Like every Friday, young men gather in a room on the third floor of an unattractive building, above a beauty salon and a change bureau. Sitting in a circle, they sing praises to Jesus. The pastor’s strong accent hints to his Latino origins. His congregation includes Mexicans, Americans, Swiss, Taiwanese, a young Baghdadi and two Iraqi Kurds. The evening begins with a prayer, and continues in song. A teenager proudly strums chords on his Yamaha guitar, while the pastor turns the pages of his songbook. We then listen to a Taiwanese guest’s lengthy talk on love, in which he shuffles abstruse concepts in jerky, abused English. It doesn’t really matter, though, as the guests seem to be in their element, churning out questions that would be difficult for a neophyte to answer.
We finally end the evening over cookies and fruit juice, getting to know a few newcomers, including myself, before playing an eagerly-awaited game: the Bible quiz. “Do you feel more comfortable with the Old or the New Testament?” asks the game’s host, the pastor’s son, in English. “The New!” replies the young Baghdadi without flinching. “So, can you tell me how many parts there are in the first Epistle to the Corinthians?” The youngster takes a few seconds to think it over before replying, “Sixteen”. That’s right, his team wins a point. The game continues. You think, you answer, you’re often wrong, but it doesn’t matter: the aim is to deepen your knowledge of the Scriptures while having fun.
The scene is somewhat unrealistic. We’re not on the outskirts of a small town in the American Bible Belt, but in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan. The presence of this community is known. Being more or less accepted, it arouses sarcasm, fantasies, but above all the question: where did evangelists come from in Iraqi Kurdistan?
A brief history
The arrival of evangelicals in Iraq does not, as one might expect, date from the American invasion of 2003. As early as the 19th century, Presbyterians settled in the country with the authorization of the Ottoman authorities. Active in the field of education, various churches later established themselves in Iraq and were tolerated under the Hashemite kingdom and then the Al-Qassim government. They were then expelled with the Ba’athist coup d’état, and their activities ceased with the closure of all private schools in November 1968. Only the long-established Presbyterian Church and Adventists were allowed to remain and operate in Iraq beyond that date.
A few organizations re-emerged in Iraqi Kurdistan after the First Gulf War and the region’s de facto autonomy. The NGO Servant Group International, founded in Nashville in 1992 by Douglas Layton, established itself in 1993 through various humanitarian projects. However, its beginnings in Iraqi Kurdistan were not the happiest, not least because of the Kurdish authorities’ opposition to the NGO’s overtly proselytizing intentions. D. Layton was briefly arrested and then expelled from Iraqi Kurdistan after publicly declaring, in the town of Duhok, that the Kurds would have their “promised land” if they “followed Jesus” and that Islam would only bring them war and misfortune.
However, the NGO was able to resume its local activities in 1996 after D. Layton had lobbied for the KDP in Washington. Kurdistan remained the only region in Iraq open to evangelicals. In 2001, the NGO Servant Group International opened a private school, the Classical School of the Medes, in the town of Sulaymaniyah. A sign that the group also had good relations with the PUK. The NGO, having learned from its past mistakes, was no longer expected to convert anyone but to provide humanitarian and material aid in Kurdistan, to “serve Muslims with the hope and love of Christ”.
The planned invasion of Iraq by George Bush’s administration offered a historic opportunity for evangelicals to re-establish themselves in the country. G. Bush himself was a “reborn” Christian, baptized in 1985, whose political discourse was peppered with religious references. The support of several evangelical congregations in the United States had been decisive in the 2001 election, and the new president made no secret of his closeness to them. It was against this backdrop that several congregations gave their public and enthusiastic support to the American projects.
As early as October 2002, Richard D. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention called on President Bush to invade Iraq. In his view, this was a “just war” on the defensive, waged by a “legitimate authority”, namely the United States. Four other representatives of evangelical currents co-signed the letter, thereby providing theological justification for the war.
Religious references were not absent from the official discourse, but G. Bush’s administration officially stuck to its desire to “democratize” the Middle East and overthrow a tyrant with alleged links to al-Qaeda. Converting Muslims to Christianity and spreading the Good News was obviously not the primary goal, but it is understandable that the American administration was interested in facilitating the creation of a small evangelical community in Iraq. Such a community would naturally be close to the U.S. government, and could serve as a logistical support point, particularly in the humanitarian and educational fields.
