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Iraqi Baptist leader wary of militants’ power

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Muthafar Yacoub, moderator of the Baptist Union of Iraq, said Christians and moderates in Iraq are now “more afraid of the fundamentalists inside and outside of Iraq than they ever were of Saddam.”

In comments to Baptist Press, Yacoub said removing Saddam Hussein from power gave Christians in Iraq religious liberty, and whether he was captured or not, the former dictator no longer had any influence. But Yacoub expressed insecurity about the future and fear that militant parties will take control.

“With Saddam gone, who will take power?” Yacoub asked. “For how long will we enjoy this new freedom we have to worship God openly as Baptists, as evangelical believers in Jesus Christ?”

Yacoub said he hopes in the future Iraqi Christians will enjoy more personal religious freedom, more churches, a Baptist seminary to train leaders, a Christian radio station to share Jesus with the masses and Baptist schools to educate the next generation of Iraqis.

“We hope that the new government will separate the state from religion and that we can witness and share Bibles with anyone without any problem,” he said.

Immediate challenges facing the churches in Iraq include the need for trained leaders.

“We need someone to come and help train our young people to be leaders and someone to help us disciple new believers in the right way,” Yacoub said. “We need strong Bible teachers to teach those men who would be pastors and house church leaders. We also need women Bible teachers to teach our women leaders.”

Iraqi Christians want to support their own churches, Yacoub said, but because of the economic and political situation at this time they are without cash. He said people are donating refrigerators, furniture and similar items to further the churches’ ministry.

American Christians who wish to pray for Iraqi believers can pray for their safety and security as well as for improved living conditions, Yacoub said. Many Iraqis are still having trouble getting kerosene and gasoline, waiting up to 10 hours at gas stations as the coalition works to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.

Yacoub also reported that Christians in Iraq had mixed feelings about the capture of Hussein.

“Many of us had brothers and fathers that were killed by Saddam or killed in one of Saddam’s wars,” he said. “We were happy that he was captured. However, we also felt sorry for Saddam as a human being when we first saw him on the TV because he looked terrible. In the Arab world, showing respect as a human being is important even if it is to people such as Saddam. To see even someone like Saddam treated in this way, without any dignity, caused some hard feelings about the U.S. in the eyes of the Iraqi and Arab peoples.”

Nabeeh Abbassi, the official representative of the Jordanian Baptist Convention to the regional Iraqi task force and the Jordanian member of a special advisory committee to the Baptist Union of Iraq, expressed opinions and concerns similar to those of Yacoub.

“Jordanian Christians did not suffer under Saddam,” he said. “When we saw him on the TV we felt sorry for him as a human being because we are taught that love does not rejoice in the misery of others. We were sad for him but very happy for the Iraqi people and the future of the ministry in Iraq.”

Abbassi said his wife was attending a class at a university in Amman, Jordan’s capital, when news of Hussein’s capture broke, and the class discussed the historic event.

“The students had an emotional reaction and felt sorry for Saddam and the way he looked,” Abbassi said in comments provided to Baptist Press. “The professor had to constantly remind them of all the bad things Saddam did and that all intelligent and educated people should be against him.”

Abbassi said under Hussein’s regime there was no religious liberty, so his removal from power signified the beginning of a new era — the opening of the door to religious freedom in Iraq.

“As long as the U.S. and the [Coalition Provisional Authority] is there, the door will stay open,” Abbassi said. “Knowing the regional governments and regimes, if the U.S. and CPA does not stay in Iraq and keep up pressure on the fundamentalists, this new freedom will not remain.”

The results of newfound religious liberty have been amazing, Abbassi said. The first Baptist church in Iraq will be dedicated in Baghdad Jan. 16.

“We are joyful about our association with Baptists around the world and no longer fear to be associated with any foreigners,” he said.

Since the Gulf War in 1991, Jordan has hosted Iraqi refugees, and the Jordanian Baptist Convention has worked among them to start Iraqi Baptist churches in Amman, Abbassi said. Jordanian Christians have helped train some Iraqis to lead churches, and he prays that now they will return to Iraq and find their places of ministry.

A lack of funding is a challenge the Jordanian convention, in cooperation with the Lebanese Baptist Convention, is facing as it helps Iraqis establish churches in their homeland under the new religious liberty.

“We want our Baptist brothers and sisters in the U.S. to join with us and cooperate with the [Baptist Union of Iraq] so that we can help Iraqis stand on their own feet,” he said. “We want to see an indigenous work flourish in Iraq, and we have dedicated ourselves to work with our Iraqi brothers and sisters until this happens.”

Because the Arab world is generally not open to democracy, Abbassi hopes the changes in Iraq will be a model to the region. He believes the United States can play a pivotal role in separating the state from religion so that people are free to choose.

“The U.S., the CPA and the [United Nations] must insist that the Iraqi people include an emphasis on religious freedom in their new constitution,” Abbassi said. “The U.S. and CPA must stay in Iraq until they see that religious freedoms are being respected. Hopefully, our Arab neighbors will see the results and change their own systems.”

Abbassi’s prayer is that the home of Abraham will become the home of religious freedom in the Middle East and that the way God blessed Abraham will become the model of how the Iraqis will bless the entire region with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

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  • Erin Curry