Evangelicals Are Few, but Growing in Iraq

There is a small but growing number of evangelicals in Iraq which is challenging the status quo of traditional Christian denominations, according to new reports.

A Washington Post article on Thursday reported that in Baghdad alone, seven new evangelical churches have been established in the past two years, as Christians from Roman and Catholic churches are finding their way to the new churches in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

"For Christians, it's now democratic," said Nabil A. Sara, 60, the pastor at National Evangelical Baptist Church, Iraq's first Southern Baptist Congregation. The church receives financial support from Baptists in Jordan, Lebanon, and the United States.

He added, "It's not like before, there is freedom now. Nobody can say, 'Why do you start a new church?'"

Traditional Roman Catholic and Chaldean Catholic churches, which have about 800,000 adherents in Iraq, are learning to adapt to the new evangelicals, seeking to reconcile the importance of already established communities and tradition with the new challenges of evangelism in a nation where the conversion Muslims is almost unheard of.

Baghdad Roman Catholic Archbishop Jean Sleiman commended the energetic fervor of evangelicals despite the reservation it "was not a good thing" that evangelicals were able to came to Iraq "with soldiers."

"Sometimes I'm telling myself if they are more zealous than me, and we can profit from this positive dimension of their mission."

However, he also had the impression that some evangelicals did not consider traditional churches as being truly Christian, thereby creating "a new division" among Christians. He stated that traditional churches had much to offer, adding that evangelicals should work together with the already established churches.

"... 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," the Archbishop said.

Another strong concern among Iraqi Christians was that Christian-Muslim tensions could increase due to proselytisation.

Yonadam Kanna one of six Christians elected to Iraq's parliament says that there is an informal understanding between Muslims and Christians in Iraq that there should not be proselytisation between the communities.

Patriarch Emmanuel Delly, head of the Eastern rite Chaldean Catholic Church, which is Iraq's largest Christian community says that trying to convert Muslims to Christianity "is not acceptable."

Robert Fetherlin, vice president of international ministries at the Christian and Missionary Alliance based in Colorado defended the missionary work of his groups.

"We're not trying to coerce people to follow Christ," he said. "But we want to at least communicate to people who He is." However, he added that he was encouraged by the possibility for people in Iraq to have the freedom to choose.

Sara, the Baptist pastor acknowledges that those attending his church are Christians who are attracted to preaching, something he says Catholic churches lack.

One congregant, Zeena Woodman, 30, who came from the Syrian Orthodox Church said there was a difference in the praise, saying it's not as traditional. "It's much more interesting here."

Francis Helguero
Christian Today Correspondent