In today’s political climate, nearly everyone is aware that modern Iraq is predominately Muslim in religion and that its politics had been controlled until recently by the secular and socialistic Ba’ath party of Saddam Hussein. But Iraqi Christianity is rarely mentioned. One might wonder if there is such a thing as an Iraqi church, and how it fares in these early years of the twenty-first century.
Besides the prevailing bias of the news media against Christianity, there are several reasons why the Iraqi church receives so little press. For one thing, the Christian population in Iraq is infinitesimal compared to the much larger Muslim groups. While the Muslim religion claims 97 percent of the total population, Christianity accounts for less than 3 percent. And further, the Christian population received a rather harsh blow with the advent of the present war. Many Iraqi Christians, fearing the impact that the war might have on the church, fled into more hospitable areas. In fact, some Iraqi churches report having lost as much as 90 percent of their membership over the last three years.
Ironically, the people of Mesopotamia had an early, sometimes intermittent and sometimes sustained, witness of the gospel’s joyous tidings. Long before Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the Lord called Abram to leave his fatherland, Ur of the Chaldees, in order to serve Him in a land that he did not yet know. Ancient Ur was located approximately five miles northwest of modern Basrah. Many years later, the prophet Jonah, to his chagrin, conducted a highly successful missionary campaign in Nineveh (near modern Mosul). Then in the sixth century B.C. Nebuchadnezzar ransacked Jerusalem and took the brightest and best sons of Judah to Babylon (about fifty-five miles south of Baghdad). Many of these young men embraced Babylonian culture, but a few (like Daniel and his friends) maintained a strong and courageous testimony to the true God, laying the foundation for communities of Jews to survive in this region until the coming of Christ. Thus, we find “the dwellers in Mesopotamia” attending the feast of Pentecost in Acts 2:9. These early converts, no doubt, carried the gospel of Jesus Christ back to their homelands. An old legend even claims that Thomas the Apostle (“Doubting Thomas”) preached the gospel in Mesopotamia on his way to Persia.
With a fair amount of difficulty, the church in Mesopotamia managed to survive down through the years. In the fifth century it came under the influence of an aberrant Christology known as Nestorianism. Later, the Islamic invasions crippled the church even more. And throughout most of its history, its relationship with other churches, especially Rome, has had its ups and downs. Nonetheless, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Christian church claimed not less than 30 percent of the Iraqi people. This changed again with the First World War. Caught between two opposing cultures—on the one hand, the Ottoman Turks and Sunni Muslims who had dominated the Arab world since the fifteenth century, and on the other hand, the allied powers of Great Britain, France and Russia—the Iraqi church suffered tremendous loss. By the end of the war, the Turks had murdered over 250,000 Christians. In some areas, this meant that one-third of the Christian community had perished. The end of the war brought a political reprieve. Under the League of Nations, the Mesopotamian region became a mandate of Great Britain, which successfully united the three dominate regions (Mosul, Basrah and Baghdad) into a single nation, known today as Iraq. By the time Britain granted Iraq its independence in 1932, the cultural damage had been done. Before long, Iraq’s Christian population plunged to less than 8 percent. Less than 300,000 Christians live in Iraq now, many of whom continue to bear the brunt of insurgent attacks in the present war.
Today the church in Iraq consists mainly of three distinct groups: the Chaldeans, the Catholics (Western and Eastern), and the Protestants (mostly Anglican and Reformed). The Chaldean church is by far the largest of the three, having abandoned its ancient Nestorian heresy about 450 years ago (although a sizeable Nestorian church still exists in Iraq even now). The Catholic element was introduced in the early fourteenth century, when Rome sent Dominican and Franciscan friars to proselytize the Chaldeans, Eastern Orthodox and Muslims. Protestant missionaries, on the other hand, did not arrive until the nineteenth century. Many of these came from the British Isles, hence the early predominance of the Anglican faith among the Protestants.
The first modern missionaries to Iraq came from missionary societies built on the principles of William Carey, who organized the first parachurch missionary organization in the late eighteenth century. Representatives of the Church Missionary Society (an Anglican organization paralleling the broader London Missionary Society) arrived in 1815. Their first efforts proved to be difficult and challenging, but they persevered and laid a foundation for an Anglican outreach that lasted well into the twentieth century. The Anglicans were followed five years later by missionaries from the London Jewish Society, whose purpose (as the name of their organization indicates) was to evangelize the physical descendants of Abraham.
Presbyterians, on the other hand, believed that missionaries should be sent by the church whenever possible, rather than by outside agencies. Thus, Presbyterian missionaries from the Scottish church reached Iraq in 1836, and a mission station governed cooperatively by Presbyterians and Congregationalists was opened in 1850. Before long, Evangelical congregations were established in Basrah, Baghdad and Kirkuk, with preaching stations set up throughout the land. The reason these churches were (and still are) called “Evangelical” and not “Reformed” or “Presbyterian” has to do with a negative connotation the latter terms have in that part of the world. However, there should be no doubt that these churches were Reformed in doctrine and not broadly evangelical as the word might suggest to most of our readers.
