Friday, July 15, 2005
By BosNewsLife News Center
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife) -- Evangelical churches are experiencing an unprecedented revival between death and destruction in Iraq, a Christian news agency reported following an investigation in the area. Compass Direct, which was monitored by BosNewsLife Monday, July 11, said especially Iraqi Kurdistan is becoming increasingly a haven for Christian activity as the two rival Kurdish governments grow in their toleration of Muslims becoming Christians. 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, claimed Compass Direct, which investigates the plight of persecuted Christians.
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 Direct. “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."
In an earlier interview with BosNewsLife the pastor stressed he saw now reason to leave Iraq as "this was the best time to speak with people about Jesus Christ." 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 Direct reported.
"Muslims too want peace," Thomas said. "Many of them are frightened. When the hostages are killed, often a Quranic 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." Many Christians race through the streets between shooting to gather for Sunday services in often packed churches, a BosNewsLife team established earlier in Baghdad.
As Southern Iraq is deemed too dangerous for foreign Christian workers, most have pulled back to the more stable Iraqi Kurdistan, Compass Direct said. However some Christians BosNewsLife spoke have also warned of attacks against believers by Muslim radicals in Kurdistan.
More than four 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, including Christians, are reportedly flooding back. A leading pastor of the Kurdish Evangelical Church, a denomination in the north comprising Kurdish and Arabic Christians, told Compass Direct he saw a better future ahead for different religious groups.
"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," he added. Some human rights groups have cautioned however that much will depend on how the government will deal with Islamic extremists and the ongoing insurgency.
Yet Matty’s churches have a few hundred members, from both Muslim and Christian backgrounds. He 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 has also welcomed other Christian Non Governmental Organizations, Compass Direct added.
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 was quoted as saying.
"That will not change any time 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 Kurds, who represent 25 percent of the Iraqi population, is important to the future of the country, analysts say. Iraq's President Jalal 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, Compass Direct said.
Nestorian Bishop Issac of Dohuk predicted the Kurds would 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," he told Compass Direct
The news agency claimed that many of the 40,000 or so Christians who fled after a spate of bombings last August have returned to the country, although some human rights groups still maintain that many are staying outside Iraq.
The numbers of those still in refugee camps in Jordan and Syria remain significant -- perhaps 10,000, though precise figures are not available, Compass Direct claimed.
NOT WORLD'S END
"It’s not the end of the world that so many Christians have fled, 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," Bishop Issac reportedly said.
Yet 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 stressed 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, Compass Direct established.
In addition patience has run out with United States and British forces’ failure to restore stability after two years in the country, a pastor was quoted as saying. “No population will support an army that cannot protect it -- the goodwill has completely gone.”
Middle class Christians are also 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.
TROUBLE AND STRIFE
Evangelical churches have also been criticized by leaders of more traditional dominations.
In Baghdad, a priest from the Chaldean Catholics allegedly 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 reportedly described evangelical congregations as "part of a Jewish conspiracy to control Iraq."
Observers have warned that although the evangelicals are skilled in evangelism which include radio programs and book stores, the church is young and immature.
Some church leaders see the splitting of evangelical churches into many new (and often foreign-backed) denominations as an indication of disunity. And 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 meeting in April was guardedly optimistic.
A pastor of one of 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."
Yet even when conflicts are at their sharpest, Pastor Thomas spoke of "hopeful" signs. He recalled 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."
BIBLES AND MEDICINES
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 eventually taken to meet the leader, and he introduced himself as a pastor.
"We respect you," the sheikh allegedly said. Thomas said, "Christians have love for you, because God is love, our God is a God of love." Again the sheikh apparently replied,
"We respect your God. We respect Jesus."
This was the opening Thomas had been praying for, he told Compass Direct. He said, "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 reportedly even attended Thomas’s ordination as the pastor.
"No one is expecting the situation to improve for the better quickly," Thomas told Compass Direct. "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." (With Compass Direct and reports from Iraq. Stefan J. Bos and Agnes R. Bos contributed to the story).