Written by Elmarie Parker*
[This article was originally published Dec. 23, 2015 in Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.]
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” – Matthew 13:33
“In spite of the overwhelming situation and the decline of hope, the church can’t but be a light, comforter, and a catalyst for hope to the people she reaches.”
-The Rev. Salam Hanna, Director of Relief & Rehabilitation at NESSL
I remember my first encounter with Iraqi Presbyterians in Basrah. It was in November of 2011, a month before the last American troops were scheduled to leave Iraq. What I had been expecting to find, and what I actually experienced of the church in Iraq were two vastly different realities. Looking back, based on news I had been hearing in the United States, I was expecting to find a church that was hunkered down, just trying to survive. Instead, as we gathered in the fellowship hall of the Presbyterian Church in Basrah, I met a church community actively engaged in ministries reaching not only the people of their congregations but also serving the larger communities around them.
Prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein, all Christian communities in Iraq experienced high levels of safety, but no freedom for ministry outside of the church walls. Following the U.S. Coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the fall of Saddam these two realities reversed. Since that time, Christians have faced multiplying threats, culminating in the brutal advance of ISIS during the summer of 2014. Iraqi Presbyterians faced the closure of two of their five congregations due to the years of volatile sectarian fighting following the 2003 invasion. This included the oldest Protestant church in the region—the Presbyterian Church in Mosul, Iraq, that had been active since 1840.
Yet, in the midst of the severe membership losses since 2003 for all Christian communities, something miraculous also began to unfold. Iraqi Presbyterians gathered in early 2004 to pray, asking the Lord how they could be of service in their country at that time—in the middle of a war. As they prayed, they were drawn to Luke’s telling of the paralytic’s friends who brought him to the feet of Jesus for healing. In this story, they heard the call of Christ’s Spirit on their lives: to bring their country to the feet of Jesus for healing. As they prayed for God’s guidance in how to begin, they were inspired to start several different ministries that reached out into the communities around them.
The remaining three Presbyterian congregations in Iraq began by launching kindergarten (KG) ministries. The story of the ministry in Kirkuk illustrates the impact of these ministries. Encouraged by the Presbyterian Women’s Birthday Offering, this congregation started their KG with 26 children. Before the advance of ISIS, this school had grown to serve 400 students, 97% of whom were Muslim. All the schools are still open, but face reduced enrollments due to even fewer teachers being available. At the invitation of the Muslim-majority local government, this education program is being expanded into a Primary School. All of this during an active ground war with foreign occupying troops on the ground!
The schools teach the values of Jesus, not any particular Christian doctrine, and this is welcomed by the Muslim parents who send their children to these schools. Why? Because they don’t want their children influenced by the extremism that is creeping into some Muslim schools. They value Jesus as a prophet; they value the “hadara” (good culture) contributed by Christians to their communities; so they want their children influenced by the way of Jesus.
One particular story shared by Pastor H. of the Kirkuk Church demonstrates this reality. One evening a Muslim father whose young son attends the KG received a phone call. He didn’t want to take the call, so he asked his son to tell the person calling that he wasn’t home. The son answered the phone and said, “Yes, my father is here. Let me get him for you.” The father was furious! The next day he went storming into the administrator’s office demanding to know what the KG was teaching his son. “He’s not obeying me!” the father accused. The administrator wisely asked the father to share a little bit more of what happened, and so the father did. Very gently the administrator replied, “Sir, at this school we teach the children the values of Jesus, and one of those values is to not lie. It sounds like your son was living what he’s been learning here.” The father left peaceably, though he was still not happy. The next day, however, he returned and told the administrator, “I want to thank you for helping my son to be the kind of Muslim I want to be.”
All three churches also started radio programs, at one point broadcasting in four languages, including English while there were American troops on the ground. They actually received call-backs from American personnel thanking them for sharing the gospel in a language they could understand while they were so far from home. Imagine being a church who is facing diminishing numbers because of the foreign troops in your home country, and your response is to reach out in love to those troops with the good news of Christ’s gospel! These are the brothers and sisters who are helping me to understand in practical terms what it looks like to love neighbors – and those who could easily be called enemies – with the love of Jesus.
These radio ministries are one tool that Christ’s Spirit is making use of to share the Good News of hope with those who do not know Christ as Lord. An elder in the Basrah Presbyterian Church shared the story of a call-in they received from a rural, non-Christian family. The family had been listening to the broadcasts and was inspired by Christ’s way of peace. “Could the church help teach us how to raise our children as followers of Jesus?” they asked. The Elder went on to say, “The generational church may not survive in Iraq. But it is our privilege to be part of the work Christ’s Spirit is doing among our non-Christian friends and neighbors. They will be the future church in Iraq.”