During this period, an Arabic version of the Heidelberg Catechism was introduced to the mission works as a means of instructing new converts in the chief doctrines of the faith, and a Reformed translation of the Bible was adopted for use. These are, perhaps, the most significant achievements of the early Presbyterian missions.
The year 1887 was, in one very important way, a milestone for Reformed outreach in Iraq. This was the year that Ian Keith Falconer, a missionary from the Scottish Presbyterian Church, gave his life for the gospel in the city of Aden (Yemen). However, the ironic thing about martyrdom is that it usually produces the opposite effect of the one desired. Tertullian, a third-century apologist from northern Africa, once wrote, “Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (The Apology 50). The church has witnessed the accuracy of Tertullian’s observation countless times, and at no time was it more true than in Iraq in the late nineteenth century. Falconer’s martyrdom, rather than discouraging new outreaches in the devil’s stronghold, inspired two Reformed students at New Brunswick Seminary to take up the challenge of proclaiming the glorious riches of Christ in Muslim lands. These two men were James Cantine and Samuel M. Zwemer.
With the dream of reaching the lost, Cantine and Zwemer immediately applied to the Board of Foreign Missions of the Reformed Church in America to take up this work. However, the Board had at that time a $35,000 debt and did not believe it could take on such a work. Not to be deterred by the Board’s inability to help, Cantine and Zwemer formed the Arabian Mission in 1889 and soon began to make their plans known. Before long, the Arabian Mission received so much support that Cantine and Zwemer were able to begin their work as soon as they graduated from seminary and were ordained. Their work went so well, in fact, that the Board of Foreign Missions “adopted” the Arabian Mission in 1894.
Cantine was the first to arrive in Arabia. Being a year ahead of Zwemer in his theological studies, he made his way to the Muslim world in the fall of 1889. Zwemer arrived the following summer. The two met at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula at Aden—at the very site where Falconer’s blood sealed his testimony for Jesus Christ just three years earlier. From there, after refining their strategy and seeing the Lord’s guidance, Cantine went on to Baghdad and Zwemer to Basrah.
Although both Cantine and Zwemer labored zealously for Christ throughout the entire peninsula, Zwemer became by far the better known of the two. After serving twenty-three years in Iraq, the United Presbyterian Mission in Egypt requested him to move to Cairo in order to oversee a broader ministry to Muslims in the Middle East. Zwemer granted the Mission’s request and for the next sixteen years traveled throughout the Islamic world to visit and assist other Christian missions.
In 1929 Zwemer left the mission field and returned to the United States. But rather than retire from active service, he accepted an invitation to teach in the missions program at Princeton Seminary, which occupied his attention for the next seven years. Although he finally did “retire” in 1936, he continued to teach occasionally until his death in 1952. During his sixty-year ministry, he also authored a total of fifty books—many of which addressed issues relating to Christian outreach to Muslims and are still used today to prepare missionaries headed to Muslim lands.
Zwemer’s writings reveal a commitment to the objective truthfulness of the Word of God. His books on the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, for example, argue not only for the full deity and humanity of Christ, as well as the historicity of the virgin birth and the resurrection, but also for the relevance of these precious doctrines to darkened minds enslaved to the Muslim religion. Oddly, though, he considered Raymund Lull, a fourteenth-century lay missionary who had been heavily influenced by Islamic mysticism, the greatest missionary to the Muslims. His fascination with Lull, whose name appears throughout several of his books, was probably due to the fact that Lull, like Falconer many years later, literally gave his life for the gospel. At the age of eighty-three, Lull was stoned to death for saying that Islam is false. Nor was Zwemer’s interest in Lull merely romantic. Zwemer, in fact, rejected Lull’s basic premise, viz., that the power of Islam can be overthrown by a logical demonstration of its error.
Without a doubt, Zwemer was a uniquely gifted servant of Jesus Christ, having, as others have frequently observed, the mind of a scholar, the heart of an evangelist, and the ability to maintain the two in perfect balance.
In the 1920s, two American Reformed churches became interested in Iraqi missions: the Northern Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Church in the United States. These two churches, along with the Reformed Church in America, formed a joint mission board in November of 1923. Under this arrangement, the first missionaries to the region from the RCUS were the Rev. Dr. Calvin K. Staudt and his wife Ida, who, arriving in Baghdad in March of the following year, found Cantine and his wife still busily engaged in their work. The Cantines, however, were forced to return to the United States in the spring of 1925 due to Mrs. Cantine’s poor health.
