What’s it like going to church in Northern Iraq?

Colleen and Hannah talk about what “going to church” looked like in Iraq. A lot of people have questions about this and a lot of preconceived ideas about what it means to be a Christian living in a pre-dominantly Muslim country.

Learn more over on our Iraq page!
And send us questions and comments to Hannah@servantgroup.org.

Here’s a rough transcript of our church in Iraq podcast!

Hannah: Welcome to “Between Iraq and a Hard Place”. I’m Hannah.

Colleen: And I’m Colleen.

Hannah: And we’re going to tell you about our life in Iraq.

Colleen: It’s going to be fun.

Hannah: I hope so. Let’s talk about church, Colleen.

Colleen: Sounds like a little bit of an imposing topic.

Hannah: It does. I feel like in college I took lots of classes about church, both like, What is the biblical church like? And, How do you plant churches? And, What should church look like? And we’re not going to get into any of those things, you know, so it’s not quite that heavy.

Colleen: The other thing we’re not going to get into is what does the church of, like, ethnic Christians look like in Iraq? Because it’s really complicated.

Hannah: Right, church history in the Middle East is most of church history. And so, you know, to take a class this is not the podcast for church history.

Colleen: There’s Syriac, Chaldean, Assyrian, Catholic, Orthodox, everything,

Hannah: Armenian.

Colleen: It’s too complicated.

Hannah: Yeah, it’s very complicated.

Colleen: I’ve never really even understood it, which is part of the reason we’re not going to talk about it.

Hannah: Right. Maybe someday in the future.

Colleen: We’ll do some research.

Hannah: Yeah. So we’re not really going to talk about that aside from like I did have ethnic Christian students who would invite me to come to church with them.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: And I never went. And part of me kind of regrets that. But part of me also recognizes that the ‘me’ in Iraq did not have the patience to sit through a two and a half hour long service in a language that I did not understand.

Colleen: Oh. Yeah, that’s probably fair.

Hannah: I just wanted to go home.

Colleen: It was a much more tired you.

Hannah: Yes, it was a much more tired me. I would probably go now just for the experience, but what we are going to talk about is the, for lack of a better term, I guess, Western church option for people for Westerner’s moving to Iraq that they can get involved in. And absolutely a Westerner probably could get involved in some of those ethnic Christian churches.

Colleen: It just would be difficult and different in the sense of having to know the language to be able to participate in that community.

Hannah: There’s not necessarily antagonism, though.

Colleen: No.

Hannah: Between ethnic churches and and Western believers coming in.

Colleen: It’s more practicality

Hannah: Right. Yeah. So there are a couple of different options.

Colleen: There’s a lot of different options and possibilities, just depending on the city, depending on the people and the different expat, the international makeup of that city.

Hannah: And there are Kurdish speaking churches and Arabic speaking churches that are national-lead churches. When I first moved to Iraq, the Kurdish church kind of let the Western expat community know, we don’t really want you guys involved in the Kurdish church. We’d like for it just to be for Kurds.

Colleen: So that it’s not seen as a Western or American thing.

Hannah: Right. And they had had a lot of problems with Western expats coming in and poaching people out of their church and starting other Kurdish, quote unquote, churches. And it was making it really hard for the Kurdish church to grow in any significant way. So coming into that, without, like having been there for all of that drama happening, I was just like, all right, that’s fine with me. I just won’t ever go to a Kurdish church. And I never did, did you?

Colleen: I went to I mean, one, it was a Kurdish house church. I went a couple of times, but I was primarily there to help out. I think I watched kids mostly, I think I maybe attended one sermon, but also it was in Kurdish and like as much as I did know some Kurdish at that point, a lot of the spiritual language, I didn’t know.

Hannah: Yeah.

Colleen: And so I really didn’t understand much of it. It’s not a place that I would have gone to build my own community or my own spiritual walk.

