PASTOR JULE'S CHURCH is new and not easy to find. For more than a decade after selling his business, he devoted his life to preaching about Jesus Christ, but not in public in overwhelmingly Islamic Iraq. In 1999, he started an underground Pentecostal Christian church in his home. And when Saddam Hussein was toppled a year ago, he opened an above-ground church in Karrada, a residential and retail district across the Tigris River from the heavily guarded "green zone" of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
The surfacing of his church may not seem like much of a breakthrough. Iraq is 3 percent Christian at most, and Saddam used to brag about his tolerance of Christian churches. But they were mostly churches where tributes to Saddam crept into sermons; they were no threat to his regime. Pastor Jule's church is different. It elevates faith in Christ as one's personal savior over any worldly obligations to the state. The church has ties to the Assemblies of God in America.
Services at the church, though conducted in Arabic, would be familiar to any American evangelical or Pentecostal. I went to the Wednesday evening youth service, which attracted about 250 young people. It began with "praise" music in which stanzas of worship songs were repeated over and over. That was followed by a Bible teaching from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Then came intense prayer.
THE JOYFUL MOOD of the young people was familiar too. They sang enthusiastically. They hung around after the service, both in the sanctuary and outside on the sidewalk and street. Several sought advice from Pastor Jule. Men and women appeared to have equal standing. Not only did Pastor Jule's wife deliver the Bible teaching, but a young woman led the singing.
You may wonder why I haven't used Pastor Jule's last name. He asked me not to. Since Saddam's fall, Iraq "has been an open country for the Gospel," Pastor Jules says. His church has grown to roughly 500 parishioners, and it has a new building, paid for by members who donated money and jewelry. But he's apprehensive about the future once Iraqis are handed sovereignty by the American-led coalition headed by L. Paul Bremer III.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the interim Iraqi constitution signed three weeks ago. But it also gives considerable autonomy to regional districts that might frown on visible expressions of Christianity. And if Pastor Jule follows through on his plans to plant new churches around Iraq and start a small Bible college, the Christian presence in Iraq will grow in visibility.
There's also a potential problem with the permanent constitution that will be drafted by an Iraqi government to be elected by the end of January 2005. Shiites, the majority in Iraq, may be in a position to shave back on the protection of minority religions such as Christianity.
For now, Pastor Jule is happy. He met recently with an evangelical group from Atlanta called EQUIP, which wants to train pastors in Iraq and provide them with Christian books and tapes. But he had a bad experience when interviewed by phone on Christian radio in the U.S. Pastor Jule was asked what he considered to be awkward political questions. He eschews politics. When I spoke with him, he was reluctant to talk. He refused to be interviewed by an American reporter who attended a recent Sunday service at his church.
YET HE HAS EXPRESSED his gratitude to America for the ouster of Saddam. "God used coalition forces to destroy Saddam and give us freedom," Pastor Jule told his American evangelical friends. "I thank God for the courage of the American soldiers who have paid a great price for our nation to be free." Now he wants American forces to stay until an elected government dedicated to ensuring religious freedom is in office.
"We have a big vision," Pastor Jule says. It's bold as well. Christian missionaries from America and Europe have found Muslim countries the hardest to evangelize. Pastor Jule, however, is working from within. That may make all the difference.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.