Traveling to Iraq in late September for a pastors' conference and groundbreaking for a new cultural center in the Dohuk Province of Iraqi's Kurdistan, I had a lot to ponder. In 2003, I had been invited to cover an effort by Southern Baptists to take food packages to Baghdad. That trip was diverted just days before when the hotel where the United Nations set up shop was bombed in August of 2003.
Looking calmly out at the lights of Baghdad as our plane headed north to Erbil, I wondered at the security issues there--and the believers I knew who might cautiously make their way to the conference where I was headed with a team from Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola.
I quickly learned not a lot has changed in Baghdad security-wise since 2003, according to a pair of pastors I interviewed. In fact, for evangelical Christians it's been a mixed bag throughout Iraq.
While the thought of an "Arab Spring" might be empowering for some, for many believers in Iraq it leaves feelings of ambivalence when combined with the planned withdrawal of the American military by the end of this year.
Surprisingly, two pastors from Baghdad, said, however, they predict the withdrawal won't have an impact at all. "As we speak in Baghdad, we don't see their presence," pastor Sammy Thompson* said. "The defect is in Iraqis, the defect is in our people."
Amazingly, a Christian family from Mosul agreed. Not mincing words, a Christian mom blurted out that armed gangs of young men are roaming the streets and terrorizing people. One of her sons, 22, who had secreted his parents to Dohuk to meet someone at the conference, confirmed that these gangs prey in large part on Christians--but really don't discriminate in doing mischief to anyone who happens to get in their way. (More on the pastors from Baghdad and the family from Mosul in the Oct. 27 Florida Baptist Witness.)
The problems in Baghdad have been complicated, Thompson said--especially for believers--in that with the new freedoms have come political infighting and a lack of structure for young men who are now unemployed. Prior to 2003 all of the men were drafted into the Army for 15 years, Thompson and others said. This provided young men with jobs and a pension afterwards.
Now with few jobs--a fluctuating infrastructure--and an even more inhospitable work environment for Christians, it's nearly impossible for young men to gain employment, Thompson said.
Thompson said his evangelical church has grown from 30 to 300 since it began in 2003 amidst the "war of killing and bombing," after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It now has a building with a cross and a name. But that visibility has come with a price. Islamic groups uncomfortable with the growth have left threatening phone calls and sent letters telling the pastor they will "slaughter him" and are watching his family. "We are always careful and we know somebody's watching us," he said.
Weaker than the "traditional" [Assyrian and Chaldean] churches, the pastor, who is currently working with Nabeeh Abbassi of the Jordan Baptist Convention, to bring his church into the handful of Baptist churches in Iraq, said, "we try to get help but nobody interferes to help us. These churches need encouragement because our work is the same as God's work."
There's no doubt that God is at work in Iraq in a very visible way and that the remnant of believers there has captured the hearts of many who are supporting new work. The Grace Baptist Cultural Center in Dohuk--a partnership between Iraqi, Jordanian, Brazilian, American, and Lebanese Baptists--is being built with the blessing of Iraqi Kurdistan's Regional Government, who donated the $2 million property.
The land is in the same village, Simele, where in 1933 an estimated 6,000 Assyrians and Chaldeans were slaughtered by the Iraqi government following the withdrawal of British troops from the region after a treaty granting Iraq's independence in 1930.
It has been anticipated that as many as 50 percent of Iraq's Assyrians have left the country since 2003, with some 400,000 living in the United States. But for those who stay, let's suppose they are the "Christian remnant," such as R.S. Stafford referred to Iraq Assyrians in his 1935 book, The Tragedy of the Assyrians.
Stafford, a British officer who served in Iraq for six years beginning in 1933, wrote a thorough account of the 1933 Simele massacre, as he saw it, and in the preface of his book notes what he calls a "a veil of secrecy" surrounding the mass killings and an entirely inaccurate accounting by the press. "Comparatively few people in England were aware of the existence of the Assyrians in Iraq," Stafford notes.
Indeed. Nearly 80 years later, I'm not sure many of us in the western world were aware of the remnant that remains still.
And as each Iraqi believer shared that their primary prayer concern is for safety--one thought continued to drive me. We must pray. We must pray for the remnant secreted away or visible. They are the hands and feet of Christ in a land where they face extinction.
I don't know the answers to the political problems plaguing Iraq, but I do know that our people need our prayers and support.
The week I returned from what I told my grandchildren was a "land far away," I received an email from pastor Thompson.
"Our last meeting was a great blessing and honor for us. Your cheerful smile gave us tranquility and love; we returned to our service thanking the Lord for you and your love," it read it part.
What a tremendous blessing to support our brothers and sisters in Iraq. Please remember to pray.
By Joni B. Hannigan
* Name changed for security.