Iraqi Presbyterian says church growing slowly in war-torn country

The head of one of Iraq's few Presbyterian churches said Wednesday the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime has brought greater religious freedom to his country, but instability has largely prevented his denomination from growing.

The Rev. Younan Shiba, head of the Assyrian Presbyterian Church in Baghdad, said several new Presbyterian churches have opened in the last year to serve the approximately 2,500 Presbyterians in the country. But continued violence wrought by insurgents has hindered the church's ability to evangelize to Iraq's majority Muslim population.

"Women particularly and children feel extremely vulnerable," Shiba said through an interpreter during a news conference at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national legislative assembly. "Now because of kidnappings, rapes and all kinds of assaults, they are frightened outside their homes."

Iraq had a long history of religious tolerance before the rise of Hussein's Baath Party. In ancient times, the country was home to more than a million Jews, who maintained their economic and political might well into the 20th century. It wasn't until the Baath Party came into power in the late 1960s that the remaining 10,000 Jews in the country began to flee.

Iraq is about 3 percent Christian today. Shiba said Presbyterians make up a small minority of that 3 percent, but there are now six churches that cater to them, some of which still hold services in Aramaic.

He said Muslims and Christians have lived together in relative peace since the fall of Hussein's regime, but Christians are sometimes the targets of extremist attacks.

Shiba blamed the Allied occupation forces for failing to provide enough security for the Iraqi people, likening the foreign troops to "blind bats banging against different walls."

"After the war ... we had no security force, no police," he said. "We felt naked and vulnerable, unable to protect ourselves."

Iraqis began to feel soon after the takeover that Allied troops had no plan for restoring order to the country, Shiba said. He also blasted President Bush for providing faulty reasoning for going to war in the first place.

"Whether the motive for the war was petroleum, regime change or to combat terrorism, it seems the international community is able to discern - read between the lines - what might be some of the real reasons," he said.

Shiba is attending the national assembly as one of several ecumenical delegates from Presbyterian churches abroad. About 8,000 Presbyterians are in Richmond for the weeklong meeting, where the ordination of gays and lesbians in the church has thus far been the most divisive issue debated.

The assembly is expected to act on a measure partially lifting the church's ban on gay ordination Friday.