One of Rev. Cantine’s most productive ministries was the Christian bookstore he had founded in Baghdad many years earlier. He believed that the Iraqis were literally starving for spiritual food, and that Islam was inherently incapable of satisfying their hunger. The only food that could satisfy is that which came down from heaven—the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed on the pages of God’s holy Word. Cantine’s desire, therefore, was to make the Bible and sound Christian literature as accessible to the Iraqi people as possible. This method of evangelization drew little opposition and proved to be rather effective. After Cantine returned to the United States, his literature ministry continued as the American Mission Book Shop under the direction of one of his Iraqi converts.
The Staudts, on the other hand, were specifically commissioned by the RCUS to establish an educational ministry. Like Cantine’s literature ministry, this approach to evangelism would be more indirect than direct. And it was designed to be so, because it was widely held at the time that this was the most effective way to reach the Muslim world. And the Iraqi people in particular were crying out for education. Rev. Staudt said that they had a “passion” for learning.
The educational need was satisfied somewhat following World War I, as the British helped the Iraqi government establish schools throughout the land. But this could be only a partial answer at best. While the new Iraqi schools brought education to some, many remained uneducated. There were simply too few schools and too many people wanting an education. This forced some of the more privileged Iraqi young men to seek an education at a greater distance—the American University of Beirut or one of the American or European universities. But the greater issue was that the new Iraqi schools provided nothing in the way of a distinctively Christian education.
To remedy this, the mission opened its girls’ school in the fall of 1924 with forty girls receiving instruction by Mrs. Staudt in the Staudt’s home. Each morning began with devotional exercises, including prayer, hymns and a study of the Bible. Unfortunately, this school was closed after only one year, but the girls were so excited to have had this opportunity that they formed a Society (also under the guiding hand of Mrs. Staudt) to advance their own intellectual and spiritual development, and to provide books and tuition for other girls to receive an education elsewhere. As a result, four Muslim girls, two Jewish girls, two Assyrian refugees and two Armenian refugees received an education.
The following fall the American School for Boys, a boys’ school offering education for kindergartners to college freshmen, opened its doors. The lower grades were taught in Arabic and the upper grades in English. Since Iraq at the time was still a mandate of Great Britain, obtaining a permit for the school from the Iraqi government was relatively easy. The school’s permit allowed the teaching of the Bible and daily devotions, much like those that had taken place in the girls’ school. Again, classes for 174 students were held at first in the Staudt’s home, with Rev. Staudt and eleven others providing instruction. The next year a second building was added, and the student body increased to 250.
Seldom does one come across a student body as diverse, ethnically and religiously, as this one. Among the students were Arabs, Kurds, Bedouins, Turks, Syrians, Armenians, Russians, Greeks, Persians and Indians. Forty-eight of the students were Muslim (both Shiite and Sunni), fifty-six were Jews, and twenty-four were Protestants. The remainder represented various forms of Oriental and Catholic Christianity, including Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jacobite, Nestorian, Chaldean, Roman Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Armenian Catholic.
Equally as impressive are the families from which the students came. One young man was the son of the Armenian Patriarch of Iraq, another the grandson of the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, and a third was the nephew of the military assistant to King Faisal. Furthermore, the student body included eight Sayyids (direct descendants of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam), as well as the sons of various sheiks and government officials.
As for the character of the teaching at the school, Dr. Staudt wrote, “The School is definitely Christian in its teaching and atmosphere, and the development of character is a matter of first concern. The value of religious education is duly recognized and religious teachings and Christian ideas are daily used for the purpose of character building and energizing life.” Regardless of ethnic and religious background, “[a]ll students study the Bible—whether they are Moslems, Jews or Christians.” Dr. Staudt further reported that, although there was some initial opposition to mandatory Bible study, both parents and students soon came to appreciate that this was not only a matter of religious mission, but also borne out of the conviction that it was in everyone’s best interest.
Dr. Staudt managed the boys’ school for over twenty-five years, making it into a world-renowned institution. But it failed to address one problem: the theological training of indigenous pastors was basically ignored. This was partly due to the fact that the American School had not been established as a theological seminary, and partly due to the fact that pastoral needs were being satisfied by expatriate missionaries from other lands. Thus, there was neither opportunity nor need to raise up a ministry from within the Iraqi church.
Over time, the failure to address the ministerial needs of the church worked against it. As Iraqi pulpits became vacant, there were no indigenous pastors to take up the ministry. The lack of competent leadership also meant that novel ideas went unchallenged. Dispensationalism, at least for a time, became somewhat popular. Sadly, many of the smaller rural churches, which were not as well equipped to survive these challenges as the larger urban churches, were forced to close.
Over the years, every church or denomination experiences its ups and downs. The Iraqi church is no different. But whatever life and strength it may have today, we can be assured that someday that great multitude which no man can number will include many thousands, if not millions upon millions, of Iraqis who have placed their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. To that end, the Lord summons his church throughout the world to pray for continued fruit from past gospel labors and to support current missionary efforts in a land largely enslaved to the crescent idol.