Three main organizations attempted to establish themselves in the newly “liberated” Iraq of 2003. Firstly, the powerful Southern Baptist Convention, which reportedly spent $250,000 on humanitarian aid at the start of hostilities, then distributed tens of thousands of food rations on the ground. At the end of the war, the Southern Baptist Convention reportedly sent several thousand Bibles translated into Arabic, but without the expected success.
The Samaritan’s Purse, headed by Franklin Graham, also provided considerable material aid to Iraq as soon as G. Bush declared the end of the war. According to the organization, in 2004, shelters were built for 4,000 people, and thousands of cooking pots and medicines distributed in very large quantities.
Finally, Servant Group International had a major advantage over its “competitors”: its presence in the country for more than ten years and its close ties with senior Iraqi Kurdish officials.
Unfortunately for these organizations, American plans took an unexpected turn. The murder of three Baptist missionaries in Mosul in March 2004 quickly demonstrated that the evangelists, who had arrived in the wake of the “liberators”, were not necessarily welcome. The almost immediate formation of resistance movements, fierce opposition to the American presence, the civil war that began in 2004 and the country’s plunge into chaos somewhat dampened hopes of evangelizing Iraq.
Against this backdrop, Iraqi Kurdistan appeared to be an oasis of peace and stability, and the country’s only potential evangelizing ground.
Settling in Iraqi Kurdistan
Just a few months after the American invasion, Massoud Barzani, leader of the Iraqi KDP, attended a meeting of 350 pastors and evangelists in Kirkuk.
Through their connections, the evangelists appeared to be valuable allies at a time when Kurdish leaders of both parties were hoping to obtain a significant share of American reconstruction aid. D. Layton received a million dollars in aid for Servant Group International, part of which, according to Type Investigations, was diverted to buy the favors of Kurdish KDP leaders. And indeed, the Kurdistan Regional Government was particularly supportive of Servant Group International, which was granted land and buildings for its schools.
Douglas Layton also headed the Kurdistan Development Corporation, a state-owned company launched by the KRG in 2004 to encourage and facilitate foreign (American) investment in Kurdistan, a sign of the excellent relations maintained with the Iraqi KDP. In 2005, together with Bill Garaway, another Servant Group International executive, D. Layton launched a campaign to promote Kurdistan (“the other Iraq”) through several films and a website. Financed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, these were intended to demonstrate the benefits of American intervention. Several clips showed smiling young Kurds thanking the United States for its intervention.
Servant Group International was also in the good graces of the US administration. Between 2005 and 2007, the US Department of Defense disbursed $466,000 to build a school in Erbil on behalf of the group. Servant Group International’s humanitarian and medical projects were also beneficiaries of American largesse in Iraq.
In Sulaymaniyah too, Servant Group International was able to ingratiate itself with the local PUK administration. The presence of a Classical School of the Medes was an asset for the local leaders. Although it was a religious school, it was above all perceived as an English-speaking international private school. A course of study at the Classical School of the Medes offered the possibility of prestigious studies at an American university, even if it was only a local private school. Several wealthy and influential families placed their children there, almost all of them Muslim Kurds.
Nevertheless, while the Kurdish parents had placed their children in the school out of pragmatism, Servant Group International’s ultimate intention was evangelization. According to parents of children then attending the Classical School of the Medes, every school day began with a prayer in English. Many parents were concerned about the ostensibly proselytizing nature of school outings. According to the same parents, trips to the mountains were an occasion for religious invocation, calling on Christ to return to Earth.
At the end of February 2012, Jeremiah Small, a young American teacher at the Classical School of the Medes, was murdered by one of his students, who then committed suicide. The murder was all the more of a shock, for children and parents alike, as the student was the grand-nephew of the then Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani. The school was closed for several months, and rumors circulated that contributed to irreparably tarnishing the school’s image. Radical Islamic currents, active in the Share Zor plain, spread fantastic rumours about a thousand Kurdish children who had converted to Christianity.
