Gurgis Shlaymun, deputy governor of Kurdistan's Regional Government in Dohuk, stood in for the governor, joining other local officials and a team from Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., along with Iraqi, Jordanian and Brazilian Baptists and other evangelicals for an hour-long ceremony at an engraved marble cornerstone marking the new property.
Shlaymun, an Assyrian Christian first elected deputy governor in the Muslim majority government in 2005, delivered remarks at a community center near the undeveloped property in Simele in Iraqi Kurdistan's Duhok Province.
Simele, on the main road of an agricultural plain about 100 miles from the Turkish border, has a tragic history for Assyrian Christians. In 1800, its Christian inhabitants were forced from their homes and massacred by local militants. In 1933, after Assyrians and Chaldeans again found refuge and settled in the fertile valley, an estimated 3,000 were slaughtered following the withdrawal of British troops when Iraq gained independence in 1930.
At the gathering of about 100 people under a banner bearing a colorful map of Iraq's regions marked with a cross and open hands at the spot of the new facilities in Simele, Shlaymun extended a special greeting to those from afar.
"The people of Dohuk love their guests," Shlaymun said. "Today, you are the children of Iraq."
Noting the involvement of Baptist groups from various nations, Shlaymun praised each for serving the people of the province by taking interest in "each family, in each sickness" so future generations will be well served. "This is our duty to introduce the land for this project, this is our duty to service this project," he said.
Shlaymun recognized Iraqi Baptist pastor Farouk Hammo, one of the project's leaders who also shares a personal history with Gov. Ramadhan. "Our purpose and your purpose," Shlaymun said, "is to make a good generation."
A deacon in the Assyrian Church of the East, Shlaymun spoke openly about the spiritual dimension of the center.
"Jesus said your light will be shined through the people to see your works and glorify your Father in the Heaven," Shlaymun said. "That is what Jesus Christ said in the Bible. And this Jesus did not speak specifically about man, but for all the world. This will be for all."
Shlaymun pledged support for the project and thanked the leaders. "You understand this project is from God," he said. "We must be all united to glorify God."
Nabeeh Abbassi, immediate past president of the Jordan Baptist Convention and pastor of West Amman Baptist Church, brought greetings on behalf of the Baptist World Alliance and the European Baptist Federation of which various Baptist churches in Iraq are a part.
"The history of the Baptist church of Iraq is still being written," Abbassi said.
"We stand with you on the roots of a shared civilization and history," he noted. "We are genuinely rooted; our evangelical churches are part of the whole. We are a small slice or number within you, but large within its allegiance and dreams."
Abbassi, also the provost at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, said he is thankful to God for the "unique Kurdish leadership" for providing security and comfort so that people from all backgrounds, in spite of their differences and political parties or religious beliefs, "live with tolerance."
"We pray that God will protect the Iraq people and leadership," Abbassi said. "We walk with you on the same path. Our prayers follow you with all that you do to improve the future of Iraq and the Kurdistan region … towards a greater horizon."
Iraqi songwriter and performer Firas and a group from the Mama Ayser School in Baghdad added to the festive nature of the Sept. 29 event, while a play depicting the church and its relation to Christ looked prophetically toward communicating the Gospel through the arts.
Brian Barlow, missions pastor at Pensacola's Hillcrest Baptist and a former Southern Baptist worker in the Middle East, said in his remarks that educators at the new school will have the responsibility to teach "the universal principles of kindness, respect, compassion, human rights, charity, dignity, equality and peaceful coexistence among every Kurd, Assyrian, Arab, Chaldean, Turkmen, Syriac and Armenian."
A former superintendent of the acclaimed Baptist School in Amman, Jordan, Barlow said the community should welcome every "Muslim, Christian and Yezidi," because the center has as its main focus the role "to educate the children of Kurdistan, of Iraq -- to see all others as neighbors, and to learn to love their neighbors as they love themselves and their own families."
Acknowledging informed people throughout the world know that Kurdistan has become a refuge for thousands fleeing violence in other parts of Iraq and nearby countries, Barlow said the project is "a way to say to those who come in the future, 'we cared.'"
Noting that the people of Kurdistan, through their elected government officials, made a major contribution for the center by donating the land, Barlow said he is thankful for the partnership.
"This is a great example of how a good, democratic government, freely elected, can bring about positive, progressive change and make life better for the entire community," Barlow said.
A Brazilian pastor who will oversee the project in Simele thanked the partners for their involvement and charged them with the Great Commission.
"When one of us has a victory in the Word of God, all of us have a victory," he said passionately in Arabic. "We must help each other, from Jordan, from Iraq, from Brazil, from America -- we must help each other to preach the Gospel in all the world."
A large group of Brazilian Baptist workers, who are lead partners in the project, later presented Shlaymun a gift representing their beloved Brazil -- a soccer jersey.
Hammo, from Baghdad, pastor of The National Evangelical Church, recounted the dream God had put in his heart and the hearts of others to see such a center established in Iraq.
"Our God had a dream. We see this promise from God in Isaiah 19:25, 'Blessed the work of my hand, Iraq,'" Hammo said. "Thanks for our God and for His plan for us."
Jim Locke, senior pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola, before delivering a prayer of dedication, read from Psalm 127: "Unless the Lord builds a house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain."
At the site of the new center, a large sign displayed an architectural rendering of a modern with a four-story building, a two-story building, an athletic court and a parking lot. The first phase of the facility slated for completion in 2012 is a clinic for women and children who traditionally have limited health care options in the Middle East.
Responding to remarks about the clinic, Shlaymun, the deputy governor, told the Florida Baptist Witness it is imperative that people in the region put their differences behind them in order to move forward.
"What you are doing is giving hope for the future of Iraq, and for that we are thankful," Shlaymun said, joking that he has been married for 44 years and he not only respects his wife, but he is afraid of her -- in contrast to the traditional cultural view in the Middle East that limits the role of women.
Shlaymun followed Locke, Abbassi, Hammo and others in using a trowel to pack cement inside and on top of a 4-foot-high cornerstone with the words, first in Arabic and then in English, declaring the groundbreaking: "By the Grace of God and presence of Governor of Duhok, Dear Tamar Ramadan."
Afterward, as Shlaymun brushed cement from his suit coat before leaving, Barlow and Locke gathered other members of their team from Hillcrest -- Tom Jenkins, a deacon who will be working in Jordan beginning next year; J.R. Butler, a young man who left his job in Florida to teach at a school in Jordan last year; and Dale Simmons, a deacon and Sunday School teacher -- to walk to the center of the property.
With the high sun glaring at them from above the mountaintops, in a place where for centuries hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled for sanctuary, the men formed a circle and bowed their heads to cry out to God.
"We asked the Lord to consecrate the ground to be used for His glory," Locke said later, reflecting on their prayer on the rocky soil. "The heart and soul of our prayer was that God would use that property and the facilities that would be developed on it as tools for righteousness -- that the Gospel of Christ might have a platform to be shared in that important part of the world."
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (goFBW.com). Translation of Arabic speakers Gurgis Shlaymun and Farouk Hammo provided by Ma'an Sheet, a professor at the University of Dohuk and pastor of a local Methodist church. Nabeeh Abbassi provided translation for his remarks from Arabic into English and provided translation for Shlaymun's response to Florida Baptist Witness at the cornerstone site in Simele.
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