Iraqis’ Faith Grows as Churches Close

By Claire Evans

03/30/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)Chaos has unfolded throughout every decade of Iraq’s recent history. Today, a virus keeps the country closed, leaving the vulnerable unable to access basic resources. The vulnerable include those displaced by ISIS, Islamic extremists whose genocide against religious minorities sowed chaos across Iraq. The genocide was foreshadowed by a massive bombing against a church a few years prior. But even before this, chaos was still unfolding. The early 2000s were plagued by militia violence, prompting one of the first waves of Christian immigration from Iraq.

For Iraqi Christians, chaos and uncertainty have always defined life. Today’s uncertainty is different. Rather than fleeing their homes, Christians are staying home and reflecting on the spiritual lessons they have learned throughout years of persecution.

Sarah is a young woman living in Baghdad, active in her church, and musically gifted. She has watched how decades of persecution have impacted the Christian community. “Churches in Iraq—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestants—were always there in every crisis passed, since forever,” she observes. Now again, the country is in a crisis. This time, however, the churches are closed. For Sarah, that is not necessarily bad. “Personally, the current crisis improved my spiritual life. God is my shelter, where I can run to whenever needed.”

Even while the Christian population in Iraq has shrunk, the number of Muslims converting to Christianity has grown. For many, it was watching the persecution of Christians that served as a witness. When they converted, they faced persecution from their families that left many homeless, jobless, and with nowhere to go. Yet, their faith has only grown, including during this current crisis, which has further isolated them from society.

I am leading a great group of believers who came to Christ and changed their religion,” says one pastor. “This is only another challenge that has been added to their many challenges. I am encouraged to be with them; they have no fear. Sometimes I encourage them. Then I realized that I am encouraged by them and by their faith.”

Even so, several Christians find this current situation harder for their faith. In every crisis of persecution, the church was open and present. For context, Sarah explains that “after 2003, the churches in Iraq suffered persecution, especially in between 2005 – 2011. The bombing of a church during Sunday prayer by suicide belts in 2010 was the last maybe… today, we can see how the church rebuilt, and people can have prayers there once again.”

And yet now, because of a virus, the churches are closed for the first time. For so many Christians, church is their community. Societal discrimination has left them with little else. Thus the inability to pray in church during a time of hardship sits unwell among the hearts of some. “I’ve attended the evangelical church since 20004,” says one woman. “I can confirm that the spiritual level was always better during crises and hard times. I am against closing the churches and canceling services.”

It can be frustrating to watch churches close for something invisible, given the history of the churches staying open even in times of violence. It helps, however, to think of the situation in a different way. “We’ve been distributing Bibles until the government’s statement about the curfew,” says a Christian leader. “We had to close the office as everybody else. Persecution over the history had a positive impact on Christians’ faith. This time may be the persecution didn’t come by a physical enemy, it is like a virus. I believe God gives us protection.”

We need to be real facing our fear. This time, our faith decides who we are. I pray we stay close to God all the time, not only the hard times,” adds another.

It is, at least, an opportunity for reflection. An opportunity that, because of the years of chaos faced by Iraq, has been difficult to grasp. As one convert says, “When I came to know Christ many years ago, I was growing on my faith through attending services and listening to the word of God. But due to life and business, I couldn’t read and listen to the word of God. This epidemic helped me to go back. Even I am worried about the future of this country, but I believe in the blood of Christ.

Sarah says it well. “(Hardship) is not something new. Christians during displacement were even more committed to their prayers, attending mass, and helping each other.

“Christian faith passed through difficulties over the centuries, but the difficulties were always for good,” she continues.

Difficult times continue to unfold in Iraq. But while these days are different from the persecution challenges Iraq’s Christians normally face, their faith deepens. After all, persecution has taught them much about days of uncertainty—and the rock who is Christ.

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