Reformed Churches in Iraq

[Note: This article was written before the war]

Until recently most Christians were not aware of the presence of Christian churches in Iraq. It is possible that few Western Christians are conscious of the presence of Reformed churches there. Yet, biblical Christianity in Iraq goes back to the second half of the first century AD.

The land of the Tigris and Euphrates was Abram the Hebrew's birthplace. His wife, Sarah, and his son Isaac's wife, Rebecca, were also from there. Jacob also went back there in search of a good wife. He ended up marrying Leah and Rachael, his cousins, daughters of Laban, his mother's brother.

The Assyrians and Babylonians exiled the Israelites there. It was there that the people of God experienced a spiritual awakening under leaders like Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Haggai. The concept of gathering in simple meeting places called synagogues to study the Scriptures sprang up there and spread among the rest of the Jewish communities in Palestine and elsewhere. From there the exiles returned by the Lord's mighty hand refreshed and blessed by the presence of a vibrant believing remnant. They rebuilt the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. For several hundred years afterwards they were prepared for the coming of the promised seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham through whom all families of the earth would be blessed.

Archeological evidence points to the conversion to the Christian faith of many Jews who remained in Mesopotamia during the first century. The Jewish communities there did not enjoy the same level of influence they had in the Mediterranean lands. Synagogues were turned into Christian meeting places, which gradually were remodeled and became elaborate liturgical church buildings. It was not long before the entire area became predominantly 'Christian'. The early Christian communities there did not seem to have had much pressure from local authorities or followers of other faiths. Even before the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the Christian communities there enjoyed much freedom and were spared the kind of persecution endured by other Christians elsewhere during the first three Christian centuries.

The quality of the Christian faith in Iraq seems to have declined as fast as the number of its adherents increased. The Church in Iraq was more quickly invaded by unbiblical doctrines and practices and more speedily divided than in other lands in the region. Mesopotamia became a strong base for Nestorianism and the anti-Chalcedon rebellion. Hierarchical and other forms of power struggles among the clergy sometimes led to violent clashes and to deep and lasting divisions among Christians. This coupled with an increased distancing of the people from the reading and the study of the Bible led the faithful to rely more and more on the clergy. They, in turn, lost sight of the ministry of the Word and the saving grace of God in Christ.

One can read or hear many heroic stories of 'Christian' warriors who fought the Mongols, the Muslims and the Ottomans. History, however, does not testify to the presence of spiritually vibrant leaders like Daniel or Zerubbabel in those lands which now are called Iraq. Spiritual decline led to loss of vision. Divisions among Christians led to political as well as religious disasters. The Muslim armies did not have much difficulty in subduing most of the country. Christians were quickly forced to seek refuge in the mountainous north. Even then they were spared complete annihilation only because of the inter Muslim conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shiites.

Despite the internal weaknesses of the Church and the external threats to its existence, there continued to be a significant Christian minority in Iraq. Until the early part of the twentieth century, Christians constituted about 30% of the Iraqi population. Immigration and other demographic factors have reduced the numbers to less than 8% at the present time. For the most part they belong to various ethnic and linguistic branches of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. There are Chaldeans, Assyrians, Romans and Armenians in both groups. In addition, there is the ancient Nestorian Orthodox Church a portion of which migrated eastward and settled in southern India. There they gained some Indian converts and have survived until this day.

Still, Iraq's 'Christian' communities have, throughout the centuries, had small groups of lay people and clergy deeply interested in the study of the Bible. The traditional churches for the most part, unlike others in the West prior to the Protestant reformation, did not discourage the people from the study of the Bible. This made the job of Reformed missionaries far easier as they began their endeavours of Gospel proclamation in 1836. Reformed witness in Iraq and the Arabian Gulf was established as a joint endeavour between the American immigrant German Reformed Churches at the time called 'Reformed Churches in the USA' and the main Dutch immigrant churches called 'Reformed Church in America'. Both denominations were committed to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith and the Great Commission. (The RCUSA, however, drifted to liberalism and ecumenism and later became part of what is now called United Church of Christ. A small remnant remained faithful and is now called the RCUS. The RCA still exists and has many faithful Reformed and missionary-oriented people.)

Reformed mission work in Iraq proved to be very effective from the start. In less than five years, a congregation was organized in the northeastern in the city of Mosul. In 1840 a church building was erected for the use of the young congregation. Later another congregation was established about 15 miles from the first one, in a smaller town. The work continued to advance to the south and west. Congregations were organized in Kirkkuk, Baghdad and Basra, with several preaching stations throughout the country. Just like in other Arabic-speaking countries the churches have been called 'Evangelical'. Presbyterian and Reformed missions recognized that such an identification with the 'evangel'(Gospel) would not only give the right impression of the churches as Gospel-preaching and Gospel-based, but also solved the problem of having to use terms like 'Presbyterian' or 'Reformed' which do not translate well into Arabic. So, the term 'Evangelical' in the Middle East does not mean just being generally evangelical. Now, if you hear of 'Evangelical' churches in the Middle East, you would be hearing of the Presbyterian or Reformed ones. At least local people understand that.