Officially, the murder of Jeremiah Small was never solved, even if the authorities dismissed the idea of a politically or religiously motivated act. The Kurdish authorities in the Sulaymaniayh region seem to have realized the potentially explosive nature of evangelical activism in private education. Following the incident, education officials in the Sulaymaniyah region informed directors of private schools in the area that proselytizing had no place in international private education.
3. The present day
The Liberty Church in Sulaymaniyah is particularly discreet. The small premises where their services and various events are held is marked only by a discreet sign that goes unnoticed. It is the Iraqi branch of the Trinity Church based in Virginia Beach, on the East Coast. Yet the names of the two churches are different and, curiously, Trinity Church makes no mention of any presence in Iraqi Kurdistan.
We do know that it is attached to the Evangelical Rapha Church, whose Facebook page is particularly discreet about its activities in Sulaymaniyah. It confines itself to biblical quotations translated into Kurdish and a single photo, on which the faces of the faithful are blurred. Its pastor, Alwand Shekhany, is openly involved, but through another Facebook page, formally different from the Evangelical Rapha Church. Is the latter attached to the International Rapha Church based in Decatur, Alabama? It’s impossible to say, as there are numerous Rapha churches in the USA, none of which mention activities in Iraq.
The International Church of Sulaymaniyah, on the face of it, is more transparent, organizing outings open to all, and the names of its pastors can be seen on its website. However, on closer inspection, the faces that appear in the photos published by the Church are those of the faithful seen at the Liberty Church in Sulaymaniyah.
The links between Servant Group International and Evangelical Rapha Church are difficult to establish. While there are several indications that the churches mentioned are simply more openly religious “subsidiaries” of Servant Group International, there is nothing to say for sure. The problem is that the small group of evangelists present in Sulaymaniyah takes great care to conceal their affiliations. Even the reason why they operate under three different denominations is obscure. Are they several churches cooperating and close to each other, or one and the same organization? The names of the Servant Group International volunteers are changed, the faces are hidden, as are those of the Evangelical Rapha Church. Servant Group International is, officially, just an NGO, behind which it’s hard to tell which church or churches are hiding.
Does the scandal following the murder of Jeremiah Small in February 2012 explain the discretion of evangelicals in Sulaymaniyah? It’s impossible to know, as all the members contacted, including Pastor Alwand Shekhany, politely refused to answer our questions. Not surprising, however, given that some evangelical churches commonly resort to various tactics of camouflage (humanitarian or cultural). The Servant Group International, for example, is accused of having a quasi-military structure.
Evangelicals are known to be present in Sulaymaniyah, but nobody really knows who they are. In the street, we sometimes jeer at these Americans who talk about Jesus from the second sentence. Kurds who attend one of these churches often do so for practical rather than religious reasons. They speak English and Spanish, they play games, and they network to find international employment. Of the few Kurds present at the evening we attended in March, only one was a convert.
Many of the church’s leaders are long-time residents of Iraqi Kurdistan. Their children, who were born in the country or arrived very early, are fluent in Kurdish and are a major asset with the Kurdish public. The managers based in Sulaymaniyah are all distinguished by their in-depth knowledge of the Kurdish language. They are the authors of several reference books on Sorani. Some of their Kurdish contacts run Kurdish language courses for foreigners in Sulaymaniyah. This desire to “integrate” into Kurdish society and master the language is part of a strategy to establish a lasting presence in the city.
More surprisingly, Servant Group International is equally discreet about its educational activities. The three Classical School of the Medes schools are still open, but you’ll find no reference to the parent company on their website. There is barely a discreet reference to “Christian values” in the background. The schools do, however, claim to work in partnership with Franklin Classical School, based in suburban Nashville, whose aim is to “make Christ known and served”, to “transform families, institutions and nations for the Glory of God”.
Today, Douglas Layton heads a tourism company, “Explore Mesopotamia”, which boasts a presence in the region for over thirty years. Again, the company’s page has nothing particularly biblical about it, nor any claimed link with Servant Group International.
In Erbil, the evangelical churches are not as discreet as the Liberty Church in Sulaymaniyah. They proudly and prominently display their names. Most are located in the Christian district of Ankawa, north of Erbil. They include a Baptist church, Methodists, Adventists and the Assemblies of God Church (Pentecostal), the largest in terms of membership. All are legally registered, and some are authorized to perform marriages recognized by the authorities.
