Christians in Baghdad: A Church Behind Concrete Walls and Barbed Wire
Christians in Iraq. Automatically we tend to think of those tens of thousands of Christians who were living in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain and are now living as displaced persons somewhere in the Kurdish area of Iraq. But how are the Christians doing elsewhere in Iraq? For example, those living in the capital Baghdad? Until 2003, this place was where most of Iraq’s Christians were living. We visited the city and were surprised by the dedication of the small flock that remained:
How is the situation now in Baghdad for Christians?
All of the pastors and priests agree on this: life is very hard and very difficult. They share the same fate as the rest of the inhabitants. Bombs explode almost daily, killing people from all religious backgrounds. When driving around the city, you see military and police checkpoints everywhere. There are walls topped with barbed wire protecting the buildings and churches against the blasts.
“We suffer from the same things everyone else does,” explains Pastor Joseph. “We want to be with the people. The violence is everywhere. The persecution is everywhere.” Father Thair adds to this: “Security is a very big problem in Baghdad. I don’t think anyone can help with that. The only thing keeping us here is our faith. In that hope, we remain with the church.”
How terribly wrong things can go for Christians became clear in 2010 when terrorists climbed the wall around the Catholic cathedral and entered with explosives and arms. They killed two of the priests, shooting them through their heads, and killed 43 other Christians attending the mass. The church honors the martyrs with their names on the colorful windows around the church and in a special place containing a small exposition of items commemorating that bloody day. What can one do other than pray to God that this will never happen again?
How do the Christians in the city respond to the situation?
“All are thinking about leaving and are preparing to leave Iraq. It is very difficult, but we are working to give them hope,” says Father Afram. He discovered that organizing activities for the people makes a big difference. “People have nothing to do. They go to school or work and then return home. That’s it. Some people tell me, ‘You are giving us hope. You give us something that makes us happy again.” This church almost closed, but it is once again full.”
Pastor Joseph: “We like to be like a Menorah. We’re a small group. We trust in our God. He can use us. We see that everyone is seeking peace, love and hope. We as a church are sharing about the ultimate source of these things. When they hear us talking about this, they listen.” Father Martin, a priest who transferred from Karamles in the Nineveh Plain to Bagdad recently went with his whole congregation to the place where a bomb exploded in front of an ice cream shop. They went to show their solidarity with the victims, despite the danger.
How do the leaders of the churches see the future of the church?
“I believe the future of the church will be with the Muslims who now wish to convert to Christianity. A Muslim who becomes a Christian has good faith and tells others about Christ,” shares an anonymous believer. He continues: “If the government would be open to this, our country would change. Many Muslims would become Christians or atheists. But our constitution points to Islam as the first and best religion of our country.”
We hear in the Middle East of converts from a Muslim background. What about in Baghdad?
“We have new blood, born-again new believers,” says Pastor Joseph. “That is a challenge. It brings a new culture to the church. Recently, a man converted. He is married to three wives and has children with all three of them. He asked me what he should do. I told him to keep them, what else could I say? This is only one of the problems we face with new converts.”
“About 45% of my church now comes from a Muslim background,” says another anonymous church leader. Another leader says that he sees a great hunger among the Muslims to know more about Jesus: “The future of the church is with the Muslims.”
Another church leader adds: “People are impressed that Christians come to them, show them love and support them when they are from another religion. This is especially significant because their fellow Muslims fight them and even want to kill them.”
Will the church remain in Iraq?
All pastors and priests have seen the number of Christians in Baghdad declining because of migration and immigration. “I recently heard the patriarch say that emigration won’t stop, but he also told me that Christianity in Iraq won’t stop either. He thought that those who remain will have a big impact on the society. I agree with the patriarch. I think we should be optimistic about the future of the church. With IS, another pressure came upon us as Christians, but God uses this pressure. We are now reaching out to others and see new people coming into the church.”
Another pastor adds: “Iraq without a church? That will not happen. When you look at history, there has been persecution of the church throughout the centuries. The church has always come through the difficulties. We know that God is in charge and is leading.”