SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE newest Christian Missionary Alliance church in Baghdad is standing room only. Nabil Haj, an engineer with the U.S. Army's 30th Medical Brigade, doesn't like to miss it. But to get there, he has to dodge U.S. regulations. They require army personnel to wear body armor and helmets and to travel in convoys outside headquarters in downtown Baghdad.
Mr. Haj, a Lebanese-American from Ohio who speaks fluent Arabic, instead trades out his everyday desert camouflage for street clothes. Waving aside regulations and threats, he waits outside an Army checkpoint near the Republican Palace where a bombing on Jan. 18 killed 31. When a nondescript sedan driven by Iraqi church friends arrives, he slips into the backseat and makes his way across town.
At the church, a converted residence really, Mr. Haj is happy to wedge into a front-row seat in the sanctuary while latecomers jam the hallway and overflow rooms. "These are my people," he says, arms wide for a moment and smiling.
Two rows behind him is Atheer Nasr, a former member of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. Mr. Nasr said he was forced to serve in the elite unit, even tracking a downed U.S. pilot south of Baghdad when the war was hot. Now, he says through a broad smile and novice English, he is free not to.
That former enemies can worship together is nothing new in Christendom. What's unique about postwar Iraq is that Iraqis currently have more freedom to come and go at church than the Americans.
Mr. Haj is a rare soldier who makes frequent contact with everyday Iraqis a priority. At Christmastime he organized Iraqi churchgoers for caroling. They sang to American MPs at Baghdad checkpoints. He arranged for U.S. soldiers to adopt Iraqi orphans for a day.
Perhaps, Mr. Haj admits, he gets away with community service because he speaks the language and can pass for a local. For other U.S. soldiers, it's more difficult. Iraqis are worried that security precautions are actually hampering the U.S.-led coalition's democracy-building in Iraq. The more the United States is paralyzed by fear of attack, the more Iraq is in danger of gangster rule by insurgents or bombers, on the one hand, or mob rule, on the other, by radical Shiites. Many fear the United States will leave too soon and leave their country in the wrong hands.
Shiite leaders have mobilized thousands of Muslims to protest plans for the first round of elections, regional caucuses slated for spring in Iraq's 18 provinces. The protests began in Basrah but moved to the capital starting on Jan. 19.
Continuing unrest provoked an unexpected thaw in relations between the Bush administration and the United Nations. U.S. administrator Paul Bremer and Iraqi officials traveled to New York, where they won from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan a pledge to act as intermediary between the clerics and Iraq's present leadership to set a fair timetable for self-rule.
Regional caucuses-not unlike those held in Iowa-have been the starting gate for that plan. Caucuses slated for May are set to choose representatives for a transitional assembly. The temporary government will assume sovereignty over Iraq on June 30, but give way to a permanent assembly after a second round of elections nationwide, which must be held by the end of 2005.
Shiite protesters, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, are demanding that nationwide direct elections for a permanent government be held by June. He and other prominent clerics want nationwide elections early because they would favor Shiites, who form a majority in Iraq but were long suppressed under Saddam.
But the 73-year-old Iranian-born cleric has made other, more serious demands. He also wants elections to be held only in safe areas, a move that would disenfranchise Sunnis living in the terror-torn Sunni triangle. He wants Iraq's fundamental law to stipulate that Iraq is an Islamic state, and that no law will be enacted to contradict Islamic law. Under the present timetable, the fundamental law is to be formulated by Feb. 28.
Christians and other non-Shiites fear that those changes will force them to live in an Islamic republic not unlike Iran, where a clerical elite holds veto power over elected officials.
If the streets of Baghdad seem to favor the ayatollah, Iraq's political leadership does not. Shiites hold 13 seats-a majority-on the Iraqi Governing Council, which approved the transfer-of-power agreement late last year. Their endorsement emerged not as a result of American manipulation so much as a sign of coalition building among council members. Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds united with so-called "secular," or moderate, Shiites. For the leading Muslim representatives, the goal is the same: to withhold political power from the ayatollahs.
The matter "transcends the issue of elections," said Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, a Sunni member of the council. "It is whether we would allow one man to determine the conditions of our sovereignty."
Mr. Yawer said large parties do not wish an open feud with the influential Mr. Sistani. Neither do they want clerics to have ultimate decision-making authority. Mr. Sistani has one ally on the council, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Other prominent Shiite council members, including Ahmad Chalabi and Mouwafaq al-Rabii, while negotiating with Mr. Sistani, clearly support the caucus-first plan.
Those moderate Shiites have long recognized that Iraq is no Afghanistan, or Iran. While Shiites comprise just over 50 percent of Iraqis, the other half include not only Sunni Muslims but significant populations of Assyrians, Turkomans, and non-Muslim groups. Shiite Muslims taking to the streets or shaking fists at Americans from inside mosques aren't the only ones with a blueprint for the future. Along with the others, Iraq's Christian minority is finding its voice, too.
Iraqis are very open because the Lord has opened a window of opportunity here," Mr. Haj told WORLD. "If they do not go through it now, they may lose it."