According to Paul Cavaillié, who has worked on the question of Protestant churches in Iraqi Kurdistan, the overwhelming majority of converts come from the Chaldean and Assyrian ranks. However, the question of Muslims converting to Christianity remains a taboo, both in Erbil and in Sulaymaniyah. The few Muslims who have taken the plunge usually keep their change of religion secret, even from their families, for fear of being ostracized. Churches are said to explicitly ask their ex-Muslim converts to remain discreet for fear of adverse consequences. As for the Kurdish authorities, they refuse to include the word “Christian” on the identity documents of Kurds previously registered as Muslims.
Finally, there are reports of young Muslims opportunistically converting to leave the country. The status of Iraqi “Christian” greatly facilitated the granting of refugee status in Europe or the United States during the repeated civil wars. Today, some of them may be converting more in order to get help from one of the American Protestant churches to leave Iraq than out of any deep-rooted religious conviction.
In the north of the country, too, some churches maintain excellent relations with the KDP and the KRG central government. Witness the visit of preacher Franklin Graham to Erbil in January 2023. Director of Samaritan’s Purse and an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, this evangelical “pope” took advantage of his visit to sing the praises of Neçirvan Barzani, who he saw as the guarantor of the religious tolerance that would reign in the region.
The Samaritan’s Purse is continuing its humanitarian work, particularly with internal refugees. In parallel, of course, with its purely proselytizing activities. The Kurdistan Regional Government, for its part, publishes no figures or precise information on the activities of Samaritan’s Purse.
In other regions of Iraq, the evangelists’ “successes” were far more mixed. The seven evangelical churches claimed by the General Society for Iraqi National Evangelical Churches failed to gain any official recognition from the Iraqi authorities, including registration with the Waqf of Christians and Yezidis. A report by the World Evangelical Alliance was submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva in 2020, criticizing the administrative obstacles resulting from this refusal of recognition (notably the impossibility of opening a bank account, owning land, tax exemptions or even the possibility of publishing). Of the churches present in Iraq, and whose number cannot be established with certainty, only two are currently recognized by the central Iraqi government.
The visit of Pope Francis in early March 2021 made public the dissensions and rivalries that divide Iraq’s evangelical churches. A letter was sent by the General Society for Iraqi National Evangelical Churches to the Pontiff, asking him to interfere with the Iraqi authorities in recognizing the evangelical churches established after 2003 in the country. None of them were invited to take part in the official ceremonies, as they do not legally exist, unlike the recognized Protestant Presbyterian Church. According to the congregation, the latter refused to plead their case with the Iraqi authorities.
Adventists, who had managed to maintain some activity in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, became the object of persecution by various Iraqi armed groups after 2003. The few dozen faithful fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, to Erbil. By 2020, their Church claimed to be no longer present in federal Iraq.
And while their presence is more visible in Erbil, the evangelists don’t seem to be having much more success there. For, even if the fact that some converts practice their religion secretly makes any estimate tricky, a 2018 US State Department report estimated that the number of followers of evangelical churches in Iraq did not exceed more than two thousand souls.
Attempts to establish evangelical churches in Iraq after 2003 were therefore only half-successful. Overwhelmed by unanticipated resistance and opposition, the American occupation authorities failed to provide the support that many evangelical congregations had expected. Targeted by Iraqi “insurgents” themselves, they soon had to confine their activities and evangelistic ambitions to Iraqi Kurdistan.
In 2023, the evangelical churches are still present in the autonomous region, sometimes involved in obscure cabals and intrigues, but their objectives, their names and even their identity are often difficult to establish because of the care they take to conceal themselves. Their good relations with the PDK and PUK authorities testify to their successful networking strategies, whether it’s a matter of advancing with a masked face, like the Servant Group International, or of displaying themselves openly, opening imposing churches with great pomp and circumstance, like the Samaritan’s Purse. However, whatever their overt or covert allegiance, the evangelical churches in Iraqi Kurdistan have failed in their ultimate goal: to convert Muslims en masse to the “true faith”.