Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Church in Northern Iraq, I

It is my understanding that fifteen or twenty years ago, there were no known Christians among the Kurds in Iraq (or anywhere else, for that matter). There were churches among them: the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, otherwise known in the West as the "Nestorian" Church or, simply, the "Church of the East." However, you'll get an idea of what this "presence" meant (and means even today) in a moment.

In the first city our group visited, we had the privilege of meeting with a group of about 12 MBBs--Muslim-background believers-in-Christ plus one Yezidi . The group included three or four women and eight or nine men, Farsi-speaking Iranians and Kurdish-speaking Iraqis. I believe one or two members were from the non-Kurdish, Arabic-speaking population as well. In other words, an astonishingly diverse group, all things considered. One of the women, an Iranian, found herself stuck in northern Iraq when she came to faith in Christ and realized she could not return "home."

How did these people come to faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior? Obviously, through different means. But dreams and visions played a significant role for many of them. One man, a member of the Iraqi Army, said he realized God intended something for him (and wanted something--his life!--from him, when he was once hit by three machine gun bullets in an ambush. The bullets knocked him down. And, in falling, he broke his leg. But he survived the assault.

Later, while not yet recovered from his broken leg, an officer a couple of ranks up from him asked to see him.

"Are you [so-and-so]?"


"And you say you survived an assault with a ______ machine gun?"

"Yes, sir."

"That is impossible!"

"Sir. . . . "

"You were wearing a bullet-proof vest, but we have since done tests. We placed a vest in front of a wall and fired bullets at it from the same distance from which you were shot. --The bullets not only penetrated the vest. They went through the wall as well!" [As I will show in another post, all buildings in northern Iraq and eastern Turkey are built of poured concrete and solid concrete blocks. If the bullets went through one of those walls, I can understand why the officer would have no faith that the subject of this story would still be standing in front of him.]
Our group went to a second city where the agency that sponsored our trip was actually decommissioning a team: a Kurdish church is so well-established, they are sponsoring their own church planting efforts; it is time for the missionaries to do something else.

Our experience in this second city was quite enlightening.

Three years ago, while another group like the one I was with was present, the Kurdish leaders of the church said they wanted to register with the government and build a church building.

You have to understand: there is no way a Western missionary would suggest such behavior. But when the nationals say they want to do something, what are the Westerners supposed to say?

"Go for it!" they said. And prayed wildly that God might grant the Kurdish believers favor with the government.

Completely unexpectedly, but with great joy, the Kurdish church leaders came back to report that they had acquired the license. And now, during our trip, we got to see the building they had erected. Located immediately behind an Chaldean Catholic Church, the Kurdzman [i.e., Kurdish Language: i.e., unmistakably, "Muslim converts"] Church of Christ building can easily hold over 150 worshipers.

Now for the "funny" part.

For many years prior to the erection of the building, Kurds would visit the Chaldean Catholic Church and ask to learn about Christianity.

"Why do you want to know about Christianity?" the priest would ask. "Islam is a fine religion! Stick with Islam. You do not need to know about Christianity!"

There were strong reasons for the priest to discourage inquiry. As noted elsewhere, the minority Christian population, though tolerated, is at risk of severe retribution if the majority Muslim population takes offense at its behavior. --And contributing to the potential "ruin" of a Muslim's faith is clearly the kind of behavior for which the Muslim population could readily take offense.

So the Chaldean Christians sought to keep Muslim inquirers out.
[NOTE: People comment that "the church is already present" in an area. "Why do we need missionaries?" --The experiences I have just summarized ought to provide at least a beginning answer to the questions: "Because many of the churches that are 'already present' in so many parts of the world are more creatures of ethnic and political realities than strong witnesses to the redeeming power of Christ."

One of the Kurdzman Church leaders urged us: "Pray that God will raise up more Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic Christians who are willing to rise up against the prejudices and fears that currently hold them back from witnessing to their Muslim neighbors."]
But now that the Kurdzman church has appeared, the Chaldean priest has been pleased to send Kurdish inquirers to the Kurdzman Church: "Oh! You want to know about Christianity? . . . Go to the Kurdzman Church," he says. "That is the church for you."

And the Kurdish seeker knows the priest is telling the truth. And the Kurdzman church leaders are grateful for the Chaldean Catholic priest who send the inquirers their way. And the Chaldean Catholic priest is grateful for the Kurdzman Church of Christ that takes the potential problems off his hands. . . .
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