DOHUK, Iraq -- Just as the sun was rising in the west Sept. 29, a new day dawned in Iraqi Kurdistan as Governor Tamar Ramadhan gave Baptists two acres of land worth $2 million for the Grace Baptist Cultural Center--a multi-phase project including a medical clinic, school, athletic facility, church building and seminary in the town of Simele. Standing in for Ramadhan, Gurgis Shlaymun, the deputy governor of Kurdistan's Regional Government in Dohuk, joined a team from Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola, along with Iraqi, Jordanian and Brazilian Baptists and other evangelical Christians at an hour-long ceremony prior to cementing the top on an engraved, marble cornerstone marking the new property. Shlaymun, an Assyrian Christian first elected to his post in the Muslim majority government in 2005, delivered remarks at a community center near the undeveloped property in the growing village of Simele. In the Duhok Province of Iraqi's Kurdistan, Simele is on the main road of an agricultural plain about 10 miles from the Turkish border. This city has a tragic history concerning Assyrian Christians. In 1800, Christian inhabitants of the village of Simele were forced from their homes and massacred by local radicals. In 1933, after Assyrians and Chaldeans again found refuge and settled in the fertile valley, an estimated 3,000 were slaughtered by the Iraqi government following the withdrawal of British troops from the region in light of a treaty granting Iraq's independence in 1930. Under a banner bearing a colorful map of Iraq's regions marked with a cross and open hands at the spot of the new facilities in Simele, Shlaymun smiled at the gathering of about 100 local officials and Christians and extended a special greeting for those from afar. "The people of Dohuk love their guests," Shlaymun said. "Today, you are the children of Iraq." Noting the involvement of Baptist groups from various nations, Shlaymun praised each for serving the people of Dohuk by taking interest in "each family, in each sickness" so future generations will be well served. "This is our duty to introduce the land for this project, this is our duty to service this project," he said. Recognizing Iraqi Baptist Pastor Dr. Farouk Hammo, a project leader who shares a personal history with Gov. Ramadhan, Shlaymun said, "Our purpose and your purpose is to make a good generation." Shlaymun, a deacon in the Assyrian Church of the East, spoke openly about the spiritual dimension of the center. "Jesus said your light will be shined through the people to see your works and glorify your Father in the Heaven," Shlaymun said. "That is what Jesus Christ said in the Bible. And this Jesus did not speak specifically about man, but for all the world. This will be for all." Shlaymun pledged his support for the project and thanked the leaders. "You understand this project is from God," he said urging continued unity. "We must be all united to glorify God," Deputy Governor Shlaymun concluded. "As we are united today here, we need to be united." A HISTORIC DAY FOR IRAQ Dr. Nabeeh Abbassi, immediate past president of the Jordan Baptist Convention and pastor of West Amman Baptist Church, brought greetings from Baptists worldwide on behalf of the Baptist World Alliance and the European Baptist Federation of which the Baptist churches in Iraq are a part. "We stand with you on the roots of a shared civilization and history," Abbassi said. "We are genuinely rooted; our evangelical churches are part of the whole. We are a small slice or number within you, but large within its allegiance and dreams. We are also part of an even larger slice, the community of indigenous Christians in Iraq." "The history of the Baptist church of Iraq is still being written," he said. Abbassi, who is also the provost at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, said he is thankful to God for the "unique Kurdish leadership" for providing security and comfort. Because of the leadership, people from all backgrounds, in spite of their differences and political parties or religious beliefs "live with tolerance," he said. "We pray that God will protect the Iraq people and leadership," Abbassi said. "We walk with you on the same path. Our prayers follow you with all that you do to improve the future of Iraq and the Kurdistan region to include its achievements towards a greater horizon." Lively, traditional music by Iraqi songwriter and performer Firas and a group from the Mama Ayser School in Baghdad underscored the festive nature of the event, while a play depicting the church and its relation to Christ looked prophetically towards communicating the Gospel through the arts. A DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT BRINGS CHANGE Dr. Brian Barlow, missions pastor at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola and a former Southern Baptist worker in the Middle East, said in his remarks the educators at the new school would have the responsibility to teach "the universal principles of kindness, respect, compassion, human rights, charity, dignity, equality, and peaceful co-existence among every