Sunday, March 21, 2004

BAGHDAD - Missionaries from the United States, determined to spread evangelical Christianity in Iraq, are opening new churches in Baghdad, building congregations drawn from Iraq’s ethnic Christian community and in some cases preparing to take the Gospel directly to Muslims themselves.

The campaign makes sense in the United States, where Christian denominations and other religions compete for adherents in a free market of ideas.

But for Iraqi Christians — made up of Assyrians, Chaldeans and a smattering of smaller Catholic and Orthodox denominations, plus some Protestant churches dating back to colonial times — the presence of American evangelists is both unsettling and possibly dangerous.

Iraq’s 25 million people are overwhelmingly Muslim and, in Islam, conversion to another religion is forbidden. The penalty is death.

“In America, people are free to be either Christian or Muslim. Here, the family applies Muslim law, and if someone in the family leaves Islam, the family will slaughter them. In America people are free, but here they are not free,” said the Rev. Ikram Mehanni, senior pastor of a Presbyterian church in Baghdad.

Iraq has an estimated 1 million Christians. The Presbyterians have had a small presence, especially in northern Iraq, for more than 100 years. Other denominations date back to the early days of Christian history.

Mr. Mehanni’s church, built in the 1950s, sits in a quiet neighborhood near the commercial district of downtown Baghdad, a frequent target of terrorist bombings. An attack Wednesday on the Mount Lebanon Hotel, for example, killed at least seven persons and injured dozens.

Armed guards protecting a nearby hospital do double duty by searching those passing down a narrow alley toward the walled church compound.

It consists of a main church with a vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows. It, and other buildings used for Bible study, Sunday school and evening prayer services, surround an open courtyard.

Despite the tension on nearby streets, the compound provides a quiet refuge for a congregation of about 1,000 who are willing to risk passage through Baghdad’s streets.

People of the Book

Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in Iraq for centuries. Because the Koran recognizes Jesus as a prophet, along with the prophets of the Old Testament, Christians have long been given the status of a protected minority, sometimes referred to as “people of the book.” Even Saddam Hussein offered Christians a measure of protection in an era when the 1979 Iranian revolution politicized Islam and spawned militancy throughout the Muslim world.

Saddam tended to view Iraq’s Christians as nonthreatening. He gave prominent roles to some, most notably Tariq Aziz, who provided a grandfatherly public face for a brutal regime. Aziz was deputy prime minister in the Saddam regime.

But Saddam never permitted new churches to be built, nor would he allow new Christian denominations into his tightly controlled society.

That changed almost overnight when the U.S.-led military coalition took over one year ago. With America’s long tradition of religious freedom, Iraq quickly attracted the attention of evangelical Christians.

On any given Sunday, preachers from the United States can be found speaking at the pulpit, or sitting in the congregations of at least seven new churches that have opened in Baghdad in the past year.

In contrast to the traditional steepled design, the new churches typically consist of a large house with the first floor hollowed out into an extended meeting hall, typically with plastic chairs and an electric keyboard beside a simple pulpit.

From the outside, a giant cross usually distinguishes a freshly paneled facade that reflects the extensive remodeling needed to turn a house into a place of worship.

The transformation is often financed with generous contributions from Christians in the United States, and the new denominations range from Baptist to a number of Pentecostal sects.

The new churches are located in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood known for its predominantly Christian population, making new congregations relatively easy to recruit without offending Muslims in surrounding communities.

But when pastors from the United States visit Iraq, the distinction between Christians changing denominations and the possibility of converting Muslims often gets blurred.

Proclaiming the Gospel

“I believe there are people in this city who need to hear your voice, to say out loud: ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of salvation,’” said the Rev. Darrell W. Phenicie, an American who visited the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church of Baghdad on a recent Sunday.

“Don’t complain and say: ‘You don’t know my neighbors. They don’t like Christians.’ Don’t complain about the nonbelievers in this city, because everyone here has a better life than they,” Mr. Phenicie said, with broad shoulders framing a beaming smile.

