Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, prayed at the construction site of a new church in Iraq as he made a weekend visit aimed at encouraging Adventist believers living 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Islamic State-occupied territory.
Wilson, accompanied by his wife, Nancy, and a small group of church leaders, visited the city of Erbil, the bustling capital of Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan. Construction was booming here until oil prices fell, with partially built high-rises dotting the city. Dining options are on par with many international cities and include popular U.S. chains such as KFC and TGI Fridays.
Kurdish armed forces vigilantly guard the region’s borders, rebuffing militant advances and creating a refuge for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by violence elsewhere in Iraq and in Syria.
Wilson praised Kurdish authorities for preserving religious freedom and urged the Erbil Adventist Church’s small but growing congregation to remain faithful.
“When the going gets tough, remember that God has written on every flower and blade of grass, ‘God is love,’” Wilson said in a Sabbath sermon in the basement conference hall of the Ankawa Royal Hotel.
Noting that Noah’s ark probably came to rest on mountains north of Erbil, Wilson said God is urging people to enter “the ark of safety” today just as He did in Noah’s days.
“God is calling us to come into his church, His ark of safety,” Wilson told the audience of 75 church members and their friends and neighbors. “No matter what happens this coming week, never give up your faith.”
In the afternoon, Wilson visited the gray concrete shell of the new Adventist church, a three-level, 400-square-meter building that will also house a pastor’s family and a small school. He paused to pray in the main sanctuary, which will have seating for about 100 people.
“We pray for our church members in this city. We pray for the growth that is taking place,” Wilson said. “We ask that You will continue to increase your membership here so that soon this room will be too small to contain your believers.”
The Adventist Church, established in Iraq in 1924, formed in Erbil in 2012 when two families decided to worship together, said George Yousif, leader of the Adventist Church in Iraq. The church has since grown to 25 members, a mix of Iraqis and expatriates, and many guests. Adventist expatriates include a Kenyan citizen who works in Erbil as a senior official with the United Nations World Food Program and a third-generation Adventist from Romania who owns a local construction firm.
The church currently meets in a rented building, but its growth prompted church leaders to begin construction of the new building in October 2014. Liquidity problems in Iraq’s banking system have indefinitely delayed the church’s scheduled Feb. 6 opening, but Wilson, who is on a weeklong tour of the Middle East, arrived at the invitation of local Adventist leaders anyway.
“People are more important than buildings,” Tibor Szilvasi, executive secretary of the Adventist Church’s Middle East and North Africa Union, said in introducing Wilson before the sermon. “We are glad that Elder Wilson came.”
The Erbil church supports internally displaced people in the region and houses two displaced families in its rented building. It also provided a meal to the Kurdish armed forces, known as Peshmerga, during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan last year.
“We thanked them for helping protect this region,” Yousif said.
The Adventist Church, which has about 100 members in Iraq, has struggled in recent years in the country of 30 million people. Suicide bombers have twice targeted the Adventist church in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, but no one was injured and property damage was minimal, Yousif said. The church continues to meet, and its children’s and women’s ministries are especially active, he said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, Adventist believers meet every Sabbath in a rented hall in the city of Kirkuk.
In Mosul, located only 20 miles from Erbil, the Adventist Church has two church buildings but doesn’t know their status since the Islamic State seized the city and turned it into its capital in Iraq. Yousif said the church hoped to reclaim the buildings one day.
Wilson is the first Adventist Church president to visit Iraq since 1990, when Robert Folkenberg attended a special session of Christian churches in Baghdad. The Iraqi government gave the Adventist Church 10 seats and invited Folkenberg to chair the first meeting of the session when he reached Baghdad, said Basim Fargo, former leader of the Adventist Church in Iraq.
Fewer than 350,000 Christians remain in Iraq, including 100,000 in Baghdad and the south, and another 250,000 in Kurdistan, many of whom fled violence elsewhere in the country, Khalid Jamal Alber, a senior official with Kurdistan’s religious affairs ministry, told Wilson during an official visit to his office on Sunday. Some 50,000 Iraqi Christians have also fled to Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, he said.
Alber rolled out the red carpet for Wilson on Friday at Erbil’s sleek international airport, which was constructed in 2010 at a cost of $550 million. A crew from Ishstar TV, a satellite Christian broadcaster in Iraq, followed Wilson on his three-day visit.
Despite Erbil’s relative calm and prosperity, electricity is an occasional issue for its 500,000 residents. The lights abruptly went out during Wilson’s meeting at the religious affairs ministry, leaving the office in pitch darkness for about 30 seconds. The electricity also died twice during Wilson’s sermon on Sabbath. No one took notice of any of the power outages, however, and the meetings continued uninterrupted.
At the religious affairs ministry, Wilson thanked Alber for Kurdistan’s efforts to care for internally displaced people and told him about visits he made to two camps for Christians on the outskirts of Erbil. One camp has restrooms built by the Adventist Church in Iraq with the help of a donation from Adventist Frontier Missions, while the other has a children’s center that ADRA began to operate in January.
“This is one of the best opportunities that you have to help children see a future and have hope,” Wilson said. “The Seventh-day Adventist Church will continue to help you with specific projects. We believe in what you are doing.”
Wilson prayed with Alber and presented him with a “Plaque of Love” from the Adventist Church, saying, it represented the love “that you show to the Kurdistan region and the world.”
“We are all working in this ministry as servants,” replied Alber, whose office’s walls are adorned with photos of him meeting popes Francis and Benedict XVI. “As it says in the Bible, I have to serve and not to be served. This is the motto of my office.”
This is a motto that Wilson also urged Adventists in Erbil to follow. Wilson and his wife led a Sabbath afternoon presentation on Total Member Involvement, a world church initiative that encourages each of the church’s nearly 19 million members to participate actively in personal evangelism and witnessing. Erbil members were asked to find ways to serve their neighbors, perhaps by carrying groceries or visiting the elderly.
“The simple things in life that you can do are the most important,” Wilson said.
Editor's note: News editor Andrew McChesney is currently traveling in the Middle East and reporting on Adventist work in the region. For a list of all stories, follow these links:
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After Accepting Jesus, Former Muslim Drops Plans to Move to France
Willing to Die for Their Faith in the Middle East
How I Became an Adventist in a Muslim Country and Had to Flee
Beauty Spa Offers Massages and Hope in the Middle East