Friends, it’s really hard to know where to start.
I’ve just had one of the most amazing days of a, shall we say, not uneventful life. I woke to a beautiful day and tour of Ankawa from Wahe, a close friend of a parishioner and now a good friend to me and our church. (It’s really that simple. When I tried to pay for his lunch Wahe strenuously refused—”You are my guest, and I will take care of you while you are here.” That paying for lunch thing is going to change, but you get my meaning.)
Then I had a complete tour of Mar Elia, Fr. Douglas’ church and one of our partners here. I’m just basically (but not entirely) speechless. Originally, pre-2003 (zero-hour after which everything for Christians changed) Mar Elia was a relatively quiet, 3 masses-a-week shrine. After 2003 it became busier as everything unraveled not just for Christians but for many Muslims in Iraq, and many started to migrate here to escape persecution and violence in their home cities.
Mar Elia (and in fact Erbil and Ankawa) had been quickly growing in size and numbers since 2003. Last year, though, with the rise of Daesh (ISIS), everything went haywire. Ankawa (the Christian quarter of Erbil) became inundated with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). By then Fr. Douglas, a Chaldean priest who left Baghdad partly because, according to him, he can’t get along with authority and once talking can’t shut up (we have become immediate friends), was the priest caring for this community. There were simply far too many IDPs to properly or adequately address their needs, but the congregation of Mar Elia started doing it anyway.
Once Daesh began its campaign, distinctions between the Christian churches began to disappear. There were few if any standing Assyrian churches in Ankawa in 2014, so Bishop Bashar Warda, Archbishop of the Chaldean Church in Erbil, okayed Mar Elia as a place for Assyrian Christians to worship. In the process, Assyrian priest Fr. Daniel (about to celebrate the 4th year of his ordination in October), became the assistant to Fr. Douglas.
Together and with the help of friends and supporters all over the world these two extraordinary priests (they would NOT appreciate me calling them that) have helped build Mar Elia into not a camp, not a shelter, not a way-station, but a home for 564 Christian IDPs. There is a pre-school, nursery school, elementary school; classes in languages, history, literature, the arts, music, you name it; for older kids, a sewing shop (I’ve ordered a new alb to wear in our services), a computer center, a beauty salon, a gorgeous church sanctuary; and best of all a big playground/gathering space/volleyball court.
Currently, just outside my hotel window, a hotly contested volleyball tournament is being ferociously waged among teams from the center, and the sounds of cheering and children laughing permeate the air. And all this in a group of people who basically lost everything materially and geographically that they’ve ever known. What could not, can not and will not be taken from them, though, clearly, is their spirit.
I personally feel like I am witness to a miracle. I just don’t know when I have felt God more powerfully and visibly at work. Now I know why Trudy Rubin, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, told me specifically to make contact with Fr. Douglas and recommended St. Martin’s support the work Mar Elia is doing here.
But they are not the only ones. In my time here I will go spend time with Alliance Christian Church and Mission, also doing wonderful service in caring for IDPs, and report back to you. Tomorrow, I have been invited by Savina Dawood (a friend of our friend Sama Dizayee from Voice of America who did a piece on iROCK4IRAQ) to go participate and film the distribution of gifts for 400 children from displaced families here in Erbil.
I could go on but will stop—I have 11 more days here! But please stay connected, and post your comments and thoughts. I’ll close with a thought from Fr. Daniel: He was telling me that before ISIS all the churches here in Ankawa were divided. Each was pursuing its own respective goals, plans, and programs. (Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?)
Now, though, all the churches are united under one spirit, a spirit of love, kindness and service in the midst of unthinkable violence and devastation, as perhaps never before in history. As for me, I’ve been in some pretty tough places in my life, but I’ve never felt the presence of Christ and the love of the living God more forcefully than in this place. Maybe there’s a message—a big, beautiful, difficult, but fantastically important message—here for all of us to take to heart. So much for Day 1.
Grace and peace,
Fr. (Abunna) Chris