Even to a casual observer, the tiny image of the Baghdad Seventh-day Adventist Church on an Iraqi postage stamp is in itself remarkable — an unexpected gesture of the current Iraqi government to honor the presence of Christian churches in the country and to promote diversity. But to those who remember worshipping in its elegant sanctuary and sharing the fellowship of a thriving congregation, it brings waves of nostalgia and more than a few tears. It also represents hope.
The set of eight stamps, which came out in 2020 and were recently presented to leaders of the Middle East and North Africa Union Mission (MENAUM) in Beirut, Lebanon, includes the Baghdad Seventh-day Adventist Church as one of the most beautiful churches in the city. “This is a real honor for our church to be recognized nationally,” Rick McEdward, president of MENAUM, said. Iraq is part of MENAUM territory. The religious and political circumstances of the country explain McEdward’s amazement and gratitude.
“Even though this is a majority Muslim nation, there is still a sense of appreciation of diversity and freedom. This is significant given the tragic circumstances of the last several years,” McEdward said.That was Garabet Manskan Armenak’s intentions. As the former general director of the Christian office in the Christian, Yazidi, and Sabian Mandaean Endowments Divan (Council) in Baghdad, he initiated the project for the special stamps.
“We wanted to remind the Iraqi government and the people of Iraq that Christianity is the oldest religion in Iraq by presenting the beauty of old church buildings through the stamps,” Armenak said.
“Christianity coexists with other religions in this country. It is not a foreign religion,” he asserted.
The Baghdad Adventist church, dedicated in 1961, was more than a beautiful building. It was an active congregation, with members who held regular outreach events and were well known in the capital city. The annual Vacation Bible School events attracted hundreds of children and their parents, most of them from the surrounding community. The church choir frequently sang in the community celebrations during the Christmas season. While predominately Muslim, Iraq had an active Christian community during those years. That’s when the Adventist Church and other Christian minorities experienced an encouraging level of support and protection.
Basim Fargo, who served as president of the Iraq Field during that time, testifies that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was officially recognized by the government and had several active churches in the country. Following the Iraq War of 2003, the Baghdad church building was bombed in 2004 and again in 2006, according to George Shamon Yousif, the legal head of the Adventist Church in Iraq. Even though it was later reconstructed by the government, for the sake of safety the members of the Baghdad church began meeting in private homes to worship because the city was experiencing increasing levels of instability, terrorism, and kidnappings. Although the church eventually reopened, the doors were closed again in 2017 because only a few members remained in the city.
“When I think about the sealed door of the church, it makes me cry,” Fargo, a retired Iraqi pastor, said. Fargo was evacuated to a neighboring country by the Adventist Church in 2006 for his own safety. Due to Iraq’s crisis and the ongoing challenges, all Christians have faced, some other Adventist churches in the country are also inactive. “Members have left the country for freedom and safety,” Yousif said, “but I pray that all the churches will be opened, and all will hear about Jesus.”
“We once had a hospital, several schools, and six churches in Iraq,” Darron Boyd, the leader of the East Mediterranean Region, said. The East Mediterranean Region is the portion of MENAUM that now oversees Iraq. Boyd said he is hopeful for the future. According to him, the Iraqi government is encouraging peace and diversity. “The stamps are symbols of the government’s strategy to bring back Christians.”
With a clear sense of mission and hope, he reported, Adventist members and church workers have been serving the country and its people even during turbulent times. “We follow Christ’s method with quiet, personal work. We will continue to go. We will continue to serve. God will make a way,” Boyd said.