IRAQI CHURCH DOCUMENTARY BRINGS HOPE IN FACE OF REGIONAL CONFLICT

As regional tensions provoked by the war in Gaza continue to escalate, people in the Middle East feel increasingly hopeless. But the resilience shown by the people of Iraq – especially the Christian community – tells a story that can bring hope to others.

This was the purpose of two special SAT-7 documentaries filmed in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, in December. Producer George Makeen, SAT-7’s Ministry Content Advisor, said that they show how the people there are “determined to move forward” despite a recent history of conflict, displacement, persecution, and human tragedy.

The documentaries featured the stories of Iraqi Christians, interviews with Christian politicians and church leaders, the filming of church services, the opening of a brand-new church complex for an expanding congregation, and an inspiring project that is helping refugee women (read more about this here). They were shown on SAT-7 ARABIC at the end of December.

The idea was to explore how can we have hope with all that is going on around us,” Makeen explained. “The paradox of faith – being hopeful even when troubled – was best presented by the experience of the Church and believers in Iraq.”

CONFLICT AND PERSECUTION

This year will mark the tenth anniversary of the devastating takeover of large parts of Iraq – including historic Christian heartlands in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain – by the so-called Islamic State terrorist group. Around 150,000 Christians fled north to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

While some have since gone back, many thousands remain in Kurdistan, afraid to return lest they be displaced again”, Khaled Jamal, the Director of Christian Affairs in the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs in Kurdistan, told SAT-7.

Conflicts and targeted persecution against the Christian community have prompted waves of displacement and emigration. Before the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Christian population of Iraq was around 1.5 million. Today there are just 250,000 Christians left. But their resilience in the face of repeated trials serves as a witness to the whole region.

The life of a Christian is a true testimony in the Middle East,” said Ano Johar, the Minister of Transportation in Kurdistan and a believer himself. “We lived through the Iran-Iraq war and its horrors. We lived through the war with Kuwait. We lived through the 2003 war, then through internal conflicts and the ISIS war.”

The Church in Erbil was pivotal, as Christians from other parts of Iraq sought refuge there in the wake of the Islamic State uprising.

“We didn’t know the truly effective role of the church until the ISIS catastrophe happened,” Mr Johar said. “In one night, we received 150,000 Christian refugees in Ankawa. We had 29 schools, halls, and churches that were used for the refugees to live in. Others lived on the streets and in houses. At that time, we realised that we need every person, every Christian, and every church.”

CHURCH GROWTH

The Church in Erbil is continuing to grow and make an impact. One of the highlights of the documentary was the opening of a new church complex for the Christian Missionary Alliance in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil. Its pastor, Malath Baythoon, said that the new building was the result of an increase in the church’s activities:

“We always dreamed of having a bigger place. As our church grew after the ISIS crisis, an urgent need for a new building came up… In this new place, believers get to worship and also to socialise with others. Children can have room to play and learn the word of God. The building emphasizes our presence for both Christians and non-Christians.”

Mr Johar said the new church took the total of churches in Ankawa to 17, and there are plans for six more in the next two years to accommodate its growing Christian population. “Ankawa will be the biggest Christian city in the Middle East. It is the only Christian city in the Middle East that receives immigrants rather than sending out immigrants,” he said.

The documentary also featured an interview with an Assyrian priest, Father Zaid Sikmn, who explained why he had chosen to leave his comfortable life as a dentist in Canada to serve the Church in Iraq:

“The Lord called me to priesthood. I was joyful. I left Canada and my family to come to Ankawa to serve as a priest. They were sad. They want me back with them, but there’s no comparison between the joy of serving the Lord and being in the world… Priesthood is a blessing that I do not deserve. When the Lord calls someone, they can only accept the calling with joy.”

Reflecting on the filming of the Erbil documentaries, George Makeen said, “Every time I go to Iraq, I am touched by the stories of people who witnessed too much pain and suffering, yet are determined to move forward and find meaning. I was inspired and challenged, and I am really looking forward to SAT-7’s being a key partner to the church there.”

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