Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The Middle East is much in the mind of all of us. The war in Iraq has now passed the five-year point and is still going strong. The Gaza Strip continues as a flash point of incendiary potential that keeps world leaders awake at night. Terrorism seeps out of this part of the world to threaten anyone anywhere with catastrophe of global proportions. One almost despairs to find anything hopeful, even a glimpse of positive change.
In focusing on this part of the world in this article, we do not have in mind to assess the political fallout as it relates to the upcoming presidential election in the USA. Nor do we have in mind to put it into the historical context of eschatology. These would be worthwhile efforts to understand what is going on “all around us” in today’s context. Rather, we want to try to learn what these events are doing to our fellow Christians who live in that part of the world. More particularly, what is happening to our fellow Reformed believers in Iraq?
While we served as minister-on-loan to the Evangelical Reformed Churches in Singapore, we had the privilege to have as our house-guest Brother Victor Atallah, who during those years worked to establish the Middle East Reformed Fellowship. Over the years his repeated visits to Singapore while enroute to Australia and New Zealand allowed us to keep a bit up-to-date on the fruits of these labors. It was a learning experience to see how the Reformed churches throughout the world were able to work together to supervise and finance the labors of the Middle East Reformed Fellowship. The committee that oversees these works functions much like our mission committees, only it works not with one Reformed denomination, but many. There is necessary supervision, accountability, and help, in order to maintain a careful balance so as not to disrupt the spread of the gospel in that delicate part of the world.
Included on the web page of MERF is a significant document entitled “The Reformed Churches in Iraq.” This is most likely the most authoritative information on this subject. I will quote and summarize from this article.
Until recently most Christians were not aware of the presence of Christian churches in Iraq. It is possible that few Western Christians are conscious of the presence of Reformed churches there. Yet, biblical Christianity in Iraq goes back to the second half of the first century A.D.
The land of the Tigris and Euphrates was Abram the Hebrew’s birthplace. His wife Sarah, and his son Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, were also from there. Jacob also went back there in search of a good wife. He ended up marrying Leah and Rachel, his cousins, daughters of Laban, his mother’s brother.
The Assyrians and Babylonians exiled the Israelites there. It was there that the people of God experienced a spiritual awakening under leaders like Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai. The concept of gathering in simple meeting places called synagogues to study the Scriptures sprang up there and spread among the rest of the Jewish communities in Palestine and elsewhere. From there the exiles returned by the Lord’s mighty hand refreshed and blessed by the presence of a vibrant believing remnant. They rebuilt the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. For several hundred years afterwards they were prepared for the coming of the promised seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham through whom all families of the earth would be blessed.
Archeological evidence points to the conversion to the Christian faith of many Jews who remained in Mesopotamia during the first century. The Jewish communities there did not enjoy the same level of influence they had in the Mediterranean lands. Synagogues were turned into Christian meeting places, which gradually were remodeled and became elaborate liturgical church buildings. It was not long before the entire area became predominantly ‘Christian.’ The early Christian communities there did not seem to have had much pressure from local authorities or followers of other faiths. Even before the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the Christian communities there enjoyed much freedom and were spared the kind of persecution endured by other Christians elsewhere during the first three Christian centuries.
The quality of the Christian faith in Iraq seems to have declined as fast as the number of its adherents increased. The Church in Iraq was more quickly invaded by unbiblical doctrines and practices and more speedily divided than in other lands in the region. Mesopotamia became a strong base for Nestorianism and the anti-Chalcedon rebellion. Hierarchical and other forms of power struggles among the clergy sometimes led to violent clashes and to deep and lasting divisions among Christians. This, coupled with an increased distancing of the people from the reading and the study of the Bible, led the faithful to rely more and more on the clergy. They, in turn, lost sight of the ministry of the Word and the saving grace of God in Christ.
You recall that the early Christian church in the west was faced with a two-pronged attack by the enemy. First, it was in the form of terrible persecution at the hand of the Roman authorities. Those authorities insisted that everyone in the empire must be willing to serve Caesar as god. They did not require everyone to forsake their own religion; they insisted that they include in their religious practices prayer to Caesar and consider him a god. Accompanying this persecution and even succeeded by it were serious doctrinal controversies in the early Christian church. These are known as the Trinitarian controversies and concerned the three Persons of the Godhead and the divinity of Christ. The Western churches settled these issues by the Councils of the early church. The Eastern churches escaped the persecution but were more open to the heresies.
