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Iraq Ministry Surge

Three groups find embattled Christians reaching out to each other and an oasis in the country's north.

The World Evangelical Alliance and United Bible Societies are moving forward with plans to launch branches in Iraq sometime within the next year. Aglow International already has one women's fellowship started and one forming.

Bible Society in Iraq: Reestablishing a presence

"Since 2003 the United Bible Societies has been interested in reestablishing its presence in Iraq," said Mike Bassous, general secretary of the Bible Society in Lebanon.

The Bible Society operates an Iraqi branch near Baghdad. The office was officially closed in 1979, although it was permitted to import limited quantities of Scripture. The Bible Society reopened the office and warehouse in 2003 with two full-time staff members, but due to the unrest in Baghdad, Bassous said, "the operation is normal, but very sensitive."

Nabil Omeish, program coordinator for the Iraqi Bible Society, characterizes the Kurdistan Regional Government as kind and generous. The application process took a year, during which the Kurdistani government accepted 20,000 Bible Society calendars in Kurdish—and compensated the Bible Society for the production cost. Omeish told the story of another connection in Kurdistan: A Christian financier gave the Baghdad Bible Society $15,000 for a generator.

Omeish received official permission in July to open a branch and is now shopping for office space in Erbil, where he said property values are climbing.

The United Bible Societies expects the new branch in the more secure north of Iraq to be able to have more stability than the office in Baghdad. For a while, the Erbil office will be under the administration of the Lebanese Bible Society. Omeish will concentrate primarily on reaching Kurds. In addition to more funds, he and Bassous are looking for ethnic Kurdish staff for the new Bible Society.

Iraqi Evangelical Alliance: 'Part of a large (not just American) family'

Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), said he would not be surprised to see Iraqi evangelicals also choose Kurdistan as the initial location for an Iraqi Evangelical Alliance.

The WEA has had representatives assess the Iraqi evangelical scene and discuss forming a coalition based on a statement of faith and a desire to work together.

"We don't want one narrow slice of evangelicalism becoming the evangelical alliance in the country. We actually do research to make sure it is the broadest representation of evangelicals possible at any given time," he said.

"I think in the midst of the crisis in this situation, there is this sense that we need to work together," said Tunnicliffe. "We've got to overlook some of our nuances in terms of ecclesiology, but we have a core beliefs that we hold in common and it's better that we're together in this and that we face it."

Evangelical Iraqi groups have begun to discuss the details of an Iraqi Evangelical Alliance, which Tunnicliffe expects will be launched within 12 months. Organizations such as churches, denominations, or parachurch ministries in Iraq that want to join will go through an application process with the WEA. Affiliates of the umbrella organization do not offer membership to individuals.

Initially, WEA workers are working simply to help Iraqi evangelical Christians identify each other. "A sense of unity is a great spiritual benefit," said Tunnicliffe. An evangelical alliance "gives them greater standing with the government, but it also gives them the sense that they're not alone, that they're a part of a large family around the world," he said.

He also believes that an evangelical alliance would give Iraqi Christians a voice and increased legitimacy in public opinion. "One of the ways we can help the Iraqi church is by continuing to show that evangelicalism is not an American phenomenon," said Tunnicliffe. "Whether the nuance of that actually gets through is another story."

Aglow, "All of a sudden"

Aglow International, a charismatic Seattle-based women's organization, launched an affiliate group in Douhuk, Iraq, in May. A second local fellowship is currently forming.

Aglow president Jane Hansen said the ministry does not target specific countries; "The Lord does his work and all of a sudden, they're on your radar screen." In the case of Iraq, Kurdish women formed a local fellowship after a medical aid worker from the U. S., Abby Abildness, told them about Aglow.

Aglow reports that 100 percent of its 4,600 groups are led by nationals. Women meet in small groups and hold annual conferences on evangelism and prayer. Aglow women are also involved in their communities as mentors and volunteers.

"In terms of security, we don't have any active security measures, just common sense and prayer and trusting God," said Hansen, adding that having indigenous leadership lowered risks considerably. Still, "In the Middle East, they have to use great wisdom in when and how and what they share."

While nowhere in Iraq is safe, Kurdistan has been separate from the south for about a decade and is stable due to a strong, secular government and homogenous population, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East program. "That explains why it's possible for Christian groups—for anybody—to operate. There is foreign investment. There are business groups operating there. There are all sorts of different activities going on."

Christopher Swift, a researcher at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that in spite of Kurdistan's insulation from Baghdad's violence, all is not well. Religious rights are tenuous, and discrimination and property confiscation continue to be problems for the area's Christians.

Neither Bassous nor Tunnicliffe suggests that launching parachurch organizations in the north of Iraq is a signal of increased stability. "Unfortunately, there has been a demographic change in Christian presence in Iraq," Bassous said. "Most of them have moved to [Kurdistan] because of its relative safety." In fact, said Swift, internally displaced persons are a strain on the region.

However, they say it does show an increased solidarity among Iraqi Christians.

The increased Christian presence in the Kurdish region is not only due to refugees; Kurds are spreading the gospel among themselves, according to Bassous, and the Kurdish church is growing.

"We have now at least more than 1,000 Kurdish people who have changed their religion to be Christians," said Omeish. "And this is in front of the government to see. This is the only Muslim country like this."

In addition, said Tunicliffe, "People are also becoming followers of Christ as they see the church reaching out and ministering to the whole needs of people." Abildness told Aglow that the Kurdish women were partly motivated to form a fellowship because "They appreciate the good works that Christians do to help and rebuild their community."

Related Elsewhere:

The Bible Society in Lebanon and United Bible Societies and Aglow International have more information about their affiliates in Iraq.

George Tunnicliffe spoke with the Christian Post about the Evangelical Alliance forming in Iraq.

Reuters reported about investment and tourism in Kurdistan.

For more coverage on the Iraq conflict, commentary and thought on just war, or Christian debate, see our CT War in Iraq archive. Previous news about Iraq includes:

Go Figure | Recent stats on Iraqi refugees, embezzlement, and Congress's religion. (February 16, 2007)
What Iraq's Christians Need | Two strategies to build up the church in the war-weary nation. A Christianity Today editorial. (January 22, 2007)
What Was CPT Doing in Iraq? | The original vision of a peacemaker force from the man who started it. (March 28, 2006)
Iraq Churches Attacked Again | Threats renewed against Christian Peacemaker Teams workers. (January 31, 2006)

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