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Worship Zone

Against a backdrop of death and destruction, Iraqi believers are risking life and limb to fill their churches.

Saddam Hussein is gone, and the nation is moving (albeit slowly) toward an independent democracy. But it's still not easy being a Christian in Iraq. Iraqi Christians, who have become targets of attacks by Muslim extremists and bandits, are risking their lives to practice their faith and attend worship services. Each Sunday, they race through the streets to reach their churches, desperately trying to avoid any violent confrontations.

Sadly, an increasing number of believers have been killed or wounded in Muslim violence against Christians. Christian–owned shops are being vandalized, and Christian women who refuse to wear traditional scarves are also being targeted for abuse.

Yet the scene is not entirely grim. Born–again believers, including church leaders and missionary workers, suggest Iraq is heading toward its biggest spiritual revival ever after decades of fear and hardship under the regime of Saddam. They report that amid ongoing death and destruction, people are accepting Christ as their "personal Savior and Lord" daily throughout the country.

Hungry for Christ

"People are hungry for Christ," says 33–year–old Iraqi pastor Ghassan Thomas, who speaks both Arabic and English. Sitting in his Baghdad office, with distant explosions and gunfire often audible, he recalls how "the regime of Saddam Hussein did not allow the establishment" of new denominations.

"Therefore I was involved in an indirect ministry through the kindergarten, as I did not get permission to officially operate and evangelize. However, people soon said to me: 'This is like a church.'"

With American soldiers in town, Thomas was finally able to realize his dream and open his Evangelical Alliance Church last July. His congregation can hardly accommodate the hundreds of people that are attending its meetings in the rented church building.

The "hallelujahs" and "amens" reverberate throughout the small but lively congregation as Thomas explains the hope of Christ. Among those in the audience are Christians who were forced to fight in the army of Saddam Hussein.

"I came to Christ shortly before the Gulf War," says Nova Hagopian, 33, a former soldier who plays piano in the church. "Even during the war, I knew that God protected me. I was not against the Americans and was very happy they were there. My unit even tried to surrender to U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, but it was too dangerous because of land mines. We finally managed to withdraw and to escape."

Christians from other churches have similar stories, as they recall how they were forced to fight against Iran and later Kuwait. They have one thing in common: the unwavering assurance that "the Lord" saved their lives.

"I fought in a medical unit in the Baghdad area," says 27–year–old Emil Sorian, an Armenian Catholic Christian. "I managed to leave the unit a week before the fall of Baghdad. God protected me, and I was able to hide with my uncle."

'Loving' Saddam

Despite the oppressive nature of the old regime, many of these believers say they do not hold a grudge against Saddam Hussein. "We love Saddam Hussein," explains 32–year–old Maral Manuel, who accepted Christ at 18. "The Bible says we should respect and pray for our president. I would've loved to see Saddam Hussein in our church. I would have told him that God loves him and that Christ can forgive his sins," she says.

Unlike some other Iraqis, Evangelical Alliance Church members did not celebrate the death of Hussein's eldest sons, who were killed by U.S. forces last summer. "We never prayed for the downfall of the regime. But if God allowed it to happen, then that is good," explains Manuel.

Each Sunday, she travels to worship services in a special bus, as shootings and attacks nearby the church have made it too dangerous for believers to travel alone. Since President George W. Bush declared an end to "major hostilities" last May, hundreds of Iraqis, international aid workers, and American soldiers have been killed.

Church leaders especially are concerned that radicals within the Shiite Muslim majority will step up the pressure on Iraq's roughly 700,000 Christians. There are 22 million people in the country overall.

Yet Manuel believes that hardship has given an extra impulse for Iraqis to visit church and accept Jesus Christ. "We need prayer, but I also think that other European countries need prayer," she says. "While our churches are increasing, European churches lose members."

Non–Protestant churches are also reporting high attendance rates. Many members of the 2,000–strong Armenian Catholic Church in Baghdad, for instance, are visiting their five–year–old building every week to pray, says Priest and Patriarchal Vicar Antoine Atamian.

Some Iraqi Christians have suggested the U.S. military should bring back the many soldiers and police who were dismissed shortly after the downfall of the regime. Bringing back at least some of the previous security forces, they believe, will create a safer environment for desperately needed humanitarian aid.

"Unfortunately, many Christians are in need of food as they have no job. Others have physical needs," explains Thomas. "It is my prayer that Jesus Christ will meet both the spiritual and physical needs of Iraqi Christians."

Updated and adapted from an ASSIST News Service report (July 29, 2003), © 2003 ASSIST News Service (www.assist–ministries.com). Used by permission.

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