Ecclesiastical Leaders of Historic “Apostolic” Churches of Iraq Reject Evangelicals as a Subversive Innovation
By Martin Accad
On the 4th of December 2018, the General Directorate of Christian Affairs at the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs of the Kurdish Regional Government addressed a letter to the Evangelical Council of Churches of the Kurdish Region. In it they informed them of a letter the General Directorate received from the heads of the “Apostolic Churches” of the Kurdish Region, where they expressed their rejection of the legitimacy of these “new” Evangelical churches. The letter in question, signed by six Bishops on the 17th of September and an additional one on the 6th of October, 2018, requests that the director of the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs provide them with the list of all those members of their parishes who have “defected” to those new churches. The request claims legitimacy by citing a section in the church registration law that specifies that “on the basis of the existing freedom of religion and thinking for every individual in Kurdistan, if any member of a given church desires to transfer their membership, they are required to present a request to their mother church where they declare their (presumably theological and ecclesiastical) position.” The reason for this law is justified by the desire to respect ecclesiastical laws that warn believers from denying the faith and from dual (duplicitous) membership.
The refusal of historic churches to recognize emerging Evangelical churches in Kurdistan derives from the accusation that these groups have been offering humanitarian help to Christians in need, with a hidden agenda to draw them out of the church denominations in which they were born. They also accuse them of external connections with western missionaries holding agendas supportive of Israel. Furthermore, they express fear that these new movements will have a destabilizing effect on their communities, both by weakening them and by creating conflict with the Muslim majority with whom they have been living in peace for 1400 years. These accusations ignore the fact that Protestant churches have been active in Iraq since the middle of the nineteenth century, and the effort to represent them as post-Iraq war innovations is manipulative.
It would be easy simply to dismiss these accusations by the Apostolic patriarchs as an expression of religious control and bullying. In the long term, this would lead young evangelical communities to fall back into the ghetto mentality that has often defined Middle Eastern Christians for centuries – a sense of victimhood triggered by persecution, leading to retreat and second-class citizenship.
Theologically however, neither the bullish approach of the established churches nor the potential victim mentality of emerging churches is acceptable. The community of Jesus is called to be an ekklesia, a community that extricates itself from “the ways” of the world, yet not “from” the world. We are redeemed by Christ to live a life that brings good news of redemption into our communities, not with the purpose of antagonizing ourselves against our communities.
While holding on, therefore, to absolute freedom of conscience, there must be ways for the church to exercise Godly wisdom in navigating this thorny situation. How can the community of Jesus practice its calling to proclaim the gospel of salvation in Christ lovingly – a vibrant mission that takes a deep historical approach to the existing church and its realities?
In Christ, God expressed his love towards us to redeem and save us by giving himself for us, even to the point of death. Christians’ primary loyalty is to this missio dei, the mission of God through which he invites us, in Christ, into a relationship with himself. This is not a message of condemnation, but one of invitation to salvation, even at the cost of one’s life. Followers of Christ cannot compromise this priority, but they are called to practice it wisely and ethically, as indeed leaders of the evangelical church of Iraq have been doing valiantly for the past several decades.
Secondly, if the Iraqi church’s mission is to be self-giving and sacrificial, it must resist searching for power through external political allegiances. Beyond their primary allegiance to God, Iraqi followers of Jesus need to be committed to the affirmation and strengthening of the local church. This implies a deep compassion for the historic church in these difficult times, through a radical commitment to ecumenism in the sense of cooperation and partnership to the maximum extent possible. Emerging movements need first to understand the concerns and fears of the patriarchs. If the historic church is living under the fear and burden of intimidation deriving from a sense of being a minority, then addressing and countering these fears must be a large part of the Iraqi evangelical mission. Adding to the burden of a struggling community by weakening it further through “sheep stealing” does not appropriately express the love that God expressed to us in Christ. There are currently many efforts led by Iraqi evangelical leaders to strengthen these ecclesiastical relationships, and any external missionary efforts need to be aware of them and cooperate with them.
Thirdly, the Iraqi evangelical mission must take seriously the well-founded fears of the patriarchs of the apostolic churches regarding their long-standing relationships with the Muslim majority population. Though Christians and Muslims in the Middle East have often managed to coexist peacefully, there have also been outbursts of persecution that have nearly eradicated the local Christian communities. However, a careful student of history will also know that what has brought on waves of persecution from time to time has seldom been the church’s over-enthusiasm for evangelism and mission. Rather, whether at the time of Islam’s early conquests or during the bloody period of Crusader wars, what has brought on the onslaught of persecution is political intrigue serving external political agendas that have nothing to do with the gospel. Therefore, the proclamation of the gospel of peace needs to be accompanied by serious and honest interfaith dialogue and initiatives that seek to build peace within communities amidst diversity.
Therefore, we would recommend that the mission of the Iraqi evangelical church should continue to be characterized by compassion and care for the needy, but in partnership with local historic ecclesiastical authorities. The impetus should be on the consolidation and empowering of local Christian communities through the reviving power of the word of God, working as far as possible through existing structures and social networks. And the engagement with the majority community should be expressed through respectful listening, through the courageous proclamation of God’s good news in Christ, and through setting up with confidence initiatives of peace that contribute to the reconstruction of cohesive multi-faith communities in the post-war desolation from which all Iraqis are suffering.