Evangelicals Building a Base in Iraq
Thursday, June 23, 2005
BAGHDAD -- With arms outstretched, the congregation at National Evangelical Baptist Church belted out a praise hymn backed up by drums, electric guitar and keyboard. In the corner, slide images of Jesus filled a large screen. A simple white cross of wood adorned the stage, and worshipers sprinkled the pastor's Bible-based sermon with approving shouts of "Ameen!"
National is Iraq's first Baptist congregation and one of at least seven new Christian evangelical churches established in Baghdad in the past two years. Its Sunday afternoon service, in a building behind a house on a quiet street, draws a couple of hundred worshipers who like the lively music and focus on the Bible.
"I'm thirsty for this kind of church," Suhaila Tawfik, a veterinarian who was raised Catholic, said at a recent service. "I want to go deep in understanding the Bible."
Tawfik is not alone. The U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein, who limited the establishment of new denominations, has altered the religious landscape of predominantly Muslim Iraq. A newly energized Christian evangelical activism here, supported by Western and other foreign evangelicals, is now challenging the dominance of Iraq's long-established Christian denominations and drawing complaints from Muslim and Christian religious leaders about a threat to the status quo.
The evangelicals' numbers are not large -- perhaps a few thousand -- in the context of Iraq's estimated 800,000 Christians. But they are emerging at a time when the country's traditional churches have lost their privileged Hussein-era status and have experienced massive depletions of their flocks because of decades-long emigration. Now, traditional church leaders see the new evangelical churches filling up, not so much with Muslim converts but with Christians like Tawfik seeking a new kind of worship experience.
"The way the preachers arrived here . . . with soldiers . . . was not a good thing," said Baghdad's Roman Catholic archbishop, Jean Sleiman. "I think they had the intention that they could convert Muslims, though Christians didn't do it here for 2,000 years."
"In the end," Sleiman said, "they are seducing Christians from other churches."
Iraq's new churches are part of Christian evangelicalism's growing presence in several Middle Eastern countries, experts say. In neighboring Jordan, for example, "the indigenous evangelical presence is growing and thriving," said Todd M. Johnson, a scholar of global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.
Nabeeh Abbassi, president of the Jordan Baptist Convention, said in an interview in Amman that there are about 10,000 evangelicals worshiping at 50 churches in Jordan. They include 20 Baptist churches with a combined regular Sunday attendance of 5,000, he added. The organization also operates the Baptist School of Amman, where 40 percent of the student body is Muslim.
While most evangelicals in Jordan come from traditional Christian denominations, Abbassi said, "we're seeing more and more Muslim conversions, not less than 500 a year" over the past 10 years.
Iraq's Christian population has been organized for centuries into denominations such as Chaldean Catholicism and Roman Catholicism. While Hussein's secular regime allowed freedom of worship, it limited new denominations, particularly if backed by Western churches.
During the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, American evangelicals made no secret of their desire to follow the troops. Samaritan's Purse, the global relief organization led by the Rev. Franklin Graham -- who has called Islam an "evil and wicked" religion -- and the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination, were among those that mobilized missionaries and relief supplies.