Hannah: Right. Right. You weren’t going to get encouragement out of it necessarily. The only Arabic speaking church I went to was for a wedding. And there were definitely other Arab Arabic speaking expats that went there and got a lot out of it, but I also didn’t speak Arabic, so I was never really interested in going. But it seemed like a really vibrant church. They had a pastor and worship leader and I knew some, not students, but coworkers that went there and really seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. Both of those were in Erbil. I know there’s also an Arabic speaking church… it might be Kurdish, actually, I don’t actually know in Dohuk. That’s a house church. It’s pretty small.

Colleen: I mean, there are probably some in Suly, I never ran across those.

Hannah: So the expat community kind of has to do its own church thing.

Colleen: And that in in my city came in in two different ways. One kind of a house gathering of different internationals from around the world, usually in English, although it wasn’t everybody’s first language and it was just a way for those people to get together. And in some ways, you would almost consider it more of a Bible study or a fellowship group. There was never a pastor per se. Different people would share that leadership, you know, each week, sign up on a list and, you know, someone else would lead the songs and someone else would host it. And it was a little more, everybody sits in the circle, in the living room, kind of.

Hannah: Right. Did yours rotate between houses too?

Colleen: Sometimes, yeah. It would get too big. Sometimes they would kind of go back and forth between just a couple of houses or just one house. And then they would make the decision to like we need to split the group. And so then it would go back to rotating around and then some people would leave. And, you know, again, it’s an international community. And so there’s constantly new people coming in, people leaving.

Hannah: Very fluid participation.

Colleen: Mm hmm.

Hannah: Yeah.

Colleen: Some people are there just for like a month or three months. And so, you know, they pop in for a little bit and then they head on.

Hannah: Yeah, yeah. That was also true in Erbil and Dohuk and I never really went to the one in Dohuk, except when I visited there before I lived there. And I remember at the time thinking that they were much more organized than the one in Erbil. The one in Erbil, I would say is was more like a prayer meeting, than really even a fellowship group, because we did worship songs and usually someone shared like a verse or two, but there wasn’t like study or preaching. And then we would all share prayer requests and spend the rest of the time praying, which I really enjoyed, but was still kind of missing out on that, like I didn’t have anyone teaching me the Bible. I missed that to some extent in that group. It was also really hard as a single female. Those meetings were usually held in the evenings and at a rotating place. That I didn’t know where it was. Like, I didn’t know the city of Erbil at all, and so I would either have to arrange for someone who did know where it was to, like, come and pick me up in a taxi and take me or not go. I remember one time I went with two of my roommates and we were trying to find this place and it was dark, like it was it was nighttime for sure.

Colleen: Well, and, you know, without consistent electricity, who knows if streetlamps or city glow even exist.

Hannah: There wasn’t any of that. And we had gotten what I thought were very clear instructions. And I felt very confident that I could get there, which was my first mistake. My second mistake was telling the taxi driver, yeah, here’s fine, just drop us off. We can walk there.

Colleen: In the dark!

Hannah: Yeah, it wasn’t very smart, I admit it. And so the three of us start traipsing around this neighborhood that I didn’t know where we were in the dark. And I ended up calling the person who had given me the directions and saying, look, I don’t know where I am, and they were like, OK, walk back out to the main road. Like I at least knew where the main road was and it wasn’t lost, lost. And will come and get you. They were like, don’t talk to anyone, don’t look at anyone, don’t touch anything. Just get out of the dark neighborhood back to the main road and you’ll probably be OK. And they ended up having to come and pick us up.

Colleen: And how far away were you?

Hannah: Not far.

Colleen: OK.

Hannah: We would never have found it, but we were just like, we went back out to the main road and like took one road into the neighborhood and then another turn. And we were there like within two minutes of them picking us up. I think about that sometimes. And I’m like, I feel like that maybe was the most dangerous thing I ever did in Iraq. And it was because I was confident that I knew what I was doing. But we survived it. So that just made it a challenge.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: And after that, I was kind of like, well, I’ll go if I know where it is.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: And if I don’t know where it is, then I’m not going to go. Which meant that I went like… they also only held those meetings once a month.

Colleen: OK.

Hannah: So it wasn’t every week. So it meant that I ended up going like maybe three times a semester. But that was the first year that was the only kind of Christian fellowship amongst expats.

Colleen: And the kind of the expat fellowship group was the only one for internationals, really my first several years, as well. And then a few years in actually I was part of a group of people that was praying for an option for like an actual international church. And shortly after that, yeah, there was an international church started in Suly and it’s still there. And it is much more your stereotypical Western church format, evangelical, mainstream.

Hannah: And interdenominational to some extent?

Colleen: Yeah, I think because early on, I mean, it definitely didn’t have any sort of denominational oversight.

Hannah: Which was kind of one of the interesting things when they tried to start. One of those in Erbil, initially was like everyone who is involved in starting the church, they were all from very different church backgrounds. And so it depended on the week as to what the church service was going to look like, which like I kind of understand why they did it that way. But it was also kind of difficult to be like, Well, what kind of church am I going to today?

Colleen: One day you show up and it’s Presbyterian!

Hannah: Are we Presbyterian today or are we Baptist or are we charismatic today. What’s what’s going to be?

Colleen: Yeah, I think those are the struggles too, though, that the international church and Suly has faced is a lot of questions about theology and even outside of church style, you know, not just what kind of music are we going to play or that kind of stuff, but, you know, are we going to allow women to preach or are we going to, you know, baptize infants? Are we going to…

Hannah: Give communion every week?

Colleen: Yeah. And who are we going to let have communion? And like, it’s especially when you have a church in a place where the rest of the population is largely not Christian.

Hannah: Right.

Colleen: And you are undoubtedly going to have visitors and curious people and people looking for community or looking for answers. You know visit you, then all of those questions kind of become more amplified.

Hannah: Right.

Colleen: Which seems so odd because in some ways, one of the things I really enjoyed about the Home Fellowship Group was the diversity that all of these people from different countries, different languages, different church backgrounds, all can worship together and have fellowship with one another in ways that if they were in their home countries, they might not.

Hannah: Right. Yeah, we had Brazilian’s, Scots, British, an El Salvadorian. Finnish. I feel like there was another Scandinavian country in there, too, Americans, obviously. And yeah, it was really beautiful. We would all find a worship song that we all knew in our native language, and we would all sing it all in our different languages. And it was it was really cool.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: But yeah, when they started to try to codify, for lack of a better word, what church was it led to some not great relationship things.

Colleen: Mm hmm.

Hannah: And in at least in Erbil, I don’t know, maybe it’s different in Suly. You have to register your church with the government in order to be recognized as a church, because it’s kind of sort of it’s legal to meet as a church, otherwise. Like you could theoretically get in trouble for it. I never knew anyone that did. But I don’t know. Like, if I think it was really if you called yourself a church, you needed to be registered with the government. That was kind of where it all fell apart for the initial international church in Erbil was the government asked some very specific questions about like, well, what does your church believe? And when you have the church planters believing different things and trying to figure out what the meat of that was, it led to some disagreements. Which is hard like, that’s a hard thing to go through if you’re not specifically called to be a church planter. That’s where I’ve seen the international church going now in Dohuk and Erbil is people have come specifically to plant a church for the international community.

Colleen: Yeah. And that’s what happened in Suly was a group came for that purpose. And were a unified team in that purpose right from the start. And I think it worked really well.

Hannah: And I think that’s what it takes, is not people who are there for other reasons.

Colleen: Doing other jobs. And here you’ve got the teacher and the ESL teacher and the NGO worker.

Hannah: Which was part of my problem was I was friends with the people that were starting the church in Erbil, and they wanted me to be more involved than I wanted to be because I went to Iraq to teach Kurdish kids. And that’s what I wanted to be doing with my time not trying to go to worship band practice three days a week when I should be home grading papers, because that’s what my job is. And so I ended up stepping back from that church more than they wanted me to. But, you know, I needed to focus on what I was doing.

Robin: Hey, this is Robin, and I want to encourage all the listeners out there to consider moving to Iraq. It’s something that you can pray about and consider and bring before the Lord and see if it’s a place that you should be.

Hannah: It’s been really neat to see those international church planting groups come in and do that and serve the international community in that way. I think all of our our team members now have been very involved in the international churches that exist in all the cities. And very encouraged by by those as well.

Colleen: Some to the point of even interning with those churches.

Hannah: Yeah. And God bless them. Like, I was telling you the other day, I never went to Iraq with any interest in planting a church. Like, I don’t want to plant a church. I don’t want to do it here. I don’t want to do it there. It takes a special kind of person and I’m grateful for them and I’m glad that it’s not me.

Colleen: Yeah, I feel like it’s tied to almost an entrepreneurial sort of sense of this excitement over a vision of something and a willingness to push for that vision, no matter how impossible it might seem.

Hannah: Right.

Colleen: And that there’s like a thrill in that. It is not necessarily an excitement I share.

Hannah: Right. Right. Yeah. So I did get to go to the international church in Dohuk the last time I was there visiting, and it seemed very, very organized and people wanted to be there and they meet in the same building every week. They have pastoral staff, they have people from within the church body that rotate worship leading. Yeah, they were like in a sermon series, which was also not anything that ever happened when I was living there because it rotated who was preaching each week and they just did whatever they felt like, I guess. However the spirit led, to make it a little more Christian. So, yeah, it was it was neat to see that and see that the pastoral staff really did care about the people in their church. And it wasn’t just, I’m here to be here.

Colleen: And that support, I think, is really key and beneficial to our staff members as they are there. And I mean, I feel like both you and I mentioned how sometimes the fellowship groups, while they were encouraging or interesting or, you know, things that we wanted to be a part of, we definitely supplemented those with sermons from the US and phone calls with people in the US and, you know, trying to get our encouragement and our teaching and our community in multiple locations. I mean, my team also did regular prayer meetings just with our team, you know, sometimes on Saturday mornings or something like that, just as a way to be encouraged and spend time in prayer and have community and fellowship.

Hannah: And, yeah, I think it’s important to to recognize that all the problems that the church encounters in the US are also in other countries. Just because you’re all there with a purpose to serve doesn’t mean that you’re all going to get along perfectly. I think that can be a thing that is hard about living there. But like we also have both said it’s also a really beautiful thing. I know it challenged me to rethink why I believe, not core Christian things, but you know why do I believe what I believe about women leading a church? Or what about speaking in tongues and miracles and stuff like that? Dreams and visions, all of those things that come up because you’re in a different mix of people.

Colleen: Sometimes things you’ve never even thought about.

Hannah: Right. And I think I think it’s a beautiful part of the Christian family, the church body, is being able to worship together, even though we don’t agree about everything, one hundred percent. And it’s not a thing we really experience in the US because we choose a church, because we agree with what they’re preaching.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: Which is good and right. It’s a growing experience to be involved in it in a church anywhere, but especially in a different country. And I think we want to encourage people to be involved in the churches that they’re in here in the US.

Colleen: Yeah. Wherever you’re at, get involved, be invested in your church community.

Hannah: In part because that is what Scripture calls you to do, to be involved in your church body, your local body of believers. But also, it’s really a great way to know people and be challenged in what you believe and why you believe it .

Colleen: And to grow.

Hannah: Really you need to have a firm grasp on before you move to a foreign country where people are going to ask you weird questions about what you believe,

Colleen: Things that you never really thought about.

Hannah: Yeah. So get involved in your church. Church is important. Do it.

Colleen: We’d love to hear from you. You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram, and you should check out our blog and complete transcripts over at servantgroup.org

Hannah: And it’s really helpful for us if you share our podcast or leave a review on whatever platform you listen to this podcast on. It helps us know that people are listening and you can let us know what you want to hear next.

Both: Thanks for listening.

Hannah: Apparently, I have to talk louder. I’m the one bringing this whole thing down. It’s because I have I have such a deep, resonant voice, really.

Colleen: I mean, I don’t know, I don’t have a super high pitched voice either.