For the most part the mission concentrated on work among the majority who were Arabic-speaking. This proved to be very wise; thus the newly founded churches did not seem to be a deliberate effort to convert those who belong to the ancient ethnic churches. It also meant that the congregations could be more easily identified as national Arab churches. Still, there were also successful efforts among the Assyrian and Armenian communities.

The emphasis of the mission was on a balanced combination of evangelism and church planting. The Continental Heidelberg Catechism was Arabized from an English translation and used as the main means of preparing new believers for church membership. The mission wisely determined to recognize any baptisms performed in the name of the Triune God. They took a clear stand against re-baptizing converts from the ancient churches. In time, all the native churches adopted the Reformed translation of the Bible into Arabic as their own. This in itself was one of the greatest and the most far-reaching achievements of Presbyterian and Reformed missions in the Muslim world.

For some unknown reasons, however, the missionaries did not give enough attention to training local pastors and other church officers. Unlike Presbyterian missionary endeavours in countries like Egypt, the Sudan, Lebanon, Iran and Syria, the Reformed missions in Iraq and the Arabian Gulf region allowed the expatriate missionaries to stay on as pastors of the local congregations for many years. This meant that, when missionaries were no longer able to pastor the indigenous churches, congregations were unable to maintain a steady and stable existence. The larger ones in the main cities were able to wait for and finally received trained Egyptian pastors. Others never recovered. The momentum of the mission ultimately lost its upward trend by the beginning of World War II. In the seventies and eighties, the congregations in Baghdad and Basra enjoyed good pastoral leadership by the steady ministries of two faithful Egyptian Presbyterian undershepherds. The congregation in Kirkkuk did not have effective pastoral care in recent years except for a brief period in the early nineties.

From the beginning it was not difficult to gain government recognition for these Reformed congregations. In the sixties, however, some visiting non-Reformed preachers introduced dispensationalist eschatological teachings with pro-Israeli overtones. This caused a great deal of turmoil to the churches and led to the imprisonment of several people including one of the pastors. By the Lord's grace, the churches have been able to withstand those difficulties and ably proved to the authorities that they advocate biblical loyalty to the authorities divinely ordained over the country. For over twenty years, the Reformed churches of Iraq have enjoyed much freedom. This might surprise many; but the Iraqi authorities have been quite helpful to all Christian churches including the Reformed ones. Christians enjoy a lot more religious freedom in Iraq than many other countries in the region, including Turkey, Israel and Kuwait. One of the elders of the congregation in Baghdad recently put it this way: 'In Iraq you can legally and freely do anything religious as long as it is not mix with politics and so far as it does not endanger the social stability of the community.'

In recent years, Reformed believers in Iraq have experienced the same difficulties as other Iraqi citizens. The last Gulf war devastated the economic superstructure of the nation. The US led air bombardment did not spare one sector of the economy. Most industrial sites were destroyed. The rest have not had the spare parts or raw materials necessary for continued operation. The harsh United Nations embargo and sanctions have made it very difficult for the people to return to living a normal life. Many Reformed people lost their jobs or businesses and have not been able to provide for their families. Some have resorted to selling houses, other properties and even household effects to provide food or medicine for their families.

Because of the severity of the economic situation there, the government has allowed relief agencies to operate quite freely throughout most of the country. This has included some very unsound church-based as well as para-church groups. Such people have tried to win converts from among the members of the Reformed churches in order to establish their own works or alter the Reformed nature of some of these congregations.

The Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF) now works very closely with the remaining six Reformed congregations in Iraq. MERF has been able to help them with temporary pastoral care from Egypt. For the first time the congregation in Basra has an Iraqi pastor. He was supported by MERF to prepare for the ministry at the Presbyterian Theological College in Cairo. Other promising Iraqi young men are being prepared for the Gospel ministry. In the meantime, MERF provides diaconal aid to needy Iraqi families to help them get established in self-supporting jobs. Also, training is being provided for elders, deacons, lay evangelists and others. In July 1997, meetings were organized in Amman, Jordan with representatives of all the Iraqi congregations. MERF's Executive Committee worked out with them an action plan for the next six years in the areas of evangelism, pastoral care, church-extension, and biblical and theological training as well as diaconal aid.

As we help these brethren and pray for them, we can thank the Lord for their perseverance and their desire to be faithful to the Saviour and to His inspired word. We can also rejoice in the opportunities we have to serve them and with them. In May 1997 MERF's new and much expanded Study Centre was opened in Larnaca, Cyprus. Please pray for MERF's plans to establish a branch of this in Amman, Jordan. This is designed to help not only Iraqi churches and believers, but also those in Syria and Palestine. Pray also for the efforts underway to establish a Reformed congregation in Jordan.

Learn more about the work of MERF and its ministries through a variety of articles. These deal both with current work and the history of missions in the Middle East.

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