Christianity in Iraq
Many Mesopotamian Jews turned to Christ when the gospel was first preached, and their synagogues became Christian meeting places. But these soon succumbed to Nestorianism (a heresy teaching that the incarnate Christ was two separate persons – human and divine).
Along with internal power struggles among the clergy, this weakened the churches and made them easy prey to invading Muslim armies (seventh century AD). Christians took refuge in the mountainous north and survived only because Sunni and Shia Muslims became distracted by internecine conflicts.
By the early twentieth century, professing ‘Christians’ (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) made up 30% of the Iraqi population. Today that figure is less than 8%.
A Reformed Protestant witness in Iraq and the Arabian Gulf began in 1836 with the efforts of two American churches — the German and Dutch Reformed. Both were committed to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the great commission.
In less than five years, a congregation was established in the north-eastern city of Mosul, and the work advanced south and west. Congregations were organised in Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra, and preaching stations opened throughout Iraq. The new church was called the National Evangelical Church.
An Arabic version of the Heidelberg Catechism prepared new believers for church membership but, sadly, there was no development of an indigenous Iraqi ministry. When missionaries retired or were unable to return, the larger city congregations received trained Egyptian pastors but other churches were destabilised and never recovered.
Paradoxically, under the recent secular regime of Saddam Hussein, churches enjoyed more freedom than in many other Middle Eastern countries. One Iraqi elder explained, ‘In Iraq you can legally and freely do anything religious as long as it is not mixed with politics and does not endanger the social stability of the community’.
The UN economic sanctions and the Gulf War devastated the Iraqi economy. Many believers lost their businesses or jobs and were reduced to poverty. During this time MERF regularly channelled support to the remaining Reformed congregations — two in Baghdad (Arabic-speaking and Assyrian speaking), and one in each of Mosul, Kirkuk and Basra. A sixth, in Erbeil, was closed.
The present American-led occupation has greatly affected the churches. A third of every congregation has fled to other countries. Church attendance has dwindled drastically. Only in Kirkuk does the security situation allow numbers to attend church services regularly. Among believers there are many new widows and bereaved people.
The main Arabic-speaking congregation in Baghdad used to have two crowded Sunday morning services totalling over 1200 people. Now, just 40-60 living in the immediate vicinity attend a single service. The Assyrian-speaking pastor was forced to flee Baghdad. His Sunday congregation today numbers about 15, only able to meet when the security situation allows.
The pastor of the Mosul congregation had to flee for his life. He is now pastoring a sizeable congregation of Iraqi refugees in Damascus, Syria. Contact with two small groups of Shiite converts in southern Iraq has been lost; their areas are now largely under ‘Iranian’ Islamic rule.
What our Iraqi brethren need most is prayer that security and stability will soon be restored to their country (1 Timothy 2:1-4).