The last time Iraqi pastors met collectively in their own country for a Christian meeting was in 325 A.D., when they selected a group of delegates to send to the first Nicaean Council the same council which produced the Nicene Creed.
Now, nearly 1,700 years later, after Saddam’s fall, another meeting has finally taken place. In September 2003, only four months after coalition forces ceased the major ground combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 350 Iraqi pastors and church leaders assembled in Kirkuk for a church conference.
They came from as far away as Basra and Baghdad, traveling to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, home to four million Kurdish Muslims. They came from Catholic churches, evangelical churches and orthodox churches in a country boasting 24 million Muslims and fewer than 500,000 Christians.
And they came to talk about Jesus.
It was a meeting that Yousif Matti, founding pastor of the Evangelical Church of Kurdistan, joyfully welcomed. He prayed it would provide encouragement to oppressed Iraqi Christians too scared to evangelize. For years most Iraqi pastors have avoided proselytizing Muslims for fear their churches would be shut down. But Matti, considered the primary evangelical leader in northern Iraq, makes no apologies for his faith.
Death threats are constant for Matti, who has survived two kidnapping and two assassination attempts. He’s also endured the murders of two members of his congregation, Mansour Hussein and Zewar Mohammed; both were gunned down by Muslim extremists for their faith.
But how did Matti become such a threat, that the lives of his own congregation would be targeted?
Feeling the call of God to minister to the Kurdish people, Matti moved his wife and children to the no-fly zone of Kurdistan in 1992, where he began printing Christian Bibles and literature on a small printing press. Eventually he procured the funds to open bookstores in three cities.
“Of course, everywhere we started a bookshop, it was bombed by extremists,” he told Charisma magazine.
In 1994, Matti launched a Christian radio station in the mountainous city of Dohuk. The station offers its listeners praise and worship music, Christian preaching and teaching. Another radio station was launched in 1998 in Sulaymaniyah, followed by two international Christian schools that provide biblically based training for 250 students.
“He was so bold as to have a sign outside the building, (where) they were meeting for regular worship,” said Michael Antanaitis of Matti’s church.
Antanaitis, Missions Pastor at Belmont Church in Nashville, Tenn., met Matti on a mission trip after the Gulf War and was so struck with his ministry that he gave him a “battlefield commission.”
“Yousif chose to operate above ground,” said Antanaitis. “He chose to have a visible church. He chose to minister to the widows, orphans and the poor. Yousif and his people have always pushed the envelope when it was dangerous.”
Aside from death threats, Matti has faced unrelenting opposition from government officials who have tried to shut down his schools and radio stations. But Matti has persevered and watched the love of Christ work miracles.
Kurdish leaders became so impressed with the teaching at the international Christian schools, that they began enrolling their children for classes, which consequently provided a level of security for the schools.
“Government officials are clamoring to get their children in,” said Jack Minton, CEO of Hope Force International, an upstart ministry based in Franklin, Tenn. that is currently working alongside Matti.
The fruit is evident. Matti watched his church grow from 25 members in 1992 to more than 1,000 believers today, most of whom converted from Islam.
At the 3-day pastor’s conference in September, leaders gathered to fellowship, worship, hear testimonies of converts and encourage one another in their work.
Minton told of a young woman at the conference who nearly paid the ultimate for her faith.
“Her brother came to know of her conversion and (their) relationship degenerated to the point he confronted her with a gun to her head to force her to convert back to Islam,” Minton recalled. “She said, ‘If you’re going to do it, then put the gun here’ and moved it to her mouth.”
Struck by her willingness to die for Christ, the woman’s brother could not pull the trigger.
“It inspired a level of confidence,” said Minton. “Islam is alive and well, but there has been a breakthrough. I sensed (them) being able to come out of oppression.”
There has been a belief in American church circles that Saddam left Christians alone and did not torture them. But according to northern Iraqi Christians, such a belief is totally unsubstantiated. They contend that Saddam never felt threatened by evangelical churches because of their weak and broken state. Many Christians may have escaped Saddam’s wrath, but they were also advised never to baptize Muslims, lest they be shut down and persecuted.
And so the Iraqi church suffered, becoming defensive and inward-focused. But the hope for the conference was that it would breathe new life into the pastors and their churches.
And some believe it did just that.
After a drought of nearly 1,700 years, Minton said this conference was “cutting a huge spiritual stake in the ground” for Iraq.
“They have a real hunger to connect with the international Christian community because they’ve been isolated for so long,” he said.
Carlos Calderon agreed.
“There’s a renewed sense of freedom and a desire to work together,” said Calderon of Partners International, a ministry that identifies and trains indigenous Christian leaders and has worked with Matti for years. “There’s also thankfulness on the part of Christians for the US and the coalition.”
Antanaitis added that there was a sense of more freedom.
“They have been operating in the freedom of the Lord before there was political freedom,” he said. “The fundamentalists are still there. Saddam’s supporters are still there. It’s not as if (they) can feel as safe as you and I do on the streets sharing the Gospel.”
Yet progress is still being made.
Partners International has already built a medical clinic in Iraq that they hope to staff with local and international doctors to demonstrate the love of God. They report that smaller conferences are being planned in Iraq and conversations about opening a seminary in Baghdad have already taken place.
Perhaps the most amazing moment of the conference took place at the end when Iraqi pastors and church leaders gathered to send off their American Christian brothers. Matti wanted to give them something as a present but thought, “What can we give Americans? They already have everything.”
“From the back of the church,” recalls Calderon, “all these pastors were coming and they were waving pieces of broken chain. They said, ‘We want to give you these chains as a symbol of freedom God has brought us and that you have made possible’.”
Tear flowed as Americans and Iraqis broke out in spontaneous praise and worship.
“That was really powerful,” said Calderon.
Iraqi pastors hope that now, their churches will be also.