Old and new Bible believers are taking to the church in larger and larger numbers since the war. Like their Muslim counterparts, they also believe that decisions about governance in coming months will be vital. Unlike Muslims, they know the freedom they have while U.S. forces control the country may not last forever.
From Basrah to Baghdad to Kirkuk, Mosul, and the Kurdish north, Christians are using the interregnum between U.S. occupation and the election of a permanent Iraqi government to establish churches long suppressed under Saddam Hussein. For church leaders, it's a risky buildup. They are wagering that it's better to act now and receive permission later from what is sure to be a Muslim-dominated government.
The new CMA church is just one example. Iraqis led by pastor Chassan Thomas, with support from Christians in Lebanon, opened the church last June with 60 in attendance. By August it had more than 300 attending its main Sunday evening service; at year's end, more than 500. Nearly every week about two dozen newcomers express an interest in baptism and membership, according to Mr. Thomas.
Mr. Haj, in addition to attending the CMA church, is working with a U.S. Army chaplain and an Iraqi scientist-turned-evangelist named Maher Dakhil to revitalize a defunct Anglican parish church called St. George's. This month Mr. Haj used up leave time in the United States to visit churches, seeking support for these new works.
Other new churches are sprouting as well. Baptists are near launching two. Pentecostals met underground for two years but established a formal church only after the war. Friday morning services number 100; a Sunday evening service draws 120. Assyrian evangelicals once met weekly but now meet every day. Pastor Younan Sheba said the church has 96 new families since the war.
That story is repeated outside Baghdad. Evangelical churches in Kirkuk and Mosul are growing. Further north in Irbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah, local officials have granted permission for more to be built.
Opening new churches isn't the only outlet for newfound freedom. Christian bookstores will soon open in those cities, too. Satellite programming is bringing about a dozen admittedly cheesy evangelistic stations into many homes. Christian radio broadcasts, hard to come by under Saddam, permeate the airwaves. Returning Iraqis are starting Bible studies and looking for ways to minister in war-damaged communities. The church in Kirkuk is collecting trash, building a women's shelter, and sponsoring mobile dental clinics.
Saddam's regime, in addition to permitting old-line Chaldean, Orthodox, and Armenian churches, licensed the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church to operate one church in Baghdad, and one each in Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basrah. Many converts, particularly Muslims, were afraid to show up, another reason churches are now brimming. Church leaders say Saddam was an equal opportunity oppressor. He persecuted Christians right along with anyone else who fell outside his cadre of Baath Party loyalists. "Saddam was useful for Christians. He did not give freedom or power to the Shiites over anyone," said a Christian who works with Baptist churches in Baghdad.
Under Saddam activities outside traditional once-a-week worship were prohibited, and most church leaders eventually ran afoul of the regime. A year ago six Pentecostals went to prison for holding small group meetings that included Muslim converts. Three Muslim converts also were jailed. All were crowded into a windowless room, 6 feet by 3 feet, with nothing but a hole in the floor. "We inhaled soap to ease the smell," one former prisoner told WORLD.
The Christians were held one month then released, all but a pastor from Eritrea who goes by the name Joseph. He said he wasn't released until U.S. soldiers opened Baghdad's Mukhabarat prison last year on April 4. "We were praying for the Americans to come," Joseph said, "not only to free us but to free our churches."
Even after war and freedom, Christian leaders worry that the United States will now compromise with Islamic radicals. In an interview last November, Mr. Bremer said a draft constitution will "probably" include statements in support of Islam. He also said the constitution could "include some form of Shariah law."
Any form of Shariah would be "the biggest mistake we have ever made," said evangelical pastor Yousif Matty. For many years Mr. Matty pastored the evangelical church in Kirkuk. Baath Party thugs exiled him to Kurdish areas in the north after the Gulf War, where his home and a Christian bookshop were fire-bombed more than once. He has been targeted also by Iranian-backed militants for his work among Muslims. Nonetheless, he returned to Kirkuk last spring.
"Only 3 percent of those living in communist countries were communists. They never had popular support. The same is true with radical Islam. It doesn't have to be popular to take over our nation," he said.
Church leaders say they won't be soothed by a cramped bill of rights guaranteeing freedom of worship only. They want complete freedom of religion, which includes the freedom to evangelize, to publicize religious ideas, and to change one's religion. In most countries of the Arab world, national identity cards carry religious affiliation along with date of birth and other vitals. In all but a few, religious identity cannot be changed officially. For Iraqis to be truly free, a new constitution must omit religious identity restrictions, laws against conversion, and anything else hemming religious expression, Mr. Matty said. Shariah law favors those restrictions.
Mr. Matty points out that Shiites in Iraq should favor religious freedom and pluralistic government. After all, they, along with Sunni Kurds, were the most persecuted religious group under Saddam.
"Ten years from today we will get another Saddam if the law is the same law," said Mr. Matty. "The constitution is the most important item. For Sunnis, for Shiites, for Christians, and also so much for the Americans, that they secure the future [from terrorism] for their boys and girls. You started this fight at a great price. You need to end it with the goals that started it.
"I say to American leaders, Don't betray the trust and sacrifice of those guys, your soldiers. Freedom is worth it, no matter what the price."