Baptists in Iraqi’s Kurdistan mark historic milestone for Christians

kceremonylockegov9542.jpgGovernor gives believers land for new cultural center in Dohuk
DOHUK, KURDISTAN, Iraq (FBW)—Just as the sun was rising in the west Sept. 29, a new day dawned in Iraqi Kurdistan as Governor Tamar Ramadhan gave Baptists two acres of land worth $2 million for the Grace Baptist Cultural Center—a multi-phase project including a medical clinic, school, athletic facility, church building and seminary in the town of Simele.

Standing in for Ramadhan, Gurgis Shlaymun, the deputy governor of Kurdistan’s Regional Government in Dohuk, joined a team from Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola, along with Iraqi, Jordanian and Brazilian Baptists and other evangelical Christians at an hour-long ceremony prior to cementing the top on an engraved, marble cornerstone marking the new property.

In the Dohuk Province of Iraqi’s Kurdistan, Deputy Governor Gurgis Shlaymun (L), watches as Jim Locke, senior pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola, spreads cement in a dedication ceremony of the Grace Baptist Cultural Center in the village of Simele. Taking part in the historic ceremony, standing behind Locke, is Brian Barlow, missions pastor at Hillcrest Baptist, and a former Southern Baptist worker in the Middle East. To the right of Locke is Nabeeh Abbassa, past president of the Jordan Baptist Convention and a representative of the Baptist World Alliance. Governor Tamar Ramadhan, who was unable to be at the ceremony, approved the gift of the two-acre building site, worth $2 million. Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
Shlaymun, an Assyrian Christian first elected to his post in the Muslim majority government in 2005, delivered remarks at a community center near the undeveloped property in the growing village of Simele. In the Duhok Province of Iraqi’s Kurdistan, Simele is on the main road of an agricultural plain about 10 miles from the Turkish border.

This city has a tragic history concerning Assyrian Christians. In 1800, Christian inhabitants of the village of Simele were forced from their homes and massacred by local radicals. In 1933, after Assyrians and Chaldeans again found refuge and settled in the fertile valley, an estimated 3,000 were slaughtered by the Iraqi government following the withdrawal of British troops from the region in light of a treaty granting Iraq’s independence in 1930.

Under a banner bearing a colorful map of Iraq’s regions marked with a cross and open hands at the spot of the new facilities in Simele, Shlaymun smiled at the gathering of about 100 local officials and Christians and extended a special greeting for those from afar.

“The people of Dohuk love their guests,” Shlaymun said. “Today, you are the children of Iraq.”

Pastor Dr. Farouk Hammo (L) and Gurgis Shlaymun, deputy governor of Duhok Province in Iraqi’s Kurdistan Regional Government, watch as members of various Baptist churches in Iraq perform a skit during a dedication ceremony for the groundbreaking of the new Grace Baptist Cultural Center in the village of Simele. Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
Noting the involvement of Baptist groups from various nations, Shlaymun praised each for serving the people of Dohuk by taking interest in “each family, in each sickness” so future generations will be well served. “This is our duty to introduce the land for this project, this is our duty to service this project,” he said.
Recognizing Iraqi Baptist Pastor Dr. Farouk Hammo, a project leader who shares a personal history with Gov. Ramadhan, Shlaymun said, “Our purpose and your purpose is to make a good generation.”

Shlaymun, a deacon in the Assyrian Church of the East, spoke openly about the spiritual dimension of the center.

“Jesus said your light will be shined through the people to see your works and glorify your Father in the Heaven,” Shlaymun said. “That is what Jesus Christ said in the Bible. And this Jesus did not speak specifically about man, but for all the world. This will be for all.”

Shlaymun pledged his support for the project and thanked the leaders. “You understand this project is from God,” he said urging continued unity.

A Baptist from Baghdad, Iraq takes part in a ceremony in the Duhok Province of Iraqi’s Kurdistan involving the laying of a cornerstone for the Grace Baptist Cultural Center in the village of Simele. Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
“We must be all united to glorify God,” Deputy Governor Shlaymun concluded. “As we are united today here, we need to be united.”
Dr. Nabeeh Abbassi, immediate past president of the Jordan Baptist Convention and pastor of West Amman Baptist Church, brought greetings from Baptists worldwide on behalf of the Baptist World Alliance and the European Baptist Federation of which the Baptist churches in Iraq are a part.

“We stand with you on the roots of a shared civilization and history,” Abbassi said. “We are genuinely rooted; our evangelical churches are part of the whole. We are a small slice or number within you, but large within its allegiance and dreams. We are also part of an even larger slice, the community of indigenous Christians in Iraq.”