Beneath the bombings, hostage-taking and political wrangling in Iraq lies a more positive picture of fledgling evangelical churches, according to a Christian persecution watchdog group.
In the northeast, Iraqi Kurdistan offers a haven for Christian activity as the two rival Kurdish governments grow in their toleration of Muslims becoming Christians, reported Santa Ana, Calif.-based Compass Direct. In the south, the evangelical church is growing rapidly.
Since the removal of Saddam Husseins regime in April 2003, a total of 15 evangelical congregations have started in Baghdad, according to Compass. Officially, only two evangelical churches both Presbyterian and led by Egyptian nationals existed in the capital during Husseins rule. Now there are Baptists, Methodists and Christian and Missionary Alliance congregations, all led by local Iraqi pastors.
The people are open like never before, Ghassan Thomas, pastor of a Christian and Missionary Alliance church in Baghdad, told Compass. It is because we have no peace. This is how we connect our message to the nation: I preach on the topic, How do we get peace? and everyone listens, especially when I talk about the deeper peace that Christ brings.
Most of the members of the new churches come from the Presbyterian Church, and some come from historic Christian denominations such as the Chaldean Catholic or Syrian Orthodox, which have been in Iraq for centuries.
Muslims too want peace, Thomas said. Many of them are frightened. When the hostages are killed, often a Quranic verse is used to justify it. So many Muslims are scared of their own God. When we preach that God is love, it is so liberating to them.
Although 40,000 or so Christians fled last August after a spate of bombings, Compass reported that many of those who fled have returned to the country. Yet the numbers of those still in refugee camps in Jordan and Syria remain significant perhaps 10,000, though precise figures are not available.
The news is not all positive, of course, Compass noted. Iraq remains a country in crisis.
At a recent conference for 70 Iraqi pastors, all had to travel early in the morning to avoid trouble on the roads. And although they stressed that the streets gradually have become safer since the beginning of the year, church meetings throughout the south are held at 4:30 in the afternoon with everyone at home behind locked doors by 7:30 for fear of insurgent and looting activity.
Middle class Christians are also continuing to emigrate in alarming numbers, as those in key professions such as medicine are targets for kidnapping and extortion. Some newer evangelical churches have been decimated by this exodus.
In his concluding remarks, Thomas said, No one is expecting the situation to improve for the better quickly, but we believe that God is moving in these times, and that the future will be more peaceful, especially if Christians will befriend good Muslims and work together.