Cover Story



Issue: "Iraq: The other caucuses," Jan. 31, 2004

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.


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