The country of Iraq is mentioned more often in the Bible than any other country other than the land of Israel. It is Mesopotamia, home of the Assyrian Empire and of the Chaldeans. It was the birthplace of Abraham as well as the country where the cities of Babylon and Nineveh once stood. In recent years, Iraq has been the focal point of the world’s attention because of the war our young men and women fought there to liberate an oppressed people and drive back the forces of militant Islam that threaten civilization. After the war began, we Americans learned about the Kurdish people in the north of Iraq. The Kurds are a race of people who trace their origins back to the ancient Medes. They are not Arabs, although most of them are Sunni Muslims. The special object of dictator Saddam Hussein’s wrath, the Kurds are very grateful for the liberation our country brought to theirs. Many of the Kurds have also experienced another and greater liberation since the beginning of the Iraq war, the liberation men receive through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. It is reported that thousands of them have come to Christ by personal faith in the last few years.
Evangelist Edgar Feghaly is well-known for his ministry in the Middle East. He is also a significant leader in the growing independent Baptist movement in that part of the world. It was the church he helped found in Baghdad that made the contact with evangelical Christians up in Kurdistan which led to the conference in Erbil, July 6-10, 2009. The number of born-agains among the Kurds is growing, and many of them are hungry for Bible truth. Dr. Feghaly and his Baghdad friends arranged for Kurdish pastors and other Christians to meet with them in the city of Erbil for meetings to study basic Christian doctrines, and they sought the help of some American preachers. I was one of those asked to come to Erbil for this conference, and the Lord provided both time and funds for me to go. This is my report on the events of that amazing week.
Erbil is a large Kurdish city, located between Mosul and Kirkuk. More than a million people live here, and they are grateful for the freedom the war has brought them. The Gospel has made an impact on the city since Saddam Hussein was brought down, and the group with which we Baptists met call their congregations “Kurdzman Churches.” They are Baptistic in doctrine and practice, although weak in their knowledge of sound teaching. The strong influence of Charismatic teachers is evident in their country, as well as the bad influence of compromising ecumenical evangelicals. Our meeting could be used of God to build a strong independent Baptist witness among the Kurds. The truth of the Bible combined with courage to stand for that truth can be the basis of a revival in God’s family over there, as well as an awakening among the multitudes in darkness.
On the Fourth of July, I began my journey on a flight from Nashville to Chicago. I flew out of Nashville because I had just finished ministry at Family Week at the Bill Rice Ranch. My daughter Susanna, who works for the Ranch, took me to the airport. I breezed through the process of checking bags and getting set for the journey, and was encouraged with the thought that prayer was the reason things were working better than on any other overseas trip I had taken! In Chicago I got on the Royal Jordanian flight to Amman with no hitches. The flight over the ocean was remarkably pleasant and comfortable for me, and I slept a whole lot (which is something I normally have a tough time doing in a plane on a long trip). I had a long wait at Amman for my flight to Erbil, and so the airline put me up in a nice hotel with a free meal. When I came back to the airport in an airline vehicle, I had to wait to get into the gate area for the Erbil flight at 1 a.m. As I sat and waited, I was surprised to see my friend, Pastor Ghassan Haddad, arrive. He was to interpret for the conference, but he was originally set to go a couple of days before me. However several things held him up, and now he was going to fly with me! I was really glad to have a friendly travel companion. I met Brother Haddad several years ago when I helped at a conference in Jordan. He is a remarkable (spiritual, intelligent, courageous) man of God who pastors an independent Baptist church in Amman.
We landed about 3 a.m. in Erbil (the time there is 7 hours later than Michigan). We took a cab to the hotel, which was called the Rotterdam City Hotel (later in the week an Arabic-speaking man asked me what “Rotterdam” means in English, and I surprised him by saying that it is the name of a city in Holland). We got to our rooms about 4:30 a.m. (Monday), and learned that we were to eat breakfast in the hotel cafeteria at 8 a.m. By then we also knew that key speakers for the conference had not yet arrived, partially because of the sandstorm in central Iraq that many of you heard about. We would have to start the conference without Edgar, Sam Stricklin, and Pastor Walls. Bill Daab, a missionary in Jordan, had arrived before us, and so he and I could speak on Monday with Ghassan interpreting. In the original plan, I was to be the last speaker to arrive! Things had certainly turned around.
I was amazed at how fresh I was for the day. The meetings went well, with me giving two sessions on the Deity of Christ and Bro. Daab speaking twice on the Holy Spirit. That night Edgar and the others arrived, and the plan was made for them to speak all day on Tuesday, in order to “catch up.” We would be back on the planned conference schedule on Wednesday. Pastor Haddad scared us by passing out, and having difficulty regaining consciousness. Eventually he was better.
Another group that came for the week was a team of physicians from Charleston, South Carolina. They are great guys, Christian doctors who go to needy areas together to hold free clinics for local people with sicknesses. They were to hold such a clinic at the Kurdzman church where our conference was being held. They took a look at Ghassan, and told us that he had been suffering from exhaustion (which Bill Daab explained must have resulted from the hard work he had been doing to prepare for the conference) and (of all things) caffeine toxicity (from drinking too much coffee).
Tuesday the teachers were Pastor Garvan Walls from Tennessee, Sam Stricklin with Bro. Feghaly’s ministry, and Dr. Feghaly himself. Bro. Walls taught on prayer, Bro. Stricklin on the church, and Bro. Feghaly on the Bible. There was both good attendance and good attention at these meetings. The clinic was to begin on Wednesday, but some sick folks showed up the day before, and the doctors treated them. Among the interpreters was Brother Milad from Beruit, the man who took Bro. Feghaly’s place several years ago at the church in Lebanon. He is a very bright man, and a fervent witness for Christ. I met him in Jordan a few years ago and love to be around him.
On Wednesday, all five of the teachers taught. My session from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. was the final lesson on the Deity of Christ. Our breakfast each day was served at the motel, and consisted of a big piece of bread (traditional for Arabs at nearly all meals), walnuts, black olives, creamy dip made with sesame seeds, and cheese. We ate lunch at the church, and sometimes ate the final meal of the day (after 7 or 8 p.m.) at a restaurant.
On Thursday, we saw God answer the prayer many of you, as well as we, had prayed. In the morning we had a session about the Holy Spirit, one in a series taught by Bill Daab. During that session, several in the group asked questions, and some of them were hard questions. It was interesting to keep up with the whole conversation, since it was carried on in three languages! Anyway, at a certain point, Pastor Maher from Bagdad asked (as I understood through the interpreter), “What about Luke 11:13?” That is a good question for any meeting of Christians. What about Luke 11:13? It is one of the most controversial, and yet one of the most important, verses in the New Testament:
“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”
Some of you know that I have studied this promise (which Jesus later called the promise of the Father), and that it has had a great effect on my thinking and on my life. Well, they gave me a chance to explain the promise, based on the parable that precedes it, the application Jesus made of the parable, the meaning of the Greek present tense, and the significance of the lack of the article before the words “Holy Spirit” in the Greek. These things make it clear that the Lord was not calling on believers to ask God for the sealing of the Spirit, which happens automatically when we believe on Him for salvation (according to Ephesians 1), but for the power of the Spirit to meet the needs of lost sinners. During my explanation, it seemed that God was opening the eyes of many before me. Comments made later confirmed in my mind that this was truly happening. And many of us were praying that the Lord would open the door for me to sow the seeds of revival truth during the Erbil conference. He was answering that prayer, and this was not all that happened.
At 11:30 a.m. it was time for me to begin my first session on the Trinity. It was supposed to last to about 1 p.m., when we would have lunch. Well I did get into that important session, and after a while we were looking at John 14, where the Lord Jesus gives us important and amazing truth about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Soon we were studying the ministry of the Spirit to Christians, and it seemed to me that the presence of the Lord was actually being experienced among us. Do you know what I mean when I say this? But, as I said, it is interesting and strange to attend a meeting where everything is communicated in three languages (English, Arabic, and Kurdish). Was it the presence of Christ I was sensing? Could others sense His presence, too? Or was it just that I was stirred by the wonder and significance of what I was teaching? After I had finished, I learned the answer to these questions. Dr. Feghaly got up and said that we could all sense the presence of the Lord that morning, and that after days of hearing the truth, it was time that we responded to it. He was giving an altar call. He indicated that it was time to confess our sins, call for God to fill us with His Spirit as we surrender our lives to Him. Immediately, many responded and came to the front to pray. I was one of them. Soon many were praying aloud in the different languages. After a bit, I peeked, and saw many at the front, and nearly everyone else on their knees in the aisle and at the pews. We met with God for quite a while, and I don’t really know how long. And God met with us. It was a powerful season that ended with Edgar leading the group in an intense prayer for the Lord’s blessing. When we got back to our seats, we were well into the lunch hour, but we were not concerned about the schedule. Truly the Lord was answering the prayers of those of you who asked God to give us a revival. Then somebody announced that, before lunch, one of the Kurdish pastors wanted to tell us some good news. A tall, thin man we had all come to know that week came to the podium and told us that a man from his city, three hours away, had come that morning to seek him out. This man had been visiting with this Kurdish pastor for weeks to ask him questions about Christ and Christianity. And that Thursday morning he arrived at the Kurdzman church to find the pastor so that he could know the way to God. He was ready, and He came to Christ. Everybody rejoiced aloud at this very good news. In the sessions later that day the new convert gave his testimony, the story of a journey from Islam to Marxism and, finally that day, to Christ. He said that it was the life lived by the Christians he had met that attracted Him to the Lord Jesus. The pastor that led him to Christ told us that this man was just more evidence of the white harvest that waits in Kurdistan.
During the week, I was made aware of a few situations over there that will interest you. First of all, there is a serious issue among the Christians about the text of the Bible. There is a good Arabic Bible based on the traditional texts that underlie our King James Version, but a couple of others based on the revised texts are now competing for use in the new churches. Dr. Feghaly ably argued for sticking with the “Van Dyke” version. We learned also that the only New Testament currently available in the Kurdish tongue is based on the revised text. Dr. Feghaly had meetings with Kurdish men about launching a project to produce a Kurdish New Testament from the Textus Receptus. Several publication projects like this one, including the publication of books about the New Testament church and about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, interested me enough that I contributed a significant amount of the money given for this mission trip to Dr. Feghaly’s ministry for publications. I was also able to give a good amount toward the conference expenses, as well as some to help a few of the Kurdish pastors with the cost of their trip to Erbil.
On Friday, we had the final sessions of the conference, as well as a time of fellowship and celebration. The new Christian was able to stay with us through the end of the conference. I especially was blessed when we all sang, in our different tongues, the wonderful song of praise, “How Great Thou Art!” God had reminded us and had shown us in these sacred days that He is indeed great. The doctrinal establishment of the Kurdish believers, the linking of this movement with independent Baptists in the Middle East, the teaching and experiencing of God’s revival power, the conversion of a Kurdish sinner, and drawing of our hearts near to Christ are the things we all saw as profoundly significant about the conference in Erbil. After it was over, I went back to the hotel to rest and then to catch a flight out of the city in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I arrived that evening in Detroit for a glad reunion with Toni (my wife) and an opportunity to thank God and His servants for sending me on this mission to Iraq.