“I didn’t know anything about Christianity, except that I was a Christian,” says Ara Badalian, now pastor of a vibrant church in the heart of Baghdad.
Badalian grew up in Iraq’s capital city in an Orthodox household—his grandfather was an ethnic Armenian who came to Baghdad to escape Turkish persecution following World War I. During Badalian’s childhood, Christianity functioned more as a family identifier than as a life-changing faith. “When I was 19, a Muslim friend of mine asked me why I was not Muslim. This question pushed me to know more about the Bible.”
For the next few years, Badalian focused on knowing and understanding Scripture. “I have a diploma in the history of the church. I studied many things about the Bible, but I didn’t have any experience knowing Jesus.” Then in 2005, when his mother became very ill, Badalian prayed for the first time. “I realized that only God is righteous and good. In the past, I had seen myself as the elder son from the parable in Luke’s Gospel. When God healed my mother, I realized that I was the younger, prodigal son.”
Badalian began to read Scripture with new eyes. “I was baptized in the Jordan River. I began serving in youth ministry. One day, on a bus from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, a Christian brother sat down beside me and told me about a seminary in Jordan. That night, I didn’t sleep. I felt God’s calling on my life to leave everything and serve him.”
Christianity in Danger?
Given Iraq’s modern history of violence and turmoil, most Western Christians perceive it as unsafe for Christians. But until the summer of 2014, Iraqi Christians felt that the worst of the violence was behind them—the years of sectarian violence from 2006–2008 were the peak of violence in the capital.
But the rise of the self-declared Islamic State in northern Iraq and Syria (ISIS) created fear in Christian communities. On June 10, 2014, the northern city of Mosul fell to ISIS fighters—the first major city to do so. “The fall of Mosul and the villages on the Nineveh plain had a terrifying effect on the Christian community in Baghdad. Many people thought of emigrating. What happened to Christians and other minorities in those places was a catastrophe. It was also a blow to the centuries-old cultural diversity of Iraq.”
ISIS’ horrifying acts of violence against the Kurdish, Yazidi, and Christian communities has dominated the news. The activities of ISIS and other terrorist groups in the region can make it seem as if the whole population is afraid to leave their homes. Although it was not the first time such minorities have experienced violence, it was the first time groups were driven out of their ancestral homes, forever changing the cultural dynamic of the country.
Responding to Spiritual Drain
Although Baghdad hasn’t been overtaken by ISIS, Badalian says that the violence over the last 12 years—including the sectarian violence of 2006—has reduced the Christian population of Baghdad by 20 percent. Many Christians relocate—either by force or by choice. Economists talk about the “brain drain” that occurs in developing world countries when the educated population emigrates to find better opportunities. According to Badalian, the spiritual version of this is at work in Iraq. Christians who have the resources to move to a more secure place often leave.
But Badalian and his Baptist congregation are evidence of vibrant Christianity at the center of disarray. Badalian tells his congregation that God is going to “do a new thing” in their community (Isa 43:19). “We went through this passage as a church: ‘I am about to do a new thing! Now it sprouts! Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.’ And God started a new thing with our church.”
Loving Your Neighbor
Badalian sees opportunity for the church to promote reconciliation with the gospel by serving those around them. Iraqis of many ethnicities have evacuated the territories held by ISIS, heading north to Kurdish-held regions or south to Baghdad. As refugees began to arrive in the city, Badalian and his church, the Baptist Church in Baghdad, have worked diligently to meet their needs. “We have a relief team who visits displaced families from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. We hand out food and other relief materials, and we are able to share the message of the love of God. We hold special children’s events, and we also have a group who visits wounded soldiers coming back from the fighting. We’ve been able to give out Bibles and pray with them.”
“We can promote reconciliation among the different groups in Iraqi communities. We can help others to avoid joining extreme sides. I think the Church has a role to help the community to obtain new values—to reject violence, accept the other, and love the other. The Good Samaritan should be our example of loving those who are not like us” (Luke 10:25–37). Badalian cites the young people of his church as an example. During Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours, “they arrange food after sunset for the Muslim families living around the church building.”
Unity in Diversity
Badalian also encourages his church to find similarities with their non-Christian neighbors and family members. He doesn’t have to look far to find examples: “Religiously we all believe in the oneness of God, and that Abraham is our father. Though they do not believe he is God’s Son, Muslims revere Jesus and believe he was God’s messenger. Culturally, we have the same language—Arabic. It is our common language, and the language of traditional churches, their liturgies, and all of the evangelical churches in their ministries.”
Badalian emphasizes the groups’ shared history in Iraq. “The traditional churches in Iraq have historical roots to the second century ad. Islam goes back to the seventh or eighth century ad.” That commonality is something Badalian hopes can be a bridge for building relationships.
Christians and Muslims have historically had a good relationship in Iraq. “We sometimes have tensions in specific areas, because of some fanatic movements, but this does not represent Islam’s position toward Christians or other religions in Iraq.”
Sharing the Gospel
For Badalian, Iraq’s long history of Christianity functions as an encouragement to those who suffer for their faith today. “The Christian faith came to Iraq in the second century.* In spite of challenges and persecutions, from the Persian Empire till now, Christianity has resisted, and it still stands.”
Badalian talks about his congregation without glossing over the challenges of being a Christian in Iraq. When asked whether he can preach the gospel in public, he responds, “Outside the church? No—it is difficult. The violence in Iraq gives us negative experiences many times, but we can’t abandon biblical values like loving others. The fanatic image of some Islamic movements doesn’t mean that all Muslims are fanatic. They are our neighbors and have been living with us for many centuries. We can invite them to the church, and they are free to come and hear the gospel there.”
The lessons he learned during his mother’s illness encourage Badalian today, when he sees violence and divisiveness in his country. “God’s goodness gives many chances for people to come to faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. The situation in Iraq now prompts people to think carefully about eternity and gives us an opportunity to evangelize. The devil shows us sin, displacement, and death, and many people see the contrast in Christ and believe in his love and salvation.”
Badalian feels his call is to stay in Iraq and minister there. He cites Genesis 28:15 as particularly influential in his decision to return to his home country after seminary. “The Lord told Jacob, ‘I will be with you and will keep you wherever you go, guiding you back again to this land. I will not give you up until I have done what I have said to you.’ When so many Christians were leaving Iraq because of sectarian violence, this passage guided me back to ministry here. I have a calling to serve the Lord in this land.”
* The Persian Empire of Late Antiquity (the Sassanid Empire; ca 225–650 ad).