Kurd, Assyrian, Arab, Chaldean, Turkmen, Syriac, and Armenian." A former superintendent of the Baptist School in Amman, Jordan, known as one of the crown jewels of the Middle East, Barlow said the community should welcome every "Muslim, Christian and Yezidi," because the center has as its main focus the role "to educate the children of Kurdistan, of Iraq--to see all others as neighbors, and to learn to love their neighbors as they love themselves and their own families." Acknowledging informed people throughout the world know Kurdistan has become a refuge for thousands fleeing violence in other parts of Iraq and in countries nearby, Barlow said developing the project was "a way to say to those who come in the future, 'we cared.'" Noting the people of Kurdistan, through their elected government officials, made a major contribution by donating the land for the center, Barlow said he is thankful for the partnership. "This is a great example of how a good, democratic government, freely elected, can bring about positive, progressive change, and make life better for the entire community," he said. GREAT COMMISSION UNITY A local pastor from Brazil who will oversee the project in Simele, thanked the partners for their participation and charged them with the Great Commission. "When one of us has a victory in the Word of God, all of us has a victory. We must help each other, from Jordan, from Iraq, from Brazil, from America [and also from Lebanon]--we must help each other to preach the Gospel in all the world," he said passionately in Arabic. "We must work together to preach the Gospel." A large group of Brazilian Baptist workers, who are lead partners in the project, later presented Shlaymun a gift representing their beloved Brazil--a soccer jersey similar to those worn by many of the musicians. Stepping to the podium with a gentle smile, Hammo, pastor of The National Evangelical Church in Baghdad, talked about the dream God had put in his heart and the hearts of others to see such a center established in Iraq. "Our God had a dream. We see this promise from God in Isaiah 19:25, 'Blessed the work of my hand, Iraq,'" Hammo said. "Thanks for our God and for His plan for us." Hammo and his sister Busha Hammo, together for the first time in 10 years, blended beautifully to sing an Arabic rendition of the Christian hymn, "How Great Thou Art." Jim Locke, senior pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola, before delivering a prayer of dedication, read from Psalm 127: "Unless the Lord builds a house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain." CEMENTING A DREAM At the site of the new center, a large sign showed an architectural rendering of a modern 2-building complex with a 4-story building, a 2-story building, an athletic court, and a parking lot. The first phase of the facility slated for completion in 2012 is a clinic for women and children who traditionally have limited healthcare options in the Middle East. Deputy Governor Shlaymun, responding to remarks about the clinic, told Florida Baptist Witness it is imperative people in the region put their differences behind them in order to advance. "What you are doing is giving hope for the future of Iraq and for that we are thankful," Shlaymun said, joking that he has been married for 44 years and he not only respects his wife, but he is afraid of her--in contrast to the traditional cultural view in the Middle East that limits the role of women. Shlaymun followed Locke, Abbassi, Hammo, and others, in using a trowel to pack cement inside and on top of a 4-ft. high cornerstone with the words, first in Arabic and then in English, declaring the groundbreaking: "By the Grace of God and presence of Governor of Duhok, Dear Tamar Ramadan." Afterwards, as Shlaymun brushed cement from his suit coat before leaving, Barlow and Locke gathered other members of their team from Hillcrest--Tom Jenkins, a deacon who will be working in Jordan beginning next year; Dale Simmons, a deacon and Sunday School teacher; and J.R. Butler, a young man who left his job in Florida to teach at a school in Jordan last year--to walk to the center of the property. With the high sun glaring at them from above the mountaintops, in a place where for centuries hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled for sanctuary, the men encircled each other and bowed their heads to cry out to God. "We asked the Lord to consecrate the ground to be used for His glory," Locke said later, reflecting on that historic moment on the rocky soil. "The heart and soul of our prayer was that God would use that property and the facilities that would be developed on it as tools for righteousness--that the Gospel of Christ might have a platform to be shared in that important part of the world."
Translation of Arabic speakers Gurgis Shlaymun and Farouk Hammo by Dr. Ma'an Sheet, a professor at the University of Dohuk and pastor of a local Methodist church. Dr. Nabeeh Abbassi provided translation for his remarks from Arabic into English, and provided translation for Shlaymun's response to Florida Baptist Witness at the cornerstone site in Simele.