A letter from Nuhad Tomeh in Lebanon
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ:
A blessed Advent greeting from Beirut, from where I write.
This is a short news report and reflection on my recent visit to Iraq, which took place November 6–15. I flew into Erbil in Northern Iraq, arriving at a new airport, less than one year old. Erbil is a growing city with many businesses opening and is reasonably safe and with good services provided by the Kurdistan government. Because it is the capital, Erbil has received many international NGOs as well as new evangelical churches and parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ and the Bible Society. Erbil is now home to many members of the Assyrian Presbyterian Church in Baghdad, which is now closed after most of the members left in the aftermath of the war. With the help of Rev. Haitham Jazwari, who pastors the Presbyterian Church in Kirkuk (about one hour drive from Erbil), they received permission from the local Kurdistan officials to open a Presbyterian church in their new adopted city.
I was driven from Erbil to Kirkuk by an elder of the Assyrian Church in Erbil, Samer Daoud, and I spent two days with Rev. Haitham Jazrawi and his congregation, who are actively involved in a prison ministry and in running a kindergarten of 300 that, a few years ago, received a Presbyterian Women’s Birthday Offering that allowed it to begin to expand operations into a Christian primary school. Although the roads are not particularly safe, Haitham and I made the three-hour drive by taxi to Baghdad so that we could meet with the Presbyterian church there. Once again I witnessed the mission and ministry of the church seen in their recently opened kindergarten and in their plans for a home for the elderly (for which they will receive financial help from the Iraqi government). They view both projects as opportunities to give witness to Christ in their community as well as provide jobs for Christians, encouraging them to remain in the country.
We were joined in Baghdad by a representative of the Presbyterian church in Mosul, Ms. Hana al-Saka. Following the kidnapping and murder of her brother, an elder at the church, in November 2006, the church closed, and the few brave, remaining members now meet irregularly for worship in one another’s homes in a city that has become extremely dangerous for Christians. The next day Hana, Haitham and I left for Basrah, along with two elders from the Baghdad church, Amman Daoud and Yousif al Saka. The usual five-hour drive was made much longer due to the frequent checkpoints (close to 100!) that have been set up. We were enthusiastically welcomed by several elders of the Presbyterian church there, including Dr. Zuhair Fathallah, who has led this congregation since its last pastor left in 2004. All together these leaders of the churches comprise an Assembly. The purpose for convening the Assembly in Basrah for two and a half days was to be able to meet with a delegation from The Outreach Foundation (TOF), led by Marilyn Borst, who is the Associate Director for Partnership Development for TOF, one of the strategic mission partners of the PC(USA). This was Marilyn’s sixth trip to Iraq and she had brought with her seven Presbyterian pastors and mission leaders from around the United States, who spent an afternoon hearing from the Iraqi church leaders about the opportunities and challenges facing them.
An additional day was spent with the Assembly discussing its own urgent business:
the possibility of the Assembly merging with the Synod of Syria and Lebanon
the opening of a new (Assyrian Presbyterian) church in Erbil
the necessity for training of lay leaders (currently the Near East School of Theology in Beirut as well as the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches provide these opportunities)
sharing concerns about the future of the dwindling presence of Christians in Iraq (for instance, the Presbyterian church in Iraq has had to close two of its five churches because of dangerous conditions and the flight of members)
Our remaining time in Basra was spent enjoying worship, food and fellowship along with the local congregation and the group from The Outreach Foundation. The weather in Basra is beautiful at this time of the year and a highlight was a sumptuous potluck lunch served and eaten in the courtyard of the church. During conversations with the members of the Basrah church I was excited to hear about their thriving kindergarten and preschool that serves over 200 children in the community, while knowing that they are also discouraged and frustrated by an uncertain future and longing to have a full-time pastor once again.
Back in Baghdad, I was honored to preach in our Presbyterian church and brought a message of hope and love as we lean into Advent, the season of promise. Driving back to the north via Kirkuk, Haitham and I continued on to Erbil, where, along with an elder there, we met with a representative of the local government to confirm plans for the opening of the new Presbyterian church. As I flew back to Beirut once more, I was filled with conflicting emotions of despair and hope as I played back in my head the conversations, the realities of existing ministries, the uncertainties about the future along with the unstable situation currently, the limitations of resources, the lack of ordained leadership to guide the church forward (Haitham is the only Iraqi Presbyterian pastor remaining, with the Baghdad church being served by a pastor from Egypt)… I took comfort in recalling Paul’s description of the church under duress, which so aptly fits the church in Iraq today:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body (2 Corinthians 4:7–11).
All of the Christians in Iraq live under the cloud of fear that was created when, a little over a year ago, gunmen broke into the worship service at Our Lady of Salvation Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad and, in the ensuing shootout with security forces, over 50 people—including the two priests who offered themselves as hostages so as to preserve the lives of others—were killed. I had made it a point to visit this church and was encouraged to see it being rebuilt while, at the same time, I despaired to see the brutal concrete walls that now surround it (and almost all the churches in Iraq now need government-provided security forces to guard them). Apparently America’s invasion and the toppling of Saddam have done little to bring peace or security….
In this season of Advent, may we listen anew to the prophet Isaiah, beloved for his description of the coming of the Messiah. For it was that same prophet who has us yearning for that day when people “… will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Is. 2:4). No one yearns for that day more than the beleaguered Christians of Iraq. May our prayers join with theirs.
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 360
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 298