This work of being light to the people reached by the church, of being like yeast is to dough, is continuing now, even after the advance of ISIS. After Christians were expelled from Mosul in July 2014, Pastor H. and his wife began receiving knocks on their door in the middle of the night in Kirkuk (about a two hour drive from Mosul). Rumors of ISIS invading Kirkuk hung in the air. Should they open the door? Who would be on the other side? “We were so afraid,” Pastor H. shared. “But in faith, we opened the door.” There stood a father with his children. They had fled Mosul with only the clothes on their backs. They were the first of what would grow to be 16 Catholic and Orthodox families (nearly 70 people) who now call the Presbyterian Church home. They are living in Sunday School rooms and the church library, converted to be bedrooms by night and sitting rooms by day. They cook in the fellowship hall, which has been converted into a kitchen. They came as strangers, but now they are family.
In addition to aiding these families, the Presbyterian Church has become a relief aid hub serving Muslim, Christian, and Yzidi families seeking refuge not only in Kirkuk, but also in the Kurdish region, up to a five-hour drive from the church. This is what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus in Iraq today. It’s not just the Presbyterians who are responding with this kind of persevering care in the face of overwhelming need. They are working with Catholics, Orthodox, and other Protestants. They embody hope to thousands of families who have lost everything, who have suffered brutality beyond comprehension. They remind these families that they are not alone, they are not forgotten, even if the only thing they have to give that day is their compassionate presence and listening ear.
In Syria, too, the 15 remaining Presbyterian congregations are a daily part of embodying hope to thousands of families who have been displaced from their homes by the awful fighting of the past nearly five years. Located throughout Syria, including in some of the most battered and isolated communities, these congregations continue to open their doors and hearts to those who have even less than they do.
In the once thriving city of Aleppo, from which many have fled as refugees, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church and his young family have chosen to stay. “We stay to give the people hope. They are not abandoned; they are not alone,” Pastor I. shared with me. “Our city once had 4 million people living here. Now we have less than 2 million, and we have no regular electricity or running water. It’s all been destroyed in the fighting.”
This congregation’s church building was destroyed by rebel rocket attacks in 2012. Since then, the 100 members who have stayed climb five stories of steps to reach the pastor’s apartment. Here they gather each week for worship and during the week for fellowship. “We want the community to know that the church is not the building. The church is the gathered people of God,” shared one elder. In addition to providing spiritual encouragement and tangible relief aid to a people and neighborhood battered by war, this congregation (along with many other churches in Aleppo) has drilled a well on its property. These wells are often the only water source for days on end, and the lines begin early in the morning and last until late at night.
The well pumps run on fuel-powered generators. Fuel is hard to come by and expensive these days. A pastor at the Armenian Evangelical Church, who also has a well on their property, shared with me how he rose early one morning not sure how he was going to find fuel for the day. To his surprise, when he reached the generator, he discovered that it had already been filled. Later in the day he learned the fuel had come from the Muslim man who owned the petrol station across from the church—a man who had always kept his distance from the church. When the pastor approached him to pay for the fuel, the petrol station owner refused payment and said: “I’ve been watching you. Every day you provide water free of charge to the entire neighborhood, Muslim and Christian. You show us all love without regard for our religion or political positions. This is my way of saying thank you.”
The Rev. Fadi Dagher, immediate past-General Secretary for the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon shared with a group gathered at the United Nations in the fall of 2014: “We as Christians must fight against extremism. But we do it best, not by taking up arms, but by making God’s love in Christ visible to the people around us who are most vulnerable, without regard to religious or political identity. We do it through our schools that teach the way of Christ and encourage respect for one another. We do it as we live the way Jesus has taught us to live.”
So, in the midst of the very challenging contexts of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, I am learning something from my Christian sisters and brothers that will forever impact my understanding of what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. I am learning the vital importance of fellowship—we cannot walk forward in these kinds of circumstances alone. I’m learning what giving thanks in all circumstances looks like as the body of Christ gathers for worship every week in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—sharing in each others sorrows, relying together on Christ’s Spirit to be their strength and hope.
I’m learning what infectious joy is as I have the privilege of working side-by-side with brothers and sisters who face almost insurmountable obstacles with a trusting and persevering reliance on what God will and does provide. I’m learning what it looks like to live as Christ’s light even in the midst of questions and fears, to live as yeast worked through the flour of current events, to live as hope incarnated to those who have lost all hope. Perhaps most importantly, I am learning that the church can do this not from a position of strength and wealth, but from a position of weakness and poverty, trusting that Christ is enough, trusting that Christ will have the final word no matter how dark it may appear.
*The Rev. Elmarie Parker serves as a Presbyterian Associate for Ecumenical Partnerships in the role of Regional Liaison with partners in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. She and her husband, Scott, have been based in Beirut, Lebanon since December of 2013.