Ancient Streams

April 7, 2003

This Weekly Word comes to you courtesy of an internet caf√© in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a mere 600 kilometres due north of Baghdad. Although I am not much further away from Baghdad than Kuwait City, I am on the other side of the Mountains of Ararat. While the Coalition troops are experiencing 30-plus degree weather, I am surrounded by a metre of snow! Next week I’ll explain why I’m here.

For most of us, the geography of this ancient crossroads – where Europe, the Middle East and Asia meet – is very vague. However, when you think about it, we all have our roots here. The human race got restarted here after the ark came to rest on Mt Ararat, and Noah and his three sons spread out from here in different directions.

If our geography is fuzzy, our awareness of the spiritual and religious make-up of Iraq and surrounding countries is probably in worse shape. And this despite the obvious deep biblical associations with the region.

For from Ararat, Shem apparently headed south towards today’s Iraq. We next read about the Tower of Babel (forerunner of Babylon?), and then about Abraham, whose route from Ur near Kuwait up the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates was pretty much that followed by the Americans in recent days. Of course, Abraham went much further than Baghdad, ending up in Canaan, and even sojourning in Egypt.

But the biblical narrative brings us back to “Iraq” with the exile of Judah to Babylon, and the stories of Daniel and Esther during the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, Cyrus and Xerxes. This is when the Medes (Kurds) and the Persians (Iranians) entered the picture too. Jonah also reluctantly went to the Assyrians, the Ninevites, living in what is now the disputed areas of northern Iraq.

Later the wise men or magi from this region (tradition talks of three wise men or kings, but the Bible nowhere confirms this number) returned east as the first heralds of the new-born king.

Three decades later, on the day of Pentecost, God-fearing Jews had gathered in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5), including from Medes, Elamites and Mesopotamians, all from the Euphrates-Tigris valley region. Some of them were doubtlessly among the 3000 new believers and returned home to spread their exciting news among family and friends.

Some of the apostles themselves are believed to have travelled east on missionary trips, Thomas having been credited with founding the church in India.

Yet we westerners tend to think of Christianity as a western religion. We’ve had first-hand experience of protestant churches and probably the Catholic Church, and we’ve seen pictures of Russian or Greek Orthodox churches and ceremonies. But mostly we know little of a fourth stream of churches we can call Oriental.

A few years ago, my wife Romkje received an (indirect) invitation from Saddam Hussein, no less, to attend a conference on religion and peace in the Middle East, hosted by the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Such an event gave opportunity to make contact with believers in Iraq. So, representing the Evangelical Alliance here in Holland, she flew to Jordan with other Dutch delegates. From there they drove through the desert at 160 kms per hour in all-terrein vehicles towards the city on the Tigris.

The conference was of course a propaganda effort against the Americans, in particular, and encouraged churches to call for an end to the UN sanctions. All but one or two speeches were vitriolic against the Americans. But what was remarkable was that it was exclusively a gathering of Christian leaders, initiated by a Middle Eastern head of state! Can anyone imagine that happening in Saudi Arabia? Or Kuwait? Or Iran? Saddam himself did not appear, but he was represented by Tariq Azziz, the deputy prime mimister who himself is not a moslem, but belongs to one of the ancient Christian church traditions.

Romkje found herself mingling among a bewildering array of eastern clerics, who sported an exotic selection of ecclesiastical headwear and clothing. In addition to a cardinal from Rome, present to promote a planned papal visit (later cancelled), there were bishops and even popes from churches some of which she had never heard: the Old Assyrian Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Old Catholic Church, the Chaldean Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Holy Apostolic Church,., among others.

Such a list reminds us that not all traditions fit neatly into the protestant/catholic/orthodox categories. Like the Coptic churches in Ethiopia and Egypt, some of these oriental churches resisted submission to Constantinople and Rome, claiming an older apostolic succession.

Those of the Assyrian Church are ethnic Assyrians, the original inhabitants prior to the arrival of the Arabs. The Chaldean believers were also known as the Nestorians. Branded heretics by Catholic and Orthodox, the Nestorians expanded in a dynamic missions movement along the Silk Road as far as China.

So, as we watch the images of the war on our silver screens, let’s remember those Iraqis from these various Christian traditions. Let’s pray that somehow in spite of – or because of – the current tragic circumstances, renewal might come to these churches. They represent some 700,000 Iraqis, three times the number of Coalition troops there now. That’s only half the number prior to Gulf War 1, after which many fled the harsh conditions of daily life.

Can we believe that God still has purposes for these ancients lands which are being shaken? When we see God’s investment into these lands over the centuries, is it too much to believe for some return on that investment?

“May your kingdom come, in Iraq, as it is in heaven…”

Next week, more about another ancient stream.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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