ORANGE, CALIFORNIA (ANS) -- As President Bush rallies international support for an effort to invade Iraq and disarm its current government, a dwindling minority of Christians in Iraq wonder if the West has forgotten them, while they enjoy freedoms that Christians in many other Middle Eastern countries would envy.
"The evangelical churches in Iraq are as evangelical as any evangelical church in America," says Norm Nelson, president and host of "Life At Its Best," after returning from a recent Middle East trip. "They love Jesus Christ and honor him and they worship in freedom," he says. "You can walk or drive to church on Sunday and carry your Bible openly."
In the heart of Baghdad, Nelson found a vibrant church with a worship atmosphere that was "deeply reverent, conducted with decorum and order." With a membership numbering 400 families, their Sunday evening service "was so packed that some were forced to stand in the back."
While their worship is free, there are some restrictions imposed by the secular government, largely controlled by Sunni Arabs. "They are not free to proselytize outside their church property," Nelson notes.
Still, the contrast could not be more striking with Saudi Arabia, one of the United States’ most important allies in the region. "Christians in Saudi Arabia worship in conditions they refer to as ‘the catacombs,’" Nelson says. "They have to be secretive in Saudi Arabia," he says.
Many would be surprised to learn the Bible is so readily available in Iraq. "I know two Bible organizations that distributed a half million New Testaments to the government schools in Iraq, and the government of Iraq allowed them to be distributed in the schools," Nelson says. "You can’t do that in the United States," he says.
"Christians in Iraq said, since the Koran was being distributed free of charge to students, they felt the New Testament should be distributed in schools," Nelson says. "The government of Iraq acquiesced and allowed it," he says. The Middle Eastern Bible Society and the Bible League supplied the Bibles to the schools within the last three years.
"We have a colleague in Jordan who takes Arabic copies of the Life Application Bible and distributes them to 18 cities and towns up and down the Tigris River in Iraq," Nelson says. "When he takes Bibles to the Baghdad book fair, the Bibles are the most popular book he takes," he says.
Nelson feels moved by the spiritual hunger in Iraq, also evidenced by reports from a Christian radio network operating in Amman, Jordan. "They found the most spiritually hungry country in the Middle East is Iraq," he says. "They get more response from their Christian broadcasts in Arabic to Iraq than from all the countries in the Middle East combined."
"When I go to Iraq the reaction is amazing because the Christians there feel forgotten," Nelson says. Christians comprise less then two percent of the population of Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Muslim. "They say, ‘We thought you forgot us.’ They hunger for recognition and affirmation that American Christians care about them."
Unfortunately, geopolitical considerations have blinded the eyes of many believers in the West, Nelson believes. "Evangelical Christians have so politicized their outlook on the Muslim world, that most of the time we don’t see the people of these countries with the eyes of Christ," he says. "We see them in terms of the political objectives of the United States of America, but not in terms of the priorities of Jesus Christ."
"We see the world with political eyes, not spiritual eyes," he adds.
Nelson also visited Afghanistan on his recent trip, and plans to return in December with medical aid and school supplies. "All the schools lack almost anything," Nelson says, including chalk, pencils, paper, textbooks, desks and chairs. "The U.S. has promised a huge rebuilding effort," he says. "But the money that’s been promised has not been delivered in a timely fashion."
"The roads are just horrendous," Nelson says. "To travel from Kabul, the largest city, to Kandahar, the second largest city, is a 16 hour trip," he says. "It shouldn’t take more than two or three hours. It’s like driving in a riverbed, because the road was bombed to smithereens."
Nelson visited a school in Afghanistan with 3000 students. "The building had been totally trashed by the Taliban, but on the wall was a poster showing Osama bin Laden holding an automatic weapon in his left hand and in his right hand holding the world. He’s standing in front of the smoking, flaming World Trade Center. Underneath was a caption saying, ‘The al-Qaida band took a big forward step.’"
"When I looked at that I realized the Taliban influence is alive," Nelson says. Because the school had limited building space, students were meeting in 14 tents supplied by UNICEF. "If it wasn’t for the United Nations, they wouldn’t have anyplace to meet in the 100 degree heat," he says.
"Where is the church in all of this," Nelson wonders. "Why hasn’t the western church provided the tents?" he asks. "My question is more to the church than President Bush or the State Department."
Nelson believes our priorities are unbalanced. "Evangelical Christians spend more dollars on weight reduction products than on missionary efforts," he notes. "If we really care about that part of the world then we’ll take the gospel and express the love of Jesus Christ in tangible forms," he says.
"The children and students and teachers are wide open," he says. "They are looking to us."