Iraq #5: Churches with a Mission

by Mike Kuhn

Can you name any of the earliest missionaries to China or India? Hudson Taylor? William Carey?

Aside from the Apostle Thomas, who is thought to have taken the gospel to India, the first missionaries to these areas went from Iraq. The monasteries of the ancient Church of the East spread along the silk road until they reached India and China.

Today we visited an ecclesial descendant of the Church of the East—the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church which descends from another branch of Oriental Orthodox churches.

Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf enjoyed relating a story as we sat in his stately reception hall. It seems that a priest who was very short was appointed to a church whose members were trouble-makers. To irritate their new spiritual leader they built an extremely tall pulpit on which to place the church’s Bible. The newly arrived priest stepped behind the pulpit and extended his hands above his head to retrieve the Bible. He read the Gospel from behind the pulpit which hid him completely from the view of his congregation. Upon completing the reading, he thanked his new congregation for making the point that they were there to hear the word of the Lord not to look at a man. Accordingly, the work of the church for this Archbishop is to reveal Jesus and bring his word to the people.

He was eager to tell us about a recent youth festival that brought together 850 youth. He worked behind the scenes while others led the festival due to his concern that Jesus be revealed to the young people of his church.

The Archbishop spoke plainly about the real challenge for Christians to return to Mosul (ancient Nineveh) and the Nineveh plain. “Christians left for a reason which is still present.” Although ISIS has largely been displaced from Mosul the mentality that embraced ISIS and supported it is still there. Some fear “sleeper cells” would react violently if Christians return. Additionally, instability of the central government of Baghdad allows militias to proliferate, portending insecurity and indignity for returnees.

When asked if he wished to rebuild the church properties that had been destroyed in Mosul, Archbishop Nicodemus replied that he only wants to rebuild the stones if they can be “living stones”—people who make up the true church.

The Syrian Orthodox Diocese which he leads is composed of 2250 families. 800 of those have been displaced from Mosul to other towns in the area.

Later the same day, the Chaldean Catholic Church proudly gave us a tour of their state-of-the-art hospital facility, still under construction but soon to be operable. A young priest proudly expounded the symbolism found in the cross that was the centerpiece of the church and beautifully preserved its Eastern flavor complete with simple icons depicting Biblical scenes. A young priest showed us the Aramaic book of prayers, stressing that some of the saints who authored those prayers hailed from Bahrain and Qatar well before the advent of Islam.

Archbishop Matti Warda of the Catholic Chaldean Church is eager that Chaldean youth develop a sense of mission. So he sends them to Ohio to tell students there about the Christians of Iraq. He referred to Ankawa (our location on the outskirts of Erbil) as the last refuge of Iraqi Christians. 8000 Chaldean families of Ankawa compose his diocese, 2500 of those had been displaced from Mosul by ISIS. When asked publicly how many Christians remain in Iraq, he states that it is less than 500,000. However, he reckons the real number to be around 120,000. (That’s down from 1.5 million before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.) Ironically, 650,000 of this community now makes their home in the US—Detroit, Chicago and San Diego (especially el Cajon).

Reflecting on this day, I’m struck that both of these church leaders spoke in terms of the “mission” of their church. They are deeply aware that Iraq’s Christians are in flight. They understand that their generation could be the last for their Christian communities, now decimated by war and terrorism, in their ancient homelands on the Nineveh plains. Our partner here, the Presbyterian church of Kirkuk, lives the same reality of violence and flight. Being here, I feel deeply the tragedy of split families, lost homelands, an insecure future, and a world in turmoil. Nevertheless, they clearly choose to embrace hope and faithfully serve what remains of their communities. Our delegation offered them crosses as tokens of our solidarity and concern. The cross—the instrument of death that both they and we, despite our different traditions, hold to be central to our faith and hope. It took a cross to bring life out of death, to reconcile man to man, man to God.

Prayer: “May God’s self-giving love, portrayed through the cross, be the antidote to the chaos of war and religious extremism suffered by these brothers and sisters. O Lord, may these, your people, live and fulfill the mission you have given them to proclaim your glory and fame among the nations. Amen.”