both Presbyterian and led by Egyptian nationals -- existed in the capital during Hussein’s rule. Now there are Baptists, Methodists and Christian and Missionary Alliance congregations, all led by local Iraqi pastors.
“The people are open like never before,” Ghassan Thomas, pastor of a Christian and Missionary Alliance church in Baghdad, told Compass. “It is because we have no peace. This is how we connect our message to the nation: I preach on the topic, ‘How do we get peace?’ and everyone listens, especially when I talk about the deeper peace that Christ brings.”
Most of the members of the new churches come from the Presbyterian church, and some come from historic Christian denominations such as the Chaldean Catholic or Syrian Orthodox, which have been in Iraq for centuries, Compass reported.
“Muslims too want peace,” Thomas said. “Many of them are frightened. When the hostages are killed, often a Koranic verse is used to justify it. So many Muslims are scared of their own God. When we preach that God is love, it is so liberating to them.”
Compass noted that Southern Iraq is deemed too dangerous for foreign Christian workers, so most have pulled back to the more stable Iraqi Kurdistan. More than 4 million Kurds reside in this northern mountainous region, which has enjoyed autonomy since the first Gulf War in 1991. Two Kurdish political factions control the area. Arbil is the main city of the domain of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party, and Sulemaniya is the power center of newly elected Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
In both regions, Kurdish refugees are flooding back, Compass noted; there is little street crime and authorities have severely curtailed the activities of Islamic extremists. This has brought much prosperity to the area, which many believe is one reason the respective administrations -- in their courting of Western investment -- have markedly improved their defense of religious freedom.
Yousif Matty, a leading pastor of the Kurdish Evangelical Church, a denomination in the north comprising Kurdish and Arabic Christians, told Compass, “The last 10 years have been a golden time here, and it is set to continue with Talabani becoming president. He has been very strong on emphasizing the rule of law. Also, the Kurds have suffered at the hands of Islamists and have no love for them.”
Congregations of the Kurdish Evangelical Church have a few hundred members, from both Muslim and Christian backgrounds. Matty runs four bookshops, two schools and other projects, and he received a $500,000 plot of land from the government to build his church. The government also has welcomed other Christian non-governmental organizations.
The other evangelical denomination in the north is the Kurdish Language Evangelical Church, which is exclusively Kurdish-speaking and made up primarily of Kurds.
“There is always persecution from the family when a Muslim becomes a Christian,” the Kurdish pastor of one fellowship in Arbil told Compass. “That will not change anytime soon, but it used to be that the new convert would face persecution from the state also, yet this is less true today.”
The influence of the Kurds, who represent 25 percent of the Iraqi population, is important to the future of the country. President Talabani has less power than the Shiite prime minister, but some Christian leaders believe that the best bulwark against a strongly Islamic constitution may be the influence of the Kurds.
Though Sunni Muslims, the Kurdish people are one of the least observant Islamic groups in the Middle East, and they regard the Arabs as having humiliated them for decades. Nestorian Bishop Issac of Dohuk told Compass he believes the Kurds will keep the constitution from becoming too Islamic.
“Sharia is really Arabic, and the Kurds will resist all attempts to Arabize the culture of Iraq,” Bishop Issac said. “If we go the sharia route, it will be like in Iran where our [Nestorian] church is less than 10 percent of the strength it was before [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini took power.”
Another point of light for the Iraqi church, according to Compass, is that many of the 40,000 or so Christians who fled after a spate of bombings last August have returned to the country. Yet the numbers of those still in refugee camps in Jordan and Syria remain significant -- perhaps 10,000, though precise figures are not available.
“It’s not the end of the world that so many Christians have fled,” Bishop Issac said, “because it has spread the Iraqi church over the world, and the new communities established in America and Australia are providing many resources we would not have received if we had all remained in the land.”