In the subsequent years the Mongols, Muslims, and Ottomans pretty much held sway over that part of the world. The Muslim armies easily subdued most of Iraq as well. The few Christians there were forced to seek refuge in the mountainous north. Their lives were spared only because already then the Muslims were preoccupied with their own conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.
Despite the internal weaknesses of the Church and the external threats to its existence, there continued to be a significant Christian minority in Iraq. Until the early part of the twentieth century, Christians constituted about 30% of the Iraqi population. Immigration and other demographic factors have reduced the numbers to less than 8% at the present time. For the most part they belong to various ethnic and linguistic branches of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. There are Chaldeans, Assyrians, Romans, and Armenians in both groups. In addition there is the ancient Nestorian Orthodox church, a portion of which migrated eastward and settled in southern India. There they gained some Indian converts and have survived until this day.
Still, Iraq’s ‘Christian’ communities have, throughout the centuries, had small groups of lay people and clergy deeply interested in the study of the Bible. The traditional churches for the most part, unlike others in the West prior to the Protestant Reformation, did not discourage the people from the study of the Bible. This made the job of Reformed missionaries far easier as they began their endeavours of Gospel proclamation in 1836. Reformed witness in Iraq and the Arabian Gulf was established as a joint endeavour between the American immigrant German Reformed churches at the time called “Reformed Churches in the USA” and the main Dutch immigrant churches called “Reformed Church in America.” Both denominations were committed to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith and the Great Commission. (The RCUSA, however, drifted to liberalism and ecumenism and later became part of what is now called the United Church of Christ. A small remnant remained faithful and is now called RCUS. The RCA still exists and has many faithful Reformed missionary-orientated people.)
Reformed mission work in Iraq proved to be very effective from the start. In less than five years, a congregation was organized in the northeastern city of Mosul. In 1840 a church building was erected for the use of the young congregation. Later another congregation was established about 15 miles from the first one, in a smaller town. The work continued to advance to the south and west. Congregations were organized in Kirkuk, Baghdad, and Basra, with several preaching stations throughout the country. Just like in other Arabic-speaking countries, the churches have been called “Evangelical.” Presbyterian and Reformed missions recognized that such an identification with the “evangel” (Gospel) would not only give the right impression of the churches as Gospel-preaching and Gospel-based, but also solved the problem of having to use terms like “Presbyterian” or “Reformed” which do not translate well into Arabic. So the term “Evangelical” in the Middle East does not mean just being generally evangelical. Now, if you hear of “Evangelical” churches in the Middle East, you would be hearing of the Presbyterian or Reformed ones. At least local people understand that.
This mission work by these Reformed churches focused on the Arabic-speaking, which was the majority language. They translated the Heidelberg Catechism and the Bible into Arabic, which proved to be the greatest contribution to long-term labors. One thing they failed to do was concentrate on making the churches indigenous, by training local pastors and church leaders. Throughout the region, ex-pat (foreign) missionaries served as pastors in the local congregations for years. They paid a high price for this when, as so often happens, the missionaries were forced to leave the countries, including Iraq. In contrast, it was during the 1970s and 80s that the churches in the bigger cities such as Baghdad and Basra enjoyed good pastoral leadership by the faithful Egyptian-Presbyterian undershepherds. The church in Kirkuk did not have effective pastoral care.
From the beginning it was not difficult to gain government recognition for these Reformed congregations. In the sixties, however, some visiting non-Reformed preachers introduced dispensationalist eschatological teachings with pro-Israeli overtones. This caused a great deal of turmoil to the churches and led to the imprisonment of several people including one of the pastors. By the Lord’s grace, the churches have been able to withstand those difficulties and ably proved to the authorities that they advocate biblical loyalty to the authorities divinely ordained over the country. For over twenty years, the Reformed churches of Iraq have enjoyed much freedom. This might surprise many; but the Iraqi authorities have been quite helpful to all Christian churches including the Reformed ones. Christians enjoy a lot more religious freedom in Iraq than many other countries in the region, including Turkey, Israel, and Kuwait. One of the elders of the congregation in Baghdad recently put it this way, “In Iraq you can legally and freely do anything religious as long as it is not mixed with politics and so far as it does not endanger the social stability of the community.”
