Dear Folks,

I’m posting this in addition to the weekly post I try and manage. This letter, written by an Anglican Priest serving St. George’s in Baghdad helped me put some perspective on the Gift of the Resurrection that I take for granted sometimes. I share it with you here.

Please see below this Sunday’s Easter article I have written for the ‘Mail on Sunday’.

Happy Easter to all from the FRRME; may you know the glory of the resurrected Jesus.

Andrew

Easter in Baghdad

I know I have the best parish in the world. Yes it is rather different than most but it is wonderful. The journey to church is different than any other vicar experiences. I leave my trailer with my body armour and armoured helmet on. My body guards surround me as I get into the armoured vehicle. We drive through the International Zone, through many army check points, and finally into the ordinary streets. Half a mile away is the church. We arrive in 5 minutes; the Church of St George’s is surrounded by razor wire and bomb barricades.

The Special Forces know that I am arriving and have surrounded the Church and cut off the road. My security team searches the church and the churchyard and ensures with our church guards that there are no unknown people in the building. They give me the all-clear and at last I can go into my church of St George’s Baghdad. Many people have called it the most dangerous parish in the world; I prefer to leave that title to some church in British suburbia. For today is Easter and when I cry out in Arabic ‘Alleluia Al Masiah Kahm’ (Alleluia Christ is risen) the people will reply ‘Kahma Beltakid Alleluia’ (He is risen indeed Alleluia), and they will mean it.

A few months ago I was waiting for the helicopter in the International Zone to take me to the other side of Baghdad. I realized that it was almost exactly twenty years ago that I was asked what I wanted to do in 20 years time. I said I wanted to be a vicar in London. Today I find myself in the midst of a war zone and for some reason I love it. I miss my wife and two young boys in Hampshire. I loved my days as a vicar in London and as a Canon at Coventry Cathedral and it was whilst there that I started coming to Iraq 9 years ago.

Our congregation is all Iraqi though not Anglican. There have been Christians in Iraq from almost the beginning of the faith. At first a really miserable evangelist turned up by submarine transportation, called Jonah. He preached a short sermon, they all repented, and he really complained to God and said he wanted to die. A few hundred years later another miserable man turned up, this time it was doubting Thomas on his way to India. He asked them if they knew their Messiah had come and they said no. He told them about Jesus, they believed in him and to this day their greatest saints are Jonah and Thomas and many of the Christians still come from Nineveh.

Our congregation is very large with over 1300 members; fortunately they do not all turn up at every service otherwise we would not fit them all in. After the war in 2003 we had about 10 people. Since then we have grown every week. Many of our members are Chaldeans, Syrian Orthodox and Assyrian Christians. They came to our church because travel was difficult and no other church was near them. Coming to church is dangerous; some have even been killed on their way. Christians, like all others in Iraq, are constantly under attack but they do not give up their faith; it is the thing that gives hope in the present chaos. The persecution of Christians is sadly increasing continually; they are all under mounting attack.

As the congregation arrives I greet them all with three kisses and if I leave one person out I am told in no uncertain terms. Then the children come in from their classes to see me. There are well over a hundred each week. They all expect a hug and a kiss as well. They then start the worship; they sing and sing and sing. An hour passes and we can commence the main service. Today the only Church of England thing about the gathering will be the hundreds of chocolate creme eggs that I have brought with me from England.

Here in Iraq everything may be awful. I look around the congregation and see that many of the women are wearing black– their husbands have been killed, many since last year, and I know for them Easter is very real. We sing the song “Because He lives we can face tomorrow, because He lives all fear is gone because I know He holds the future and life is worth living just because He lives”. For us here in Baghdad Easter is not just a festival that means turning up to church, it is the very heart of hope and light in darkness.

Here our church is an Anglican Church, but it is not plagued by the worries and problems of many churches. The issue of sexuality has never even been mentioned. Here the only worry is will there be food on the table tonight, will my loved ones survive the day and will my children return and not be kidnapped. What happens each day here can not really be mentioned, it is far too awful. I regularly tell people that I have spent much of my past decade in war zones; what you see on TV is usually worse than the reality but here in Baghdad it is the other way round. In reality Baghdad is a 100 times worse than anything you ever see on TV. Just as the reality of the tragedy of this place is worse than you see, so is the reality of Easter far greater here than you can ever imagine. Here Easter is more than real, it is part of daily life for the Christians of this land and Easter is such a time of celebration.

When we say in our liturgy that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, we mean it. We know that Christ is alive and real and it is this we celebrate on this day. Our worship will be exceptional not just today but everyday. As we think of what our Lord has suffered there is a real understanding of the nature of the cross; for our people here suffering is real. It is the reality of daily life. The other day I asked my people who of them had a loved one killed or injured in the past two years. They all responded positively. For them death is in the midst of life, therefore resurrection is their only hope. For them the fact that on this day they celebrate Christ rising from the dead means they are certain that this is what will happen to their loved ones and themselves,

So the worship continues, there is such joy amongst these people that not just on Easter but every resurrection day they can celebrate Christ rising from the dead. There is joy and even laughter in the midst of this suffering. Sometimes you realise that if you don’t laugh you will just cry, and there are many tears as well. The other week we had our service in one of the Government offices. Ali turned up and wanted to know why I had not told him all the children were coming. Now Ali is a leader in one of the major terrorist groups. I quickly thought to myself ‘I don’t usually tell the terrorists where our children are going to be’. He told me that he wanted to give them all presents. He left the room and returned a few minutes later, this time with piles of children’s Bibles. A few hours later (services are long) I looked at the Bibles only to discover that they were the precise ones that had been stolen on their way into Iraq recently.

I mention this because for the children this was part of their Easter story. One little girl told me the Bible had come to them because Jesus is alive. Because he was alive he would ensure that whatever was meant for them would be given to them. Even if by a terrorist it was an act of God. For us in Baghdad today God is alive and real.

I see the same belief in the reality of a living God amongst my other congregation at the US Embassy. Here most of the congregation is military; beside them on the floor is their body armour and guns. For them too the truth remains that ‘Because He lives they can face tomorrow’. They too have had their loved ones and colleagues killed and injured, they too hold to the hope of resurrection. For many, today is a time for Easter Egg hunts, fluffy bunnies and too much food; but for us, today is a day of hope and transformation as we proclaim here in Baghdad that “Alleluia Christ is risen, He is risen indeed Alleluia”.

The Rev’d Canon Andrew White

Anglican Priest in Iraq

President of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East

http://www.frrme.org

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