The church is affiliated with an organization of the same name based in Colorado Springs, and has a presence in more than 50 nations.

Sitting in the congregation was Mark S. Case of the Father’s Field, a ministry based in Brandon, Miss.

“I go in [to Iraq] to help the local churches however I can. Then I get out of the way, because local churches best know how to help local people,” Mr. Case said.

With so many new churches in Iraq, and with backing from American Christians, Mr. Case said he is convinced that the Gospel can win the hearts of Muslims everywhere.

“When the Christians in the U.S. learn the love of God and show that love to the Muslim world, the Muslims will want to come to know Jesus Christ,” he said.

He added: “The Muslims are very afraid. If there were not a threat … it would be like pouring water on a dry sponge. You would have to build a thousand churches every day.”

Flirting with danger

However well intentioned, the enthusiasm of American evangelicals brings an element of danger to a society already fractured by sectarian strife.

Even without a clear religious motive, Westerners have become targets for terrorists who are attempting to disrupt coalition plans to hand over power to Iraqis on June 30.

On two occasions, American missionaries have been killed in drive-by shootings, including an incident last week in the northern city of Mosul, in which four Americans affiliated with the Southern Baptists died.

They were part of a team that was building a water-purification system for a refugee camp of displaced Arabs, and it not clear whether religion was a factor in the attack.

A primary target of terrorist attacks involves the division in Islam between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

The Shi’ites have a clear numerical majority, perhaps 60 percent of Iraq’s population, and they appear destined to dominate any democratically elected government.

The Sunnis, who have historically ruled Iraq, stand to lose that control. Moreover, militant Muslims willing to exploit those tensions are plentiful in both branches of Islam.

Suicide bombers killed nearly 200 Shi’ite pilgrims earlier this month in simultaneous attacks on religious festivals in Baghdad and Karbala.

Smaller religious groups have also suffered since the ouster of Saddam, including the tiny Mandean sect, known for its flowing white robes and river baptism rituals inherited from the biblical prophet John the Baptist. In the past year, dozens of Mandeans have been slain and entire families have been forced by Muslim fanatics to convert to Islam, Mandeans say.

If Christian visitors from the United States sometimes appear naive, Christians in Iraq are not. Some are deliberately lowering their profile in anticipation of a diminishing American military presence.

About 50 Christian aid organizations have registered with the coalition as nongovernment organizations, or NGOs.

But about two weeks ago, the coalition suddenly made the list secret and then transferred the roster to a newly formed Iraqi Ministry of Planning. The ministry also refuses to release the names of groups.

Pastors at some of the new churches in Baghdad decline to speak with Western reporters. One English-speaking Iraqi pastor, at the end of a three-hour interview, refused to give even his first name despite being promised his identity would be protected.

One minister who did agree to speak for attribution, the Rev. Wissam Jamil of the Evangelical Holiness Revival Church, said his congregation was composed entirely of Christians who previously had belonged to other churches.

Proselytizing Muslims, he said, is strictly off limits.

“If a Muslim comes to me and says he wants to become a Christian, I say, ‘No.’ I obey the law,” Mr. Jamil said. He then quoted the well-known biblical passage: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Some Christians will say in hushed tones that they know of Muslims who have secretly converted, but go silent when asked for details.

“No Muslim would ever say he had become a Christian. That is the greatest sin in Islam, even more serious than adultery. The family would kill him and if they didn’t, others would,” said one 30-year-old Sunni Muslim who works as a translator.


Constitutional protection

Christian churches everywhere welcome nonbelievers to attend services and Iraq is no exception. At some Catholic churches, Muslim women come and pray to the Virgin Mary and light a candle. Muslims who are sick sometimes attend healing services at evangelical churches.

One goal of the U.S.-led coalition in its attempt to establish a democratic government here is to begin a tradition of religious freedom, much as it exists in the United States and the rest of the West.

An interim constitution approved this month by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council attempts to meld Islam and religious diversity.

