A letter from Nuhad Tomeh in Lebanon
December 15, 2009
New hope for Christians in Iraq
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in [Iraq], for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted to us through the prayers of many. Indeed, this is our boast, the testimony of our conscience: we have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God — and all the more toward you.
(2 Corinthians 1:3-12)
Dear Friends in Christ, greetings from Syria,
I received the best Advent and Christmas gift in many years last weekend, the second week of Advent. In one of the oldest cities in Syria, Seidnaya (where the inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke), I was blessed to spend 24 hours with 18 young men and women from Bagdad. I consider this encounter the climax of my ministry this year, which is why, though I just sent my Advent and Christmas letter, I am sharing this great hope with you.
The 18 young people represented the Iraq Christian Youth Committee (ICYC), which is the local branch of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). This was their annual training seminar, which has been convened each year since they were established in 2004. The ICYC is an ecumenical group, and they come from almost all the churches in Iraq, such as Chaldean (Catholic), Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac, Catholic, Presbyterian and Greek Orthodox. Four of the ICYC students are still college students, while the rest are all recent graduates with degrees in computer science, business, dentistry, engineering and English literature. These young people are the future of the church in Iraq.
The seminar was intended to help these young people to develop new leadership skills, to learn to lead interfaith dialogue and Bible studies and to teach them the importance of ecumenical ministry. They also learned to develop and direct social activities and events and to minister to others. They worked on communication skills so they can communicate the gospel effectively in their communities, as the people in Corinth did.
The devotion for Saturday morning was based on the text of 2 Corinthians 1:3-12, which I included at the beginning of this letter. The reader of this text changed verse 8 to read: “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Iraq [the original says Asia] for we were so despaired of life itself ...”
To hear these 18 young men and women share their experience of reliving this text, as the Corinthians lived it first, was an amazing experience for me. For them, this was the life they’re living now, not just a story from the Bible.
The second part of the devotion was a drama about how it seems that God leaves us alone when we need him most. We naturally complain about this, as Job did, but eventually we discover that this is not the case: God is always there, in the midst of all the trouble and war and disappointment. The text asserts that we experience difficult crises in order that we can help others who are in even more difficult situations. During the break I asked some of the participants what keeps them going in the middle of all that is happening in Iraq. They had different answers, but the common theme was what Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans:
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (Romans 8:31-35)
The participants received great encouragement just to know about the presence of all the other churches working in the ministry of the Lord. Some of them already knew each other, but it empowered them to know of the Lord’s work through many. “This type of seminar encouraged us to stick to our church communities and country,” one of the participants said. “All this reassured me that God will not leave himself without a witness!”
God will never leave his church in Iraq, and these young people are a living example of his presence in Iraq. It was not easy to bring these 18 young people out of Baghdad into Syria, but the need challenged us to make it happen, especially since we could not do this kind of training inside Iraq due to security issues. It took an ecumenical effort to bring it off. The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) and, in Syria, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East facilitated the entry visas. The World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Iraq Program and the Christian World Service of New Zealand (CWS) provided funding for travel and accommodations. This joint effort is by itself another sign of hope for the ecumenical movement.
I could not help but share this great news of the new hope I see for Iraqi Christians and for the growing support from Christians outside Iraq to the Christian presence and witness inside Iraq. You, too, can share this good news — that the Incarnate Lord is still at work at this time and always. May he work again through you now and always.
Wishing you a blessed Advent and a very merry Christmas,
Please note that I will be on interpretation assignment this spring, from mid-April through mid-June, 2010. I am willing to speak in churches and at presbytery meetings. Please contact me directly if you are interested, or contact Carol Somplatsky-Jarman in the Mission Connections office to make a request. Thank you!
The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 346