Research Paper: Christian Missionary Work in Iraq Today

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[. . .] Family. Pursuant to mixture of shari'a law and civil law, men are the heads of the household and of Iraqi society.

Some indication of the composition of contemporary Iraqi families can be discerned from the breakdown of the current Iraqi population provided in Table 2 and depicted graphically in a population pyramid in Figure 2 below.

Table 2

Demographic Breakdown of Iraqi Society Today

Age Group

Percentage of Population



0-14 years




15-24 years




25-54 years




55-64 years




65 years and over




Source: CIA World Factbook at

Figure 2. Population Pyramid for Iraq: 2014

Source: CIA World Factbook at

A Survey of Mission Work

History of Mission Work. Many past efforts at Christian mission work in the Arab world including Iraq have failed because "missionaries did not come with one basic Christianity, but with many religions under the Christian name."

The outcome of this approach to missionary work was doomed from the outset because of the fundamental differences that are involved between Islam and Christianity, making the need to present an accurate message about Christianity all the more essential. In this regard, Schein emphasizes that, "This mentality has led missionaries in the past to translate particular creeds and dogmas, hymns, and even theological writings into Arabic, thinking they have done something when in fact the terms translated are so western they have no meaning to the Muslim ear."

Likewise, many missionaries to Iraq fear that even their provision of humanitarian aid to Iraq will "give the appearance of a Christian attack on Islam."

Current Status of the Church. The Christian church in Iraq is on the brink of extinction, with only a few Christians surviving in barricaded, bomb-proofed communities. According to Persecution: International Christian Concern, "Along with the physical absence of Christians, much of the culture and heritage of the church is in danger of being lost as well. There have been some steps taken both politically and by civil society to protect and promote Christianity in Iraq."

Number of Known Believers. Although the percentage of Christians (and others) in Iraq is officially reported at less than 3%, the actual figures may be much lower. For instance, according to U.S. government analysts, "While there has been voluntary relocation of many Christian families to northern Iraq, recent reporting indicates that the overall Christian population may have dropped by as much as 50% since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, with many fleeing to Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon."

This assessment of the diminishing numbers of Christians in Iraq is congruent with the analysis provided by Persecution: International Christian Concern that reports, "The story of Christianity in Iraq over the past 11 years is troubling in many ways. In the midst of the violence the number of Christians has decreased by 1.2 million. Prior to 2003 there was estimated to be 1.5 million, now just 300,000 remain."

It should be noted, though, that some authorities place the figure higher. For instance, Allen reports that, "Iraq's Christian minority, which ranges from 750,000 to 1 million in a population of 23 million, depending upon whose count one accepts. The majority is Chaldean Catholic, with the rest scattered among various Orthodox and Eastern Catholic denominations. There is also a small but growing handful of Protestant evangelicals."

Challenges. Perhaps nowhere else are Christians threatened as they are in modern-day Iraq.

In this regard, Mitri emphasizes that, "Today, the anxiety of Christians in the Arab world and their friends is evident. It arises from the effects of their dwindling numbers, the economic and political failures of the national states and fears in the face of rising Islamism." In fact, according to Deshmukh, Iraq is one of the least free countries in the world with respect to the free exercise of religious convictions that differ from Islam.

The result of this lack of free exercise of religious conviction has been "discrimination and repression based on religion (persecution of certain groups, a hierarchy of citizens based on religious conviction, and sectarian violence which will ultimately cause a chilling effect on the fundamental freedom of religion."

According to Mitri, "The anxiety of Christians is also lived and expressed by a considerable number of Muslims. We often forget that the fears of Iraqi Christians affect many Muslims as well."

In fact, Persecution: International Christian Concern reports that at least 1,000 Christians have been murdered in Iraq since 2003, and ongoing clashes between Sunni and Shiite groups will inevitably spill over into any remaining Christian communities.

Indeed, 140 Christians were recently killed during four days of violence in 2014

and another 37 were killed in a car bombing attack on Christians on Christmas Day 2013.

Not surprisingly, these attacks and the threat of even more attacks in the future have had a chilling effect on the Christian community in Iraq, with many feeling compelled to sacrifice their religious beliefs for personal safety. For instance, according to Mitri, "Christians in Iraq are constantly and forcefully confronted with the importance of defining the relationship between communal loyalty and national identity, not only in the realm of ideas but in their daily lives."

Present Strategies. Recent Christian missionary work to Iraq has been largely limited to the provision of humanitarian aid. For instance, beginning in 2003, Christian missionaries, including 25,000 evangelists from the Southern Baptist Convention, were allowed into Iraq to assist in the provision of humanitarian aid.

Despite the ongoing threats, some Christian missionaries view the post-Hussein environment in Iraq positively for future missionary work. For instance, Schein adds that, "The Spirit of God is at work among young Arab Muslims, and Lutherans with their dynamic understanding of biblical faith, theology, and grace could play a significant part in this movement of God's Spirit."

Proposed Strategy

As noted above, many previous strategies for missionary work in Iraq have failed due to a lack of a cohesive approach that took the chasms of differences between Islam and Christianity into account. Indeed, Christian missionaries in Iraq are walking on extremely thin religious ice that threatens to break at any time because Christian proselytizing is a violation of Islamic law and represents a capital offense. In this regard, Watson reports that:

Missionaries may find they have worries other than a cold reception to their overtures in Iraq. At his trial, the accused killer of three workers at a Southern Baptist hospital said he killed them because they were missionaries. 'I acted out of a religious duty.... And in revenge from those who converted Muslims from their religion and made them unbelievers.'

From this perspective, the people of Iraq can be regarded as not being so much unreached as they are being unreached by Christianity and this is not out of ignorance but is rather a deeply seated religious conviction that will not be easily dismissed or changed by missionary work. Indeed, the Iraqi people have been reached by Islam for than thirteen centuries and the fact that Iraq remains overwhelming Muslim calls into question whether traditional Christian missionary work is still appropriate. In this regard, O'Keefe notes that, "Will proselytizing in Iraq offer comfort and hope to a nation that is 97% Muslim? Or will it reinforce the growing perception of Muslims worldwide that the war is against Islam."

The difficulties involved in providing Christian missionary work were further exacerbated by America's invasion and long-term occupation of the country which was resented by many Iraqi Muslims. For instance, according to Burk, many Muslims viewed "the American war in Iraq as an immoral extension of America's imperial ambition to dominate the world. The only way to fight terror is by working for mutual understanding and respect. The American empire's war in Iraq amounts to fighting one kind of terror with another."

Forging mutual understanding and respect certainly sounds like a viable approach to delivering missionary work in Iraq, but the fundamental constraint concerning a paucity of interest in and even hatred for Christianity on the part of many Muslims remains firmly in place. In this regard, Feuerherd asks, "How should the church respond to the 'aggressive' tactics -- designed primarily to convert Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christians -- used by some Christian evangelical missionaries in developing non-Christian countries?"

In many cases, Christian churches have responded by proselytizing under the thin veil of humanitarian aid and this thin veil has been readily discerned by Iraqi Muslims, generating highly negative responses. For instance, Feuerherd reports that:

A good number of the 10,000 evangelical Christian missionaries currently active in Islamic nations employ techniques (preference to Christians in humanitarian and medical services, overt proselytizing in countries where such practices are restricted and general insensitivity to the cultural context in which they are operating) that invite a backlash against churches that take a more nuanced approach.

Even more "more nuanced approaches," though, are fraught with opportunities for failure because of the potential perception… [END OF PREVIEW]

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