The document, slated to take effect June 30 with the transfer of power to an Iraqi government, states “This Law respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice.”

It also says: “Each Iraqi has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice. Coercion in such matters shall be prohibited.”

Though the language sounds straightforward, the Governing Council’s single non-Muslim member, Yonadam Kanna, was rebuffed when he sought to include a provision that would allow children with one Muslim and one Christian parent to choose between the two religions at age 18.

“Children are automatically registered as Muslims and we reject this,” Mr. Kanna, an Assyrian Christian, said in an interview.

When his proposal proved too divisive for the council to consider, he said, “we agreed to postpone this discussion until the new law is in place.”

“Even though the constitution establishes freedom of conscience and religious practice, I can’t imagine a Muslim becoming a Christian,” he said. “It’s too early to think that we can have full freedom of religion.”

Meanwhile, the new churches have drawn opposition from existing churches.

“The aim of these churches is to divide Christianity,” said Mr. Mehanni, pastor of the Presbyterian church. “While the number of churches increases, the number of Christians does not.”

Officials in the older churches frequently complain that evangelicals lavish aid in poorer Christian neighborhoods in an attempt to win new members.

“First they come and open a church in a residential area that is full of Christians,” said Bishop Meti Mattoka of the Syrian Catholic Church.

“They give aid and food to people who desperately need help. They concentrate on Christian areas because it’s safer and easier. If they spread to Muslim areas, people will attack them,” Bishop Meti said.

Officials also complain about the millions of Arabic-language New Testaments and other Christian publications that are being shipped here from the United States.

In some churches, they can be found in stacks of cardboard boxes piling up in storage rooms.

“Do we really need this huge amount of Bibles? Do they think we don’t know Jesus Christ? Let them go to the Muslim areas and distribute their Bibles. If they do it in Muslim neighborhoods, the Muslims will kill them,” Bishop Meti said.

The divide between new evangelical churches and traditional Catholic and Orthodox sects is common in many parts of the world. In Latin America, evangelical churches have been expanding for decades at the expense of Catholicism. In Russia, the Orthodox Church has lobbied, with some success, for laws placing limits on new churches.

Such a split, though obvious in Iraq, becomes difficult to put in the proper context because evangelical leaders are reluctant to speak with reporters.

Food and music

Moreover, many Christian-inspired aid groups freely distribute aid without any religious intent.

U.S. Army Sgt. Shawn Jensen of Wilmington, N.C., founded one such aid group while on active duty here.

“There was a lot of aid coming in. People were bringing in boxes and distributing aid on the streets but no one knew where it went. Some of it wound up on the black market,” said Sgt. Jensen, who is seeking to have his one-year tour of duty in Iraq extended to continue developing his group, “Alive,” as a registered NGO.

“I prayed a simple prayer asking God to make a way to help. I saw a need in Sadr City,” he said, referring to a vast Shi’ite slum in Baghdad.

Some of the new evangelical churches are also setting up aid organizations of their own, in separate buildings with separate bylaws.

Though such efforts inevitably arouse suspicion from the older churches, a visitor to an evangelical worship service can readily understand the attraction for Iraqis accustomed to a quiet liturgical Mass.

At the New Life Church, which opened earlier this month, four persons accompanied by a single electronic keyboard, with their voices routed through a modern sound mixing board, supplied the harmony last Sunday for a congregation of at least 200.

The singing lasted for hours in a display of emotion that would have been unimaginable during the days of Saddam, when Christian worship was tightly controlled and churches paid a price in terms of loyalty to the regime just to remain open.

“Not all churches have the same way of worshiping,” Bashar Khamo, 25, an architect, said after the service. “We believe the Lord wants to build a new country and we ask the Holy Spirit to come to this land and heal this land.”

Said the Rev. Hala Jules, who sang harmonies throughout the service: “God will touch each person in His own way. We believe God will protect us.”

• Maya Alleruzzo contributed to this report.

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