By Stefan J. Bos,
Special Correspondent, ASSIST News Service reporting from Iraq
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (ANS) -- Iraqi Christians who have become targets of attacks by Muslim extremists and bandits are risking their lives to attend church services, ASSIST News Service (ANS) has established.
They race through the streets to reach their destinations every Sunday as an increasing number of believers have been killed or wounded in Muslim violence against Christian shops and Christian women refusing to wear scarves, believers and church officials say.
Yet born again Christians, including church leaders and missionary workers, suggest Iraq is heading towards its biggest spiritual revival ever after decades of fear and hardship during the regime of Saddam Hussein.
They report that amid ongoing death and destruction both religious Christians and Muslims are accepting Christ as their "Personal Savior and Lord" daily throughout the country, even in Kurdish controlled areas.
HUNGRY FOR CHRIST
"People are hungry for Christ," says Iraqi pastor Ghassan Thomas (33) who in the past used his kindergarten as a vehicle to share the Gospel. Speaking in his office with explosions and shooting often audible, he recalls how "the regime of Saddam Hussein did not allow the establishment" of new denominations.
"Therefore I was involved in an indirect ministry through the kindergarten, as I did not get permission to officially operate and evangelize. However people soon came to me and said: "this is like a church."
With American soldiers in town, he was finally able to realize his dream and open his Evangelical Alliance Church this month. Less than two weeks later, his congregation can hardly accommodate the hundreds of people that are attending its meetings in the rented church building.
The Hallelujahâ€™s and Amenâ€™s reverberate throughout the small, but lively congregation, as Pastor Thomas explains the hope of Christ. Among those in the audience are Christians who were forced to fight in the army of Saddam Hussein.
GULF WAR VETERAN
"I came to Christ shortly before the Gulf War," says 33-year old Nova Hagopian, a former soldier who plays the keyboard and piano in the church. "Even during the war I knew that God protected me. I was not against the Americans and very happy they were there," the muscled musician says.
"My unit even tried to surrender to U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. But it was too dangerous because of land mines. We finally managed to withdraw and to escape..." Christians from other churches have similar stories, as they recall how they were forced to fight against Iran and later Kuwait.
They have one thing in common: the faith that "the Lord" saved their lives. "I fought in a medical unit in the Baghdad area," says 27-year old Emil Sorian, an Armenian Catholic Christians. "I managed to leave the unit, just a week before the fall of Baghdad," he recalls. "God protected me and I was able to hide with my uncle."
â€œLOVINGâ€ SADDAM HUSSEIN
But that does not mean these Christians hate Saddam Hussein. "We love Saddam Hussein," explains 32-year old Maral Manuel, who "accepted Christ" at the tender age of 18. "The Bible says we should respect and pray for our president. I would love to see Saddam Hussein in out church. I would tell him that God loves him and that Christ can forgive his sins," she says.
Unlike some other Iraqis, Evangelical Alliance Church members did not celebrate the death of Saddam Hussein's eldest sons, who were killed by U.S. forces. "We never prayed for the downfall of the regime. But if God allowed it to happen, than that is good," explains Manuel.
She travels to the congregation in a special bus arranged by the church, as shootings and attacks nearby the congregation has made it to dangerous for believers to travel alone. In the last few days a record number of Iraqis and American soldiers were killed, since President George W. Bush declared an end to "major hostilities."
CHURCHES FEAR RADICALS
Churches are concerned that especially radicals within the Shiite Muslim majority will step up the pressure on Iraqâ€™s roughly one million Christians, who make up less than 5 percent of the population.
Yet Manuel believes that hardship has given an extra impulse for Iraqis to visit church and accept Jesus Christ. "We need prayer, but I also think that other European countries need prayer. While our churches are increasing, European churches lose members," Manuel explains.
More traditional churches are also reporting a high attendance rate. Many of the 2000-strong Armenian Catholic Church in Baghdad for instance are visiting their five year old building every week to pray, says its Priest and Patriarchal Vicar Antoine Atamian.
â€œNEW LIFEâ€ BAPTIZED
He welcomes in "a new life, a new member" as he baptizes a nine months old baby Rita Malayan. "It [is] about the hope we have of a better future." Her proud parents watch anxiously as Atamian prays with her in the old Armenian dialect of modern Armenia.
"We wanted to baptize Rita earlier, but it was too dangerous to go to the church because of the shootings," says her 38-year old mother Iman Beyouth. Because of the security situation, the church was forced to scrap its evening service.
Some Iraqi Christians have suggested the U.S. military should bring back the many soldiers and police who were dismissed shortly after the downfall of the regime. â€œThey better understand the situation here,â€ says Catholic Christian, Zuhir Ibrahim (47) who guards a house he says was mistakenly raided by American marines.
The bullet holes and other damage of the raid are apparently still visible in several doors. â€œFor five days they were holding us because they were looking for suspected regime members. Yet I have become great friends with the marines, who asked forgiveness for what they didâ€
But there is another reason why some Christians suggest bringing back at least some of the previous security forces may not be a bad idea.
"Unfortunately many Christians are in need of food as they have no job. Others have physical needs," explains Pastor Thomas, married with two children. "It is my prayer that Jesus Christ will meet both the spiritual and physical needs of Iraqi Christians."