'Faith in the Furnace – Challenges facing the Church in the Middle East’ heard from Rev. Farouk Hammo, Senior Pastor of Baghdad Presbyterian Church, about his role in caring for the many displaced Christian families driven from Mosul and the surrounding Christian villages in northern Iraq by ISIS.
Before delegates heard from Pastor Farouk, Presbyterian Church in Ireland Global Mission Secretary, Rev. Uel Marrs, reflected on his visit to Beirut last month where he saw first hand how the local church is responding to the crisis in Syria, and how refugees fleeing conflict are turning to Christ having ‘come through the furnace’.
“The Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS and the conflict in Syria have all brought great changes to the Middle East and far beyond. In meeting Christians, many of whom had lost everything in the face of civil war and the ongoing threat from Islamic State, initially I found it difficult to put into words the desperate circumstances that they lived with, facing persecution with such incredible resilience,” Mr. Marrs said.
“If I could sum up what I encountered in a sentence: I found a church that had lost everything, yet found afresh what it means to love unconditionally and to be a light in the darkness. Like the good Samaritan, embodying Christ to those in need without discrimination."
“In the midst of the Church that has lost everything, the Lord Jesus Christ is alive and He stands with and is working through His people in crisis, just as in Daniel Chapter 3 He stood in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. More than that, He is building His Kingdom.”
Mr. Uel Marrs’ visit to Lebanon had been arranged by Open Doors, the Christian organisation that supports persecuted Christians around the world and had brought the Baghdad pastor to Ireland.
Echoing what Mr. Marrs had said, Pastor Farouk explained that Iraq had a rich Christian heritage that had slowly been eroded away by the rise of Islam over the past 1,500 years and the aftermath of conflict in more recent times, from the Iran/Iraq War of the 1980s, the Iraq War and following Insurgency, to the rise of Islamic State in the northern half of the country today.
“Life in Iraq is not fun. Two-thirds of Christians, for many reasons – a better life or to escape persecution – have left. In 2004 there were over 1,000 people in my church, by 2010 there were 23. But we are seeing God do miracles; with many, many people coming to faith in Jesus Christ, the Church is growing.
“While it may be difficult to understand here in the West, people have undertaken that persecution as a blessing. Once a church is facing persecution it makes people pray for longer and fast more. It brings people closer to the Lord, we see Him more clearly as we trust in the God of the impossible, who is adding souls to His Kingdom on earth everyday,” he said.
In one poignant story, Pastor Farouk told of a man who in the face of persecution by ISIS had come to him saying, “I have lost my business, my family, everything. But I will spend eternity with Him.”
The second half of the conference took the form of a workshop, ‘The Refugee Experience – Challenges facing the Church at home’, hosted by the Council for Mission in Ireland and facilitated by Dr. Edith Shillue of the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers.
During the workshop she explained the asylum/refugee system and processes in the UK, and talked about the experiences of those in the system. There was also an opportunity to discuss how churches can best help and support new refugees who arrive.
“When asylum seekers enter the UK they must let the government know that they need protection, but by doing so, they go through an extremely depressing and dehumanising process,” Dr. Shillue said.
“This is partly due to the fact that case holders operate in a ‘culture of disbelief’ as the system is designed in such a way that they are made to think in that way; to question and even doubt all that the ‘seeker’ tells them. This system is made even more difficult by the complexity of Asylum Law, which is one of the most complicated systems in existence.”
Dr. Shillue, who also works as an advisor to PCI’s International Meeting Point, its centre for migrants and asylum seekers in Belfast, is however encouraged by how the churches and other Christian organisations are responding with compassion.
She highlighted the work of Embrace and the fact that PCI has a committee devoted to this work. “Importantly, these organisations provide locals with the information they need; they think practically, which is so vital. Moreover, their compassion is unconditional,” she said.
In the forthcoming December/January edition of the Presbyterian Herald, Mr. Marrs writes about his experience in Lebanon in ‘Blessing out of Brokenness.’ A recording of the two main talks at the ‘Faith in the Furnace’ conference and an interview with Rev. Hammo and Mr. Marrs, should be uploaded to the PCI website in the next couple of weeks.
Attending the Conference were (standing L-R): Rev. Uel Marrs, Secretary of Council for Global Mission,
Rt. Rev. Dr. Ian McNie, Moderator, and Rev. Richard Kerr, Convener of Global Concerns Committee.
Seated (L-R): Rev. Maqsood Kamil, Rev. Liz Hughes, Convener of Council for Global Mission, and Rev. Farouk Hammo.