BRISTOL – Back from Baghdad, missionary Kris Keating said he and others in a Christian prayer delegation spoke with the country’s prime minister about religious liberty and discrimination against the Christian minority.
“It went really well,” said Keating, the missionary minister at Hillside Community Church in Bristol.
Keating was one of a group of six who recently traveled to Iraq as official guests of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to discuss what Keating said is the “very real” persecution of Christians there.
“We were able to speak frankly about some substantive issues that Christians face in Iraq,” said Keating, who traveled with the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Organization in Washington and a former Bristol pastor.
Al-Maliki said he is committed to religious liberty and protecting religious and ethnic minority groups, said Keating, who added that the prime minister “candidly recognized” the need for a security detail for Christian leaders.
About 3 percent of Iraq’s population is Christian, said Keating.
The group spent two days in Baghdad, said Keating, on a tight schedule.
“They were very concerned in providing for our security and protection,” said Keating, who said he wasn’t scared to be in Iraq.
He said they spent the entire time in the Green Zone, but that the group is hoping al-Maliki will invite them back in the fall so they can visit Northern Iraq.
While in Baghdad, Keating said, they prayed with all the Iraqi leaders they met.
“We prayed in the name of Jesus Christ with a Muslim prime minister of Iraq,” said Keating.
Keating said it’s important that the Iraqi prime minister and others realize that Christians love Muslims. Praying together is an “important bridge-building step,” said Keat-ing.
Keating said the group is now calling on President Bush to hold a national day of prayer in the United States for the war in Iraq.
The group also plans to host Iraqi youth who may come to the United States, said Keating, as a way to support Iraqi communities.
They also met with the nation’s ministry of industry, minister of human rights and Iraq’s director of Christian affairs, said Keating, who said that man is also a Christian pastor in Iraq.
The Iraqi Christian pastor gave the group “a slightly different” take on the situation than the prime minister did, said Keating.
Christian leaders “need more security,” said Keating.
But Keating said leaders in Baghdad told him the threat in Iraq is coming from forces outside the country, not from Iraqis.
Average Iraqis “for the most part, don’t care” the religion or ethnicity of their neighbor, said Keating.
Keating supports the presence of American troops in Iraq.
If the concern is the best interests of the Iraqi people, Keating said, the soldiers have to stay.
“It would be a horrible mistake to abandon Iraq now,” said Keating. “I think we need to be there.”
If coalition forces were to withdraw from Iraq, Keating said, “The Christian community in Iraq would be in serious danger.”
Keating said he wants to shift the focus from the “cold, calculating” look at the war’s cost and American deaths to the needs of both Americans and Iraqis.
Keating said there has been some progress in Iraq toward true democracy, pointing to the huge voter turnout in last year’s election.
It’s not true that Christian Iraqis were better off under the secular rule of the nation’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein, said Keating. “Everyone we spoke with recognized that Iraq is better without Saddam,” said Keating. “Saddam was a tyrant. There was not freedom.”