From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
[PCUSANEWS] Bridging the gulf
PCUSA NEWS <PCUSA.NEWS@ecunet.org>
7 Feb 2003 16:11:22 -0500
Note #7585 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
Bridging the gulf
February 7, 2003
Bridging the gulf
U.S., Iraqi Presbyterians are using email to stay in touch
by Evan Silverstein
LOUISVILLE - As war looms, people in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are
finding that the Internet is a useful tool for connecting with their
Presbyterian counterparts in Iraq.
A minister in Vermont, a congregation in Michigan, a retired campus chaplain
in Ohio - they and many other Presbyterians nationwide are punching buttons
on computer keyboards, sending prayerful email messages of support, hope and
peace to Iraqi Presbyterians.
"There are people in this congregation who are concerned about the potential
of war with Iraq," said the Rev. Scott L. Barton, pastor of First
Congregational Church in Bennington, VT. "I communicate through email that
we're keeping them (Iraqi Presbyterians) in our prayers."
The email well-wishes are a show of Christian solidity and friendship
that crosses international borders and rises above disputes between
The effort also assures Iraqi Presbyterians that not all Americans
favor war or consider residents of the Gulf nation enemies.
"It is to talk to them on a one-on-one basis, so that they know we're
not all war mongers," said elder Joe Tierno, who last year exchanged a
handful of emails with an Iraqi congregation on behalf of New Hartford
Presbyterian Church in upstate New York. "We want them to know that there are
people in the United States who are suing for peace, and we don't want to
have a war."
The U.S. correspondents say they have been touched by heartfelt
replies from the Iraqis, including electronic Christmas cards, quotations
from scripture and descriptions of the hardships faced by the people of Iraq.
The email contact has helped many American Presbyterians put a human
face on the nation with which the United States may soon be at war.
"Whenever we do anything like this, we give witness to our faith that
in Christ we're not strangers to other human beings," said Barton. "If we can
put names and faces to other human beings, it seems like it ought to be a lot
harder to go to war with them."
Iraq, which is about 95 percent Muslim, has five Presbyterian
churches. All are part of the newly registered national General Assembly of
the Presbyterian Church of Iraq.
The five congregations have more than 2,000 members (Presbyterians in
Iraq tally membership by numbers of families).
Overall, Christians make up about 4 percent of Iraq's population -
about one million people. Tradition has it that the apostle Thomas
evangelized the region now known as Iraq during the first century.
Presbyterian missionaries first came to Iraq in 1836.
National Protestant Evangelical Church, in Mosul, in northern Iraq,
is the oldest Presbyterian church in the country, founded in 1840. It now has
just five to 10 member families. National Presbyterian in Baghdad (The Arab
Presbyterian Church), founded in 1952, has more than 300 families. The
Assyrian Evangelical Presbyterian Church, also in Baghdad, was founded in
1921 and has 36 member families. Kirkuk's National Evangelical Church,
founded in 1958, has 36 families. The only church in the south, National
Presbyterian Church, in Basra, was established in 1940 and has 32 families.
All five are in partnership with the PC(USA).
Efforts to reach out to Presbyterians in Iraq have intensified as
prospects for a peaceful resolution of the crisis have faded.
Staff members at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville have been kept
busy lately answering email messages from U.S. Presbyterians wanting to know
how to contact the Iraqi Presbyterian churches. Email traffic between the
United States and Iraq spiked in December after contact information was added
to the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program (PPP) Web site:
PPP officials hope the information - which includes mail addresses
for the churches, the names of pastors and elders, and email addresses for
four of the five - will help U.S. Presbyterians build relationships with
their Iraqi counterparts. They suggest that such messages might include
expressions of concern for peace, relevant prayers, Bible verses and
expressions of solidarity.
"This simple act reminds our church partners in Iraq that we are
thinking of them as a part of the body of Christ, and we are aware of the
suffering they are experiencing," said Sara Lisherness, the PPP coordinator.
"When one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts."
The Rev. Victor E. Makari, the PC(USA)'s coordinator for the Middle
East and Europe, returned just last month from a visit to Iraq. He said it is
imperative that Presbyterians in this country reach out to their brothers and
sisters in Iraq.
"Even though we may not be in a position to avert a war," he said,
"it is important for them to know that they are not isolated or forgotten or
Others who have exchanged emails with Iraqi Presbyterians said the
experience has proven educational, because many Americans were not aware that
there are Christians in Iraq, let alone Presbyterians.
"There is still surprise here that there are Christians in Iraq,"
said the Rev.
Linda A. Knieriemen, associate pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in
Grand Rapids, MI. "That's part of the whole learning (experience). And
specifically that they're Presbyterians."
Last month, Barton sent electronic mail to the four Presbyterian
congregations with email addresses. He got a reply a few days later from an
elder at National Presbyterian Church in Basra, in southern Iraq.
"He mentioned that they celebrate Christmas with the music of the
siren warning of air raids," said Barton, referring to Dr. Zuhair Fathallah,
an elder. "This is the usual story every Christmas."
Fathallah's email included an electronic Christmas card picturing 15
young Iraqi children holding large colorful letters that spelled out "Merry
Barton said he got the idea of contacting Iraqi Presbyterians from
his congregation, New Hartford Presbyterian, where Tierno is an elder. The
church has published excerpts of the exchange in one of its newsletters.
"Part of what has been powerful for me is the fact that here we have
two groups of people who live in totally different worlds," said New
Hartford's pastor, the Rev. Janet Hoover. "(Two groups) who speak totally
different languages, who are still trying to find what we have in common
In November and December, Tierno, a member of the congregation for
more than a quarter-century, had email conversations with Dr. Mazen Saleem, a
physician, and Monther Saleem, elders at National Protestant Evangelical
Church in Mosul.
New Hartford's misson committee later contributed $200 to the Iraqi
congregation's Christmas project for underprivileged children.
"I am writing to let you know that there are many people in our
congregation praying for peace and hoping that we can find a way to come
together soon," Tierno wrote on Nov. 9. "We pray that Christ will intercede
and bring peace to your entire region of the world."
Two days later, he got a reply in which Mazen and Monther said they
were moved by the message of support and the call for peace.
"We are very thankful to God," they wrote. "To know that in this time
still there is a believer who can share with us our praying to God to prevent
war and (that) peace with love (may) come to the world . . ."
In another email exchange, Mazen replied wrote: "I'm happy to know
that there are many believers (who) try to pray for us and (want) to know
about us and encourage us in this situation. We believe that if we unite in
our prayers, God will listen to us."
In Grand Rapids, Knieriemen received a colorful holiday greeting from
one Iraqi Presbyterian church. After emailing four of the congregations the
first of the year, she got a response from Mazen of the National Presbyterian
Church in Mosul, in northern Iraq.
"We wish you a peaceful Christmas and peaceful New Year," the Iraqi
church elder wrote. "This is our greeting in the church of Iraq, and we pray
that God will do (the) same thing . . . (let) you see He is bigger than we
dare imagine . . ."
Attached to Mazen's message, which incorporated several Bible verses,
was an electronic holiday greeting depicting angels, signed "from Iraqi
"I felt all of a sudden so connected and closer to people in Iraq -
Christian, Presbyterian or otherwise," said Knieriemen, who also serves on
the PC(USA)'s General Assembly Council. "I wanted them to know in my own
small little way that they weren't alone."
As the war drums grew louder, a chaplain and professor emeritus at
Hiram College in Hiram, OH, also wanted to let Presbyterians in Iraq know
they are not alone.
"I just think in conflict situations that we need to make a witness
to God's spirit, which calls us to mend those and to heal the brokenness,"
said the Rev. Thomas Niccolls, a retired Presbyterian minister and member of
Eastminster Presbytery in northeast Ohio.
Niccolls, who is active with the Peacemaking program, sent letters by
regular mail last month to all five Iraqi Presbyterian churches and also sent
digital copies to the four with email service. So far he has had no replies.
He said he will urge his presbytery's social justice and peacemaking
committee to encourage church sessions to send "letters of support and
Christian unity" to the Iraqi congregations.
"I see that as an opportunity to do a little consciousness-raising
among the churches," he said. "It makes people think twice about where our
fellow Christians are, particularly in difficult situations like this, with
an impending war on the horizon."
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