IRAQ STILL IN CRISIS
The news is not all positive, of course, Compass noted. Iraq remains a country in crisis. At a recent conference for 70 Iraqi pastors, all had to travel early in the morning to avoid trouble on the roads. And although they emphasized that the streets gradually have become safer since the beginning of the year, church meetings throughout the south are held at 4:30 in the afternoon -- with everyone at home behind locked doors by 7:30 for fear of insurgent and looting activity.
Law and order still has not been adequately restored, nor have basic services, Compass reported. Patience has run out with U.S. and British forces’ failure to restore stability after two years in the country. “No population will support an army that cannot protect it -- the goodwill has completely gone,” one pastor told Compass. Middle-class Christians also are continuing to emigrate in alarming numbers, as those in key professions such as medicine are targets for kidnapping and extortion. Some newer evangelical churches have been decimated by this exodus.
The Iraqi churches also face internal challenges, with Compass noting that some priests from the historic churches have bullied the new evangelicals. In Baghdad, a priest from the Chaldean Catholics told those who had left his church to attend Baptist services, “We will not bury your relatives who attend our churches.” Some leaders of the older church denominations have slandered evangelical congregations as part of a “Jewish conspiracy” to control Iraq, Compass reported.
Also, although the evangelicals are skilled in evangelism, the church is young and immature. “Our outreach activity is so much stronger than the discipling function of the church,” Matty said. “We have radio outreach, schools, bookshops, but the church itself is not concentrating in deepening its life, nor are the leaders getting trained enough.”
Some church leaders see the splitting of the evangelical churches into so many new (and often foreign-backed) denominations as an indication of disunity, Compass reported, noting that not all missionary aid is well spent; some pastors have used foreign support to buy expensive cars and upgrade their lifestyle, leading to envy among other pastors.
Yet for all these challenges, the mood among 70 evangelical pastors who gathered during the spring was guardedly optimistic.
A pastor of one of the three Baptist congregations in Baghdad, who did not wish to be named, forecast three trends:
“One, the evangelical church will grow stronger, but many of its numbers will leave. However, that’s not so bad. They will probably come back with more teaching and maturity and it will benefit the church in the long term.
“Two, the historic churches will get even more negative. I see them as the major persecutor of the evangelicals in the future. It is as it always was. I am translating a book called ‘The Trial of Blood’ which calculates that the institutional churches killed 50 million Christians from 315 to 1570.
“Three, the Islamic extremists will moderate, though it may take a generation.”
A POIGNANT ENCOUNTER
Yet even when conflicts are at their sharpest, there are hopeful signs. Pastor Thomas tells of an incident that occurred when he received death threats written on cardboard after erecting a sign outside his church that said, “Jesus is the Light of the World.” On the cardboard was scrawled, “Jesus is not the light of the world. Allah is, and you have been warned.” It was signed, “the Islamic Shiite Party.”
Thomas loaded up a van full of children’s gifts from a Christian relief agency, together with some Bibles and medicines, and drove to the headquarters of the Islamic Shiite Party. When he came to the compound, he demanded to “see the big sheikh, I have gifts for him.”
He was taken to meet the leader and introduced himself as a pastor.
“We respect you,” the sheikh said.
Thomas said, “Christians have love for you, because God is love, our God is a God of love.”
Again the sheikh replied, “We respect your God. We respect Jesus.”
This was the opening Thomas had been praying for. He told the sheikh, “If you respect Jesus, would you let me read you His words?” He took out his Bible and read the words of Jesus from John’s Gospel, “I am the light of the world.” Then he brought out the cardboard with the death threat.
The sheikh read it and looked ashamed. He said, after a moment’s pause, “We are sorry. This will not happen again. You are my brother. If anyone comes to kill you, it will be my neck first.” The sheikh even attended Thomas’ ordination as the pastor.
“No one is expecting the situation to improve for the better quickly,” Thomas told Compass, “but we believe that God is moving in these times, and that the future will be more peaceful, especially if Christians will befriend good Muslims and work together.”
Copyright 2005 Compass Direct. Used by permission. Compass Direct, a news service based in Santa Ana, Calif., focuses on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith.