A Report on the Iraqi Church from The Ground
About 2-3 times a year, I have been asked to join another pastor or two from an organization that works with the churches in the Middle East.
From Iraq to Egypt to Lebanon, there has been a special work happening with the large and small churches that has been nothing short of amazing.
While this organization has been known to help financially with humanitarian aide, the heart behind this organization is to strengthen the pastor’s and encourage them to continue in their calling.
In 2009 we saw the churches grow in Iraq and we estimated that there were over 60 evangelical churches throughout the country.
Today there are less than 30 and that number is dwindling.
Between ISIS, Assad, and many in their own government, persecution of the Christian Church is rampant and pastor’s are leaving at an alarming rate.
Churches are closing their doors and this is a huge problem.
The reason that this is such a problem is because even though pastor’s are leaving and churches are closing, the people are hungry for the Lord. The refugees from Syria, Mosul, Baghdad and other regions are desperate to belong to something that isn’t lying to them, threatening them or persecuting them.
This is one of the reasons that we went to Iraq a couple of weeks ago.
There are relationships that have developed and grown over the last decade with some of the “pillars” of the faith and those who so far haven’t wavered.
Now they are starting to waver.
Now they are beginning to wonder if they can continue.
If they leave just like the many other’s who have already left, who will be there for the church? As a pastor, the idea of sheep not having a shepherd is heart wrenching.
One of the pastor’s that we have worked with the longest is a man in his mid 30’s. This man pastors a church of several hundred. The congregation is a mix of Iraqi locals, Syrian refugees and refugees from Mosul and Baghdad. He has a wonderful wife and three beautiful children. We sat in a meeting with him and his eyes began to tear up. He shared that his wife wants to take the kids and leave him because of fear. He explained that her family who lives in Sweden have been telling her that if her husband truly loved them, he would get them out of harm’s way. He went on to say he understands the way his wife feels but his struggle is that he loves the church. He believes that God has called him to be where he is and the idea of leaving the church breaks his heart. I sat in front of this man of God and watched his shoulders drop and his entire countenance change. It was painful to see. What could we say? How could we possibly help this man who is torn between his family and his calling?
There’s another challenge that we heard about from several pastors.
There are many Muslims who have converted to Christianity as a result of a dream or vision.
This is no small number of conversions. It is not unusual to hear of a Muslim seeing Jesus in a vision and as a result, are walking away from Islam. While we may all agree that this is good thing, it presents many problems. First, when family members and friends learn of the conversion, they immediately disown the new born again believer. In some cases, there are death threats. This creates a huge problem for the churches as the congregation is not necessarily “thrilled” at the idea that someone who could have been a threat to their faith and even their own lives wants to now fellowship where they fellowship. How do we minister to the pastor’s who are dealing with this?
House churches are popping up throughout Erbil. These are typically Syrian or refugees from Mosul who desperately want fellowship and to hear God’s word. I was blessed to be able to share and pray in one of these house churches. The stories of the escapes, the rapes, the murders of family members is horrendous. The pastor’s that we work with are doing all that they can to come to the house churches and shepherd these folks but the numbers are staggering of those who are crying out for help from a pastor. We don’t have much to offer in the way of a solution to this growing problem.
We had scheduled a trip to Dohuk from Ankawa. Our driver told us that he couldn’t take us on the day we wanted to go but he could take us a day earlier. We were able to change our meetings and appointments to make it work for us. A full day was spent meeting and praying with pastor’s in the region of Dohuk. Some of these men we have known for years and some were meetings set up to introduce ourselves. At around 5 pm, we received a call from a close friend who operates a large IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp, that a bomb just went off next to our hotel and he was very concerned for our safety. I immediately contacted Michael (yes, PP Michael), and asked him to find out what was going on and if it was going to be safe to travel back to Ankawa. Michael and my wife were able to give us enough information that we were confident in making the three hour drive back. While driving back to Ankawa, we realized that it was likely that had we made the drive to Dohuk when we wanted to, there was a good chance that we would have been at the cafe directly across the street from the American Consulate building which was the target of the attack. We know that God protected us this day and there was nothing but peace in our hearts.
The attack on Ankawa by ISIS was the first ever in this city and this just added to the chaos that is already being experienced by all those who just want to live peaceably while enjoying their new lives as Christians.
My experience in missions has always been in disaster relief. God has allowed me to serve in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Sudan and specifically in Darfur and other places where Christians are treated horribly. The difference between these countries and Iraq is that there was always something tangible that we could do to help. We could provide shelter, food, medicine, clean water, Doctor’s or any else that could ease the pain and suffering. What I see in Iraq is different. There is only one thing that could help in this country and that is prayer. Sending pastors won’t be received well and outsider’s are not easily trusted. They don’t need money. These people have jobs, money, homes and all they really want is Jesus and a church.
I love these people and will go back whenever I am asked to. I was asked to teach at the largest church in Ankawa and it was an honor and a privilege. It was humbling and seemed like a waste of time to even try to give a message knowing of the pain and suffering that these people have endured.
This is what we concluded from this recent visit.
God loves these people and He loves His church.
He has allowed situations like many times in the O.T. where there is nothing that anyone but He Himself can change. No amount of money will make the problem go away. There is no shortage of those providing aid. The Kurds are protecting the people from ISIS as much as possible and doing a great job. What is needed is prayer. I hope that this article prompts you to pray. Jesus died for these folks just like He did for you and I and we can learn from their desire to grow in The Lord, to worship and to remain faithful in what God has provided. Please also pray for the pastor’s. These men are afraid, they are tired and they are feeling the pressure to leave.