By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Soon after Hussein's fall, they entered the country, saying their prime task was to provide Iraqis with humanitarian aid. But their strong emphasis on sharing their faith raised concerns among Muslims and some Christians that they would openly proselytize.
Then the security environment deteriorated in Iraq -- four Southern Baptist missionaries were killed, Westerners were kidnapped and at least 21 churches were bombed -- forcing most foreign evangelicals to flee. But Iraqi evangelicals remain.
"For Christians, it's now democratic," said Nabil A. Sara, 60, the pastor at National Evangelical Baptist. "It's not like before. There is freedom now. Nobody can say, 'Why do you start a new church?' "
Some church leaders, however, are asking that very question.
"Evangelicals come here and I would like to ask: Why do you come here? For what reason?" said Patriarch Emmanuel Delly, head of the Eastern rite Chaldean Catholic Church, Iraq's largest Christian community.
In interviews, Delly and Sleiman were torn between their belief in religious freedom and the threat they see from the new evangelicalism. They also expressed anger and resentment at what they perceive as the evangelicals' assumption that members of old-line denominations are not true Christians.
"If we are not Christians, you should tell us so we will find the right path," Delly said sarcastically. "I'm not against the evangelicals. If they go to an atheist country to promote Christ, we would help them ourselves."
Sleiman charged that the new churches were sowing "a new division" among Christians because "churches here mean a big community with tradition, language and culture, not simply a building with some people worshiping. If you want to help Christians here, help through the churches [already] here."
Still, the Roman Catholic prelate said he could not oppose the evangelicals because "we ask for freedom of conscience." He also said he respected how they appear "ready to die" for their beliefs. "Sometimes I'm telling myself they are more zealous than me, and we can profit from this positive dimension of their mission."
Some Iraqi Christians expressed fear that the evangelicals would undermine Christian-Muslim harmony here, which rests on a long-standing, tacit agreement not to proselytize each other. "There is an informal agreement that says we have nothing to do with your religion and faith," said Yonadam Kanna, one of six Christians elected to Iraq's parliament. "We are brothers but we don't interfere in your religion."
Delly said that "even if a Muslim comes to me and said, 'I want to be Christian,' I would not accept. I would tell him to go back and try to be a good Muslim and God will accept you." Trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, he added, "is not acceptable."
Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, a prominent Shiite Muslim leader in Baghdad, was among those who expressed alarm at the postwar influx of foreign missionaries. In a recent interview, he said he feared that Muslims misunderstand why many Christians talk about their faith.
"They have to talk about Jesus and what Jesus has done. This is one of the principles of believing in Christianity," said Ghitaa. "But the problem is that the others don't understand it, they think these people are coming to convert them."
Robert Fetherlin, vice president for international ministries at Colorado-based Christian and Missionary Alliance, which supports one of the new Baghdad evangelical churches, defended his denomination's overseas work.
"We're not trying to coerce people to follow Christ," he said. "But we want to at least communicate to people who He is. We feel very encouraged by the possibility for people in Iraq to have the freedom to make choices about what belief system they want to buy into."
Sara said that if Muslims approach him with "questions about Jesus and about the Bible," he responds. But the white-haired pastor said there was plenty of evangelizing to be done among Christians because, in his view, many do not really know Jesus. "They know [Him] just in name," he said, adding that they need a better understanding of "why He died for them."
His church appeals to dissatisfied Christians, he said, adding, "If you go to a Catholic church, for example, there is no Bible in the church, there is no preaching, and just a little singing."
National congregant Zeena Woodman, 30, who was raised in the Syrian Orthodox Church, agreed. "Praising Jesus Christ in this church is not as traditional as other churches," she said. "It's much more interesting here."
Sara, a former Presbyterian who started an underground evangelical church in his home after having a born-again experience, began working openly during the U.S. occupation. In January 2004, he was ordained pastor of his church in a ceremony attended by more than 20 Baptist pastors and deacons from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the United States. Baptist communities in these countries financially support National Evangelical, Sara said.
The church's name and a white cross are visible from the street. The pastor said that no one has threatened the church and that it has good relations with its Muslim neighbors.
In fact, said Sara, "Muslims across the street came and asked us to pray for their mother."
Special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.