BAGHDAD, Iraq (BP)–Nearly a year after U.S. troops began liberating Iraq, evangelicals in the fragile country are emerging with new boldness to take advantage of the newly granted religious freedom they lived so long without.
The first Baptist church ever established in Iraq was dedicated with more than 700 people in attendance. Leaders say the church, called the National Evangelical Baptist Church in Baghdad, is the cornerstone upon which future Baptist work in Iraq will be built.
In addition, teams of Baptist volunteers have worked in various regions of Iraq, distributing food and Bibles and sowing seeds of interest in what God wants to do in the nation.
Muthafar Yacoub, moderator of the Baptist Union of Iraq, said the response at the Jan. 16 dedication ceremony of the Baptist church exceeded expectations and was the first time in decades that Christians from a broad scope of evangelical backgrounds gathered openly in Iraq for a church service.
“We anticipated and originally planned for around 550 persons, figuring that this would show our Lord that we were serious about being a bold witness for Christ though we really didn’t expect that many people to attend,” Yacoub said. “About 15 minutes before the service started, all the chairs under the tent were taken, so we went next door to the headquarters of a local political party and asked to borrow more chairs.
“We took all 100 chairs they had and placed them in the back of the tent and around the sides,” Yacoub said. “[When the service started] these chairs were also full. We counted more than 50 adults standing in the back of the tent during the service, not including any of the children.”
Baptist leaders from Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon spoke during the dedication service, including Brian Barlow, general director of the Baptist School of Amman and special adviser to the Baptist Union of Iraq, who read letters of greetings from Baptists around the world. Representatives from the International Mission Board, the Brazilian Baptist Convention, the Jordan Baptist Convention and Campus Crusade for Christ were among those who attended.
More than 20 ordained pastors and deacons from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the United States prayed over Nabil Sara, pastor of the new church. They asked God to grant him wisdom and courage as he leads the church through a crucial period of Iraqi history. While preaching from 2 Chronicles 7:1-11 on Solomon’s dedication of the temple, Iraq-Jordan Task Force chairman Nabeeh Abbassi noted how God worked patiently through a war in Iraq to bring about the progress they celebrated that day.
A group of 10 Southern Baptists from Kentucky was among the volunteer teams traveling to Iraq to initiate interest in the Gospel. Eight people from Porter Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington and two from the Greenup Baptist Association in eastern Kentucky spent two weeks in December passing out 200 Arabic New Testaments and 650 bags of food in northern Iraq.
The Kentucky team entered a region of the country where other Baptist volunteers had not been.
“[We wondered] when we were giving out stuff, ‘Would we be attacked?'” said Bill Henard, pastor of Porter Memorial. “But in all four groups, there wasn’t a single problem. The people were well-behaved, appreciative and helped unload the truck.”
Mike Moynihan, a member of Porter Memorial, reiterated Henard’s observation that the Iraqi people were cooperative.
“We proved to ourselves that the Iraqi nation is a people who want to be free spiritually,” Moynihan said. “There is a terrorist element there, but the nation does not hate us.”
As the team passed out some of the 2.4 million pounds of food donated by Southern Baptists across America last summer, they told people the food was a gift from the American people to help them in their struggle for freedom.
A tribal leader who met with the Kentucky team replied, “We are not friends, we are brothers,” before embracing Henard and kissing his cheek.
When Henard then gave the man a copy of the New Testament, the man put the book on top of his head and said, “If this is a gift from you, I must receive it and I must read it.”
The team later heard a report that the man had read the New Testament and wants to talk to Henard about it.
Asa Greear, director of missions for the Greenup association, said he was impressed by the warmth of the people and their eagerness to have Americans share in their culture in such ways as purchasing clothing made by the local people.
“There’s an openness,” Greear said. “If I could speak Arabic or Kurdish, I could have had several opportunities to share my faith.”
The group concluded the people are hungry for a Word from God, and those who have gone to Iraq as volunteers must encourage others to take advantage of any opportunity to go and share.
“We need to go back,” Moynihan said. “I’d go back tomorrow.”
In other Iraq news, John Hull, president of EQUIP, an Atlanta-based organization founded by John Maxwell to provide leadership development for Christians worldwide, said the greatest need of the church in Iraq is for biblical leadership training and resources.
The challenge that has followed Iraq’s liberation is a lack of church leaders, Christian materials and facilities to accommodate the growing number of people wanting to practice their faith openly, Hull said.
“Before the war, our church was very small — less than 50 people — and we had to meet in secrecy,” said a pastor in Baghdad who was once imprisoned for leading an underground church. “Now our new church building seating 450 is almost completed, and it’s already too small for our growing congregation.”
EQUIP reported that in Baghdad there are only 12 pastors for the 5 million residents. And in Basra, a city of 2.5 million, there is only one evangelical congregation.
“Saddam drove us underground, but he couldn’t stop us — even with imprisonment and torture,” Farid Hana, a pastor in Baghdad, said. “Now, our lack of Christian leadership is stopping us from developing urgently needed churches.”
With reporting by Ken Walker. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: GRATEFUL TO AMERICANS, SHARING HOPE, BONDING WITH CHILDREN and HELPING IN THE EFFORT.