Iraq’s Evangelicals Use Pope Francis’s Visit to Press for Equality

Pope Francis traveled to war-torn Iraq today “as a pilgrim of peace, seeking fraternity [and] reconciliation.”

The trip’s official logo, written in three languages, comes from Matthew 23: “You are all brothers.” Iraq’s evangelicals, therefore, have asked for the pope’s help.

“The other churches don’t want us, and accuse us of everything,” said Maher Dawoud, head of the General Society for Iraqi National Evangelical Churches (GSINEC).

“But we are churches present throughout the world. Why shouldn’t the government give us our rights?”

Dawoud sent a letter to the Vatican, asking Francis to intercede—on behalf of evangelical Christians—with the Catholic church in Iraq, and ultimately with the government in Baghdad.

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) had gone straight to the United Nations, long before.

One year ago, the WEA filed a report with the UN Human Rights Committee, protesting the denial of legal recognition for Iraqi evangelicals. Fourteen other denominations are currently counted within the Christian, Yazidi, and Sabaean-Mandaean Religions Diwan (Bureau).

Now estimated at less than 250,000 people, Christians are a small minority of Iraq’s 40 million population, 97 percent of which is Muslim. Evangelical numbers are even smaller.

The Chaldean Catholic Church represents 80 percent of the nation’s Christians, with 110 churches throughout the country. Syriacs, both Catholic and Orthodox, constitute another 10 percent, with 82 churches. Assyrians, primarily through the Church of the East, have a 5 percent share, and Armenians, 3 percent. (Other estimates count 67 percent for the Chaldeans, and 20 percent for the Assyrians. Their identity and history are disputed.)

Evangelicals have 7 churches, Dawoud said. Representing the Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Alliance, Assemblies of God, and Armenian Evangelical denominations, the GSINEC has petitioned Baghdad for recognition since 2003.

While their churches are open and able to conduct services, they lack the authority to perform marriages, conduct funerals, and interact with the government. This prevents them from owning property, opening bank accounts, and producing religious literature.

It also keeps Protestants from invitations to official events—like the visit of a pope.

But not all of them.

“I will ask Pope Francis to agree with me in prayer,” said Farouk Hammo, pastor of Baghdad Presbyterian Church, who will join other recognized denominations in a private meeting with the pontiff.

“That more people will come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.”

The Presbyterian church was issued a decree of legal recognition long ago by the Ottoman Empire, honored by all subsequent Iraqi governments. Gospel work began in the early 1800s, and the church continued even after the expulsion of missionaries in 1969.

Today the denomination has congregations in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Basra. While emigration closed an additional church in the capital, and ISIS shuttered its church in Mosul, it has intentions to open more soon.

The Presbyterians are not a member of the GSINEC, whose churches were only established after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But Hammo has been asked to intercede for them, Dawoud told CT.

Hammo just refuses, alleges Dawoud.

The main rejection comes from the traditional churches of Iraq. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, Dawoud said, defers to them in lieu of taking a decision. The primary accusation is over “stealing sheep.”

Evangelicals simply say their churches are open to anyone.

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Source: Christianity Today