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Deep Roots and New Beginnings

A Letter from Elmarie and Scott Parker, serving in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria

Summer 2023

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1840. That is the year carved into the keystone of the first Protestant church built in the Middle East (though there is good-natured regional debate about this). Through this church location, multiple generations of faithful Iraqi Presbyterians have nurtured holistic faith and practice grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Before picture. You can see the hole in the roof.

The church sits on the west side of the Tigris River in the old part of Mosul. Mosul grew over the centuries to encompass both sides of the Tigris and is built on the ruins of ancient Nineveh. As a part of the Cradle of Civilization, Mosul and the surrounding area has been home to multiple empires over the eons. Today it is the second largest city in Iraq after Baghdad. Before the destruction of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, occupation by ISIS, and the ensuing battle led by Iraqi and U.S.-coalition forces to expel ISIS, Mosul was an ethnically and religiously diverse city made up of Kurds, Sunni Muslims, Assyrians and other Christians, Turkmens, and other smaller ethnic groups. It has been nicknamed variously over the centuries: “the Paradise,” “the Green,” “the Humped,” “The Pearl of the North,” and sadly, more recently, “the city of a million soldiers.”

My colleague, Luciano Kovacs, who serves as the PC(USA) Area Coordinator for Europe and the Middle East, and I had the privilege of visiting Mosul and this historic church during our recent trip to visit with all of PC(USA)’s partners in Iraq. It was my first time to stand in this place I have longed to visit since my first trip to Iraq in 2011. The story of this faithful congregation has long inspired me. Even after the west side of Mosul was overtaken by al-Qaeda during the years following the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, the last remaining family of this congregation still made the dangerous trek into the church to check on its welfare. The al-Saka sisters (and their respective families) remained in Mosul, meeting for worship and prayer gatherings, until the threat of ISIS drove them to move to Erbil. It was a joy to see them again during a gathering of the newly forming Presbyterian church in Erbil.

Close-up of the church keystone and date in Arabic (1840)

But the building remains in Mosul—a testimony to the persevering presence of Christian ministry in a city that is now mostly emptied of Christians. It was used as an open-fire kitchen by ISIS, leaving the walls blackened and the symbols of the church shattered—except for the keystone in the entry gate. The building suffered a missile strike through the roof by coalition forces when ISIS was being driven from the city. It took 150 truckloads to clear the rubble away and begin restoration work after 2017.

Onto the blackened walls a visiting team from The Outreach Foundation, representing some of the many American Presbyterian churches who contributed to the restoration of the Mosul Church, wrote scripture verses, including Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Later, the non-Christian workers who carried out the reconstruction asked what these words meant, especially since Christians (and many others) had suffered so much at the hands of ISIS. They wondered how Christians could love their enemies. This opened many a conversation between Iraqi Presbyterians and their neighbors. Now that the church building has been restored, Rev. Samer Karam shared with us their intention to hold regular prayer meetings at the church, even though it is unlikely that the families of the church will return to Mosul. Even more so, he emphasized that the church wants to use the building as a site of ministry to the wider community—hosting a medical clinic and offering English as a second language classes. Both requests came from the non-Christian community around the church building.

3. Elder Maher (L), Rev. Samer, Elder Aman (who oversaw the restoration), and me in the restored sanctuary.

I am humbled by the ways in which our Lord brings new beginnings literally out of the rubble. The good news of Jesus Christ continues to come alive in communities throughout Iraq as our Iraqi siblings in Christ serve their neighbors and even those who could easily be perceived as enemies with love expressed in practical ways. Their deep roots in Iraq are springing forth with new shoots of life through the ministries described here, two new worshipping communities (one in Erbil and one in Dohuk) and expanded educational ministries in Baghdad. They remain a steadfast presence in Basra and Kirkuk as well. What a privilege we have as American Presbyterians in the PC(USA) to learn from and accompany this beloved part of Christ’s body in Iraq.

I thank you for your continuing partnership with us and our siblings in Christ in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Your prayers, your kind and encouraging emails checking in on us all, your collaborative efforts all mean more than words could ever convey. You remain a part of how God is making a way for new beginnings, new life that springs forth out of deep roots.

In grateful service together with you all,

Elmarie (for Scott as well)

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