Hunter Williamson

In February, Bassem Melki was invited to Iraq by a local church for a peacemaking training conference and the celebration of its 20th anniversary.

The director of the Peacemaking and Non-formal Training Department and assistant professor at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, a ministry of Thimar-LSESD, expected to arrive in a country gripped by turmoil and instability. At that time, US military forces and armed groups backed by Iran were exchanging fire; Turkey was striking Kurdish guerilla fighters in northern Iraq; and Iran had launched ballistic missiles against an alleged Israeli spy base and opposition sites in the northern city of Erbil. In the back of his mind, Melki recalled images he had seen in the media of the Iraq war and ISIS. 

He boarded his flight in Beirut and a couple hours later landed in Baghdad. To his surprise, he found Iraq to be safe, beautiful, and the church to be thriving. On Sundays, worship music rang vibrantly and wonderfully. Congregations clapped and sang, freely giving glory to God as security forces stood guard outside, providing the church safety and protection. Bassem found the local churches in Baghdad to be well organized,  and serving the surrounding community.

This is a Golden Era for churches in Iraq,” Bassem said after returning to Beirut. His trip, though brief, changed his perception of the country. In addition to stability and security, he saw how a new form of Christianity is taking root and flourishing following the vast exodus of Iraq’s ancient Christian community.  

Prior to the US invasion in 2003, some 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq. But the war and nearly two decades of violence and conflict that followed led many Christians to migrate. Today, fewer than 150,000 are estimated to remain. But fewer Christians doesn’t mean that the church is dead. Bassem said that in Baghdad, there are Nazarene, Alliance, Pentecostal, and Baptist churches, thriving and working together. Congregations at each number between 200 to 300 families. 

Churches also engage with their communities through discipleship home groups and relief work. Middle East Revive and Thrive (MERATH), a ministry of Thimar-LSESD, has supported a church in Baghdad with providing food and hygiene kits for around 100 families. 

What is noteworthy is that the churches in Baghdad are united, working together and, celebrating ministry achievements and victories in Christ,” Bassem said. “This beautiful relationship fosters support and collaboration, free from competition due to the humbleness of leaders and the vast fields of harvest.” 

Such flourishment within the church comes at a time when Iraq is experiencing a long sought, a albeit fragile, stability.  While rocked by conflict and violence for much of the past twenty years, Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani, recently noted that his country is experiencing “a new reality of adequate security and stability.” The prime minister, who oversees a government composed of pro-Iran members, has sought to foster a balanced relationship between Tehran, Arab neighbors, and the US while cracking down on corruption and empowering the official military. He has publicly opposed the use of Iraqi territory by armed groups to attack neighboring countries, and he has sought to curb drug trafficking and money smuggling. Later this year, the country expects to complete the first phase of a massive electricity interconnection project with Gulf countries that will address frequent blackouts in southern Iraq and make it less reliant on Iran for energy.  

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But despite Al Sudani’s efforts to develop his country, domestic issues persist as Iraq finds itself involved and caught up in growing regional tensions and conflict. The war between Hamas and Israel – which has essentially expanded into a limited regional conflict involving the US and other Western countries, and Iran and its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – has threatened stability in Iraq and the region. Churches find themselves affected too, said Samir*, the pastor of the MERATH-supported church in Baghdad and a graduate of ABTS. Speaking by phone in February, Samir noted how clashes between US forces and Iran backed groups “is affecting Iraq on all levels and causing tension.” 

“The situation in Baghdad is somewhat stable, but circumstances and the situation are shaky,” he continued. “Visitors and friends have postponed or canceled their flights to Baghdad because of the current situation.”  

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella organization of armed groups aligned with Iran, has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks against US troops in the region., its deadliest one being a drone strike on a base in Jordan in late January that killed and wounded US service members. The US responded to that attack and others by launching airstrikes against Iran-linked targets in Iraq and Syria. 

Though troubling, the Hamas-Israel war is not the only issue affecting Christians in Iraq. Some Christians and members of other religious minority groups like Yazidis report occasional verbal and physical harassment by members of local state-sponsored militias such as the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), according to a 2022 US State Department report on religious freedoms in Iraq. But they also note, according to the same report, that the central government doesn’t interfere with religious observances.   

Iraq’s Sinjar and Nineveh provinces seem to be particularly affected, the report continues. In addition to Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish guerillas who have allegedly kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi children in the Nineveh Plain, the report also noted allegations of government officials facilitating demographic change in Christian areas, as well as arbitrary or unlawful detentions and arrests, extortions, kidnappings, property seizure, and the operation of secret prisons by armed state-sponsored groups separate from the official military.  

In the face of such challenges, Samir noted that immigration remains an issue for the church. “Undoubtedly, Christians are contemplating immigrating, especially those who already fled regions because of ISIS in 2014, and although these regions were liberated, they remain volatile in Nineveh and Sinjar,” said Samir. 

But amid such challenges, Samir noted that God continues to provide for the church. In addition to the support provided by MERATH, Thimar, through its Publishing House, partners with the church that Samir pastors for book fairs. 

God is giving us grace in the eyes of others,” Samir said. “We can deliver the message of the Gospel in ways that fit and are adequate to the community and the context. 

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        Pray for Iraq

        Join Thimar in supporting the local church in Iraq and the Middle East.

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