In recent years, Reformed believers in Iraq have experienced the same difficulties as other Iraqi citizens. The last Gulf war devastated the economic superstructure of the nation. The US led air bombardment did not spare one sector of the economy. Most industrial sites were destroyed. The rest have not had spare parts or raw materials necessary for continued operation. The harsh United Nations embargo and sanctions have made it very difficult for the people to return to living a normal life. Many Reformed people lost their jobs or businesses and have not been able to provide for their families. Some have resorted to selling houses, other properties and even household effects to provide food or medicine for their families.
Because of the severity of the economic situation there, the government has allowed relief agencies to operate quite freely throughout most of the country. This has included some very unsound church-based as well as para-church groups. Such people have tried to win converts from among the members of the Reformed churches in order to establish their own works or alter the Reformed nature of some of these congregations.
The above description ought to help us have a little different perspective on the effects of war on a country such as Iraq and also on our fellow Reformed believers who struggle to survive.
Also, we ought not only to pray for their well-being and safety, but we ought to be open to assisting them in any proper way. Obviously, there is precious little we can do either individually or as churches directly. There is a way we can help by assisting those who are able to minister directly. I do not know of any organization more qualified than the Middle East Reformed Fellowship. When I say this, I do not imply that everything this organization does must carry our stamp of approval. There always lurks, in our good judgment, the question of the wisdom and advisability of working together with so many Reformed churches. Not everyone always agrees with everything that today goes under the banner of Reformed. There are areas of difference. But these differences ought not prevent us from appreciating and supporting efforts to minister to the needs of Reformed believers in Iraq who hold to the Heidelberg Catechism and the doctrines of grace, and who celebrate with us the sovereignty of God in the salvation of men. The price they pay for faithfulness to the gospel excites in us a deep appreciation for their work.
MERF ministers to these Reformed believers throughout the entire Middle East, including Iraq. Correctly, they know that the most important ministry they can do is to train local men to function within the congregations (or, as in some Muslim countries, in complete obscurity) so they can bring the glorious gospel to their own people. This they are doing in Cyprus at the Study Center. Away from the tension of conflict, these men sit at the feet of Reformed pastors from various countries who contribute their time and effort for this work. For most of them, their local Reformed church raises the necessary funds. They have a rather extensive library to assist in this training. They also publish suitable material for evangelism work.
Another way that MERF reaches out to this part of the world is through radio broadcasting. Radio is still a very significant means for communication. The BBC is used to send forth Arabic language messages. In addition, Radio Monte Carlo in Paris is used. These obviously are secular stations and attract the general public, yet they both allow Arabic Christian broadcasts in the Middle East and North Africa. Judging by the response, it is obviously true that God is using the medium-wave transmitters for good.
Finally, MERF is active in diaconal work. Funds are raised by various Reformed churches throughout the world for meeting many financial needs of the Reformed people and churches in the troubled Middle East.
Working through the local church deacons, they seek to meet some of these needs.
In closing, I quote from the summary given in the document History of MERF:
Pastors, churches, and Christian individuals all over the world have caught sight of this vision. MERF has the great opportunity to promote an active Reformed witness in the Middle East out of its headquarters in Cyprus, with local MERF administrative committees in Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon. MERF is committed to the service of the church of Christ according to God’s Word. This is a truly ecumenical effort since it unites the gifts and resources of God’s people from different ethnic backgrounds for the service of Christ in the Arab World, with a view of expanding outreach to other Muslim lands. By God’s grace, much prayerful and hard work over the years has resulted in an effective and expanding ministry in the region. As the work has expanded, its needs also have grown. Thus, MERF support-bodies have been organized in Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada and South Africa.
I trust that this information will help us understand a little more clearly what the situation and needs of our Reformed brothers and sisters in Iraq are. There are ways we can help them, even though we feel so helpless. Most of all we must pray that God will sustain them in a very difficult time in the history of the Reformed churches in Iraq. I am not able to get credible information on the Reformed congregation in Baghdad, for example; this is quite confidential for their own safety. One source indicated that it was temporarily non-functioning due to the dangers of violence between the Sunnis and the Shiites. More than once Christians have been the target of persecution as well. We now have 4,000 US troops killed in the five-year conflict. And I am sure among them are Reformed Christians as well. How important it is for us to turn to the throne of grace to ask wisdom and help in our time of need.
Jesus Christ, the King of the church, at God’s right hand is in control, and He has a clear plan and purpose for all these events. His sovereign grace is sufficient for His own. Through all these events, we can be sure that He is gathering His church from all the nations of the earth, with a view to the coming of our Lord in glory. How blessed it is that we may be part of that work and give allry to Him.