Christian Perseverance in Iraq

A Letter from Noah Park and Esther Shin, serving in Egypt

September 2017

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Greetings in our Lord.

Amgad is an Egyptian pastor serving in a Presbyterian congregation in Basra, Iraq. This summer, we came to meet him and his family a few times. “Akbarak ei,” “Ehkily,” I asked him. “What is your news? Tell me a story.”

Before getting to know him, what most interested me was the fact that he works in Basra, where Sinbad the Sailor set out in The One Thousand and One Nights. Then I learned about Iraqi Christians and their situation after the war.

The Iraq War (2003-2011) drove the country into chaos, but Basra, the third largest city, has been saved from the worst. After the end of Sunni rule—represented by the ousting of Saddam Hussein—the sectarian conflict in the region was less severe due to a Shia majority. During the six-year period (2003-2009) under British control, this petroleum-refining and exporting hub was rather well-preserved, and its residents did not experience the same amount of violence as reported in northern cities like Mosul or Baghdad. Recent ISIS rebels did not reach this southern area.

Shia Muslims’ presence as a majority also affected Christians in Basra. According to Amgad, they are not hostile to Christians in general. Shia Muslims see Jesus as a prophet, and they believe that at the end of history, he will accompany a well-known Islamic prophet. Many Shia women have a special bond with Mary the Mother of Jesus. To our surprise, some of them come to Christian worship services and enjoy having fellowship.

Currently, there are four Christian churches and about 2,000 Christians in Basra. Amgad told me that local leaders (Christian, Muslim, NGOs, tribal representatives) are all concerned about peaceful coexistence and have a regular peacemaking gathering during which they share concerns and work together to address pressing issues.

Amgad, an experienced pastor, was called to Basra Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church a year ago. The congregation has fond memories of anther Egyptian pastor who served from 1970 to 1990. Before the war, many Egyptians were working there, so an Egyptian family is not something unusual to Iraqis. On weekdays, Amgad runs a kindergarten for Muslim and Christian children. As a pastor, he leads a worship service on Friday evenings and supervises “Sunday” school on Friday and Saturday mornings. In the Middle East, the weekend is Friday and Saturday.

The story of one of the church’s attendees pleases me. When searching for a TV channel, he found a Christian channel broadcasting in Arabic. At that moment, he dropped the remote and lost the battery. While he was searching for the missing battery, he had to listen to the preaching. Even after finding it, he chose to continue listening until the end. You can imagine what happened thereafter. God’s Word has its own power, even in Basra for an anonymous Muslim.

However, the experience of being a Christian in Basra is not the norm in the rest of the country. Life for Iraqi Christians has been difficult and dangerous. After the beginning of the war in 2003, violence against Christians rose dramatically, with many reports of abductions, bombings, and killings. Christians have escaped from this war-torn country to nearby countries like Jordan, Syria-Lebanon, and Turkey. Many of them are living in refugee camps, often seeking protection and asylum from religious persecution. Some have even converted to Islam. There used to be about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq (about 7-8 percent of the population). Now, no one knows the exact number. It is certain, however, that a large number of Christians have left the country in order to avoid persecution. Even Amgad’s congregation, whose situation isn’t so dire, has seen a steep decline in membership.

As Amgad shared his experiences and knowledge, we became aware of the hopes and frustrations of the remaining Christians in Basra and Iraq. The war officially ended in 2011, and we all have almost forgotten this country. But the Iraqi civil war—especially with ISIS—is still going on. And our Christian brothers and sisters are there. Those living close to the Syrian border are still having great difficulties, but there is hope. We should be heartened that there is a congregation like Amgad’s, praying for spiritual revival and dreaming of new ministries like a medical clinic and regular school programs.

Some of our seminary’s graduates, like Amgad, are serving in ministries in other countries—Syria, South Sudan, the Gaza Strip, and Iraq. In many respects, Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETCS) is a strategic center for theological education. Its vision covers all Arabic-speaking countries. This academic year, the seminary is launching a new form of outreach, an online learning program for those who cannot attend in person. Students will primarily be Egyptians in other cities like Alexandria and Luxor, but they will possibly include those in Syria, Palestine, and other Arabic-speaking countries.

On July 26th, we celebrated our first anniversary in Egypt. We remember the night we reached the Cairo International Airport after midnight. We were relieved to arrive after a long flight with lots of luggage, but we were apprehensive of the mysterious city we would be living in. After a year, we have still not found a proper word to describe Cairo, a city with over 20 million people and a 5,000-year history. Walking on the crowded streets, we often think it was an act of God that we were sent to an Egyptian seminary.

This summer, we stayed in Cairo and mostly spent our time learning Arabic, visiting Egyptian churches, and preparing for the classes we will teach this fall. This academic year, we expect 60-70 new students in M.Div and MAT programs and hopefully more in the new online program (E-MAT).

Your prayers and support are the foundation of this ministry. We thank you for your participation in God’s work in Egypt, the Middle East, and North Africa. Thinking of your love, your prayers, and your financial support, we remember what the Apostle Paul says: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose … (1 Cor. 3:6-8).

We are thankful for you, God’s fellow workers!

Noah Park and Esther Shin

Please read this important message from Jose Luis Casal, Director, Presbyterian World Mission

Dear Friend of Presbyterian Mission,

What a joy to send this letter! As Presbyterian World Mission’s new director, I thank God for your faithful support of our mission co-workers. The enclosed newsletter celebrates the work you made possible by your prayers, engagement, and generous financial gifts. We can’t thank you enough.

After I began in April, I met with mission co-workers and global partners and was blessed to see firsthand the mighty ways God is working through them! Our global partners are asking us to help them move forward with life-changing ministries. Because of your support, we can say “yes” to these creative and exciting initiatives.

I write to invite you to make an even deeper commitment to this work. First, would you make a year-end gift for the sending and support of our mission co-workers? We need your gifts to end the year strong. With your help, we filled two new mission co-worker positions and plan to recruit for others. The needs in the world are great, and World Mission is poised to answer the call to serve.

Second, would you ask your session to add our mission co-workers to your congregation’s mission budget for 2018 and beyond? Our mission co-workers serve three-year or four-year terms. Your multi-year commitment will encourage them greatly.

Our mission co-workers are funded entirely from the special gifts of individuals and congregations like yours. Now more than ever, we need your financial support.

In faith, our mission co-workers accepted a call to mission service. In faith, World Mission sent them to work with our global partners. In faith, will you also commit to support this work with your prayers and financial gifts?

With gratitude,

Jose Luis Casal
Director

P.S. Your gift will help meet critical needs of our global partners. Thank you!


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