Baghdad pastors fear for future of Christian church in Iraq despite growth
Young adults ‘choked’ by persecution, lack of jobs & uncertainty about the future
Oct 26, 2011
By JONI B. HANNIGAN
Managing Editor

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BAGHDAD, IRAQ (FBW)—Despite a growing wave of persecution, one of the first independent evangelical, Bible-believing churches in Iraq has risen from the ruins of an embattled Baghdad—and it is thriving. 

In a city still besieged by blackouts and curfews well after the 2003 U.S.-led toppling of Iraq’s longtime dictator, the congregation has increased 10-fold from 30 to 300.

*Sammy Thompson, a 42-year-old Iraqi Armenian, who started the church by secretly leading Bible studies in homes—something he was jailed for during the Saddam Hussein era—is no longer on the wrong side of the law, but instead faces threats from his own neighbors.

Though worship in an evangelical Christian church was seen as anti-government and political in 2001, now when the fabric of Iraq’s culture is stretched thin by those who clamor for a better way of life—Thompson said some will stop at nothing short of ridding the country of Christian believers.

Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
“The government is OK and happy that we are there,” Thompson said Sept. 27 during an interview in Northern Iraq. “But the Islamic groups, they are unhappy, they are uncomfortable with us.”

Death threats are common. The pastor has received phone calls and letters with the chilling words: “We are going to come and kill you today. We are going to slaughter you. It would be better for you to leave Iraq. We are watching your family.”

So while expansion and growth has positioned the church to reach into the community, to provide activities for young people, to help widows and orphans—to encourage education and morality—it has given detractors an excuse to hurl insults.

“They say you are invented by the Americans because you did not exist before,” Thompson said, folding his arms over his chest and shaking his head. “We had ministered before, but had no official church before that time. We have a building now, it has a cross on it, it has a name on it.”

SAFETY IS PRIMARY CONCERN

Concerned about safety, Thompson does not broadcast the name of the church, fearing its members—especially its youth—could become targets for radicals. He has a reason to be cautious. Opening the door of the church one morning in 2007, he and youth pastor *Paul David came face-to-face with the horrifying sight of a mutilated corpse.

Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
“We saw they had slaughtered a girl and dumped her in the church. Murder is cheap here,” Thompson said. “We couldn’t figure it out. She was disfigured and abused.” Eyes downcast, he shuddered. “And we even have a slogan in this country, ‘A penny a bullet.’”

Safety is a daily challenge for all of the residents of Baghdad who worry about getting caught in the crossfire between Sunni or Shiite Muslims or waylaid by a car bomb or a suicide bomber. “Danger is all the time, all the time. Everywhere we go. Intentional and unintentional danger,” Thompson said.

At a pastors’ conference in Iraqi’s Kurdistan, Thompson sat in the back, scanning the room. At a restaurant, during the interview, and chatting with other pastors in the smoke-filled lobby of a hotel, he faced the outside door, his back to the wall. “Anybody can come and shoot you,” he said. “There is lawlessness.”

Despite the reported thousands of military troops in Iraq, Thompson said, “We don’t see their presence,” at least “not in Baghdad.”

Commenting briefly on the war and the subsequent state of affairs in Iraq, Thompson and David said they were happy the American military helped rid the country of Saddam Hussein, but in their opinion the war has not been well managed and security goals have not been met. The pastors indicated the infrastructure, already weak before 2003, is weaker, at least in Baghdad—and people are unsettled and confused as to their next steps.

Related Coverage:

A New Day in Iraqi Kurdistan

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