I am spending the night in one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. It’s a monastery located atop Mount Alfalf, about 35 kilometers from Mosul and originally founded in 363 by the hermit Mar Mattai (St. Matthew), who fled persecution during the rule of the murderous Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate. Remember the theme of fleeing persecution, I’ll be coming back to that. But first I want to relate an experience I had on the way here that the leader of this community, Fr. Joseph, just told me says everything I need to know about the Middle East.
Earlier today I’m driving to this place with Yasser, an Iraqi Christian forced from his home in Qaraqosh (near Mosul) by Daesh last year, who’s now living in Erbil. We are just cruising along, breezing through all the Peshmerga check points, and I am finally feeling really relaxed. Any fear I had of getting so close to Daesh’s positions has disappeared. I could be driving in Nebraska, if Nebraska resembled a yellowed, sun-parched Martian landscape covered in sheep, oil fields, dust-poor villages, and huge uninhabited mansions (which come to think of it, maybe in places it sort of does.)
Until, that is, we get to a check point within about 5 kilometers of Mar Mattai, which is about 20 kilometers from Daesh’s front lines. The Peshmerga in desert fatigues and machine-guns speak in Arabic with Yasser as I, as is my custom, just try to look as stupid and harmless as possible. But unlike other times, where the guard looks at my passport, smiles and waves us through, this one tells me to get out of the car and follow him.
He leads me into a small, hot, unventilated trailer and closes the door, not inviting in Yasser.
He stares at me, “What are you?”
There is a pause. “I am an Abunna, a… an Anglican priest.”
“A priest… what is this? Please write it.” I write down the word. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve just come to see the monastery, I’ve heard it’s very beautiful. I’m an Abunna, a priest in the chur—”
“Yes, you said that. My colonel is on his way. You will wait here.” And he gets up and walks out.
I have a vivid imagination, so the words “Kurdish prison”, fending for myself amid Daesh prisoners of war, sending a carrier pigeon with a note asking Amanda to please call the U.S. Consulate, all flash across my fevered brain.
A little while later this colonel comes in, tall, imposing, and improbably wearing sweat pants along with desert camo and pistol. Yasser is trailing him, talking in Arabic a mile a minute, not looking at all tranquil. Finally, the colonel looks at me and says, “We keep the people in this region safe because we take no chances. Welcome, now I know what is Angle priest. I will have soldiers escort you to monastery.”
Well, feeling a kind of gratitude I’m not sure I’ve known before, I walk out of there fast and two very friendly soldiers escort us in a Toyota pick-up right to the mountain on which this 1700 year old monastery sits. They wave us off, smiling, and finally I ask Yasser, whose English is not very good, “So what was that all about?”
He looks at me and says, “I think it’s this,” running his hand over his clean shaven face. “Kurdish and Christian men don’t usual wear beard.”
The beard! The beard I SPECIFICALLY grew because an Iraqi ex-pat in the U.S. told me I would be really conspicuous without it! I swear I love this place.
But I said I’d come back to fleeing persecution. I just finished an interview with Fr. Joseph, a gentle and soft-spoken Assyrian Orthodox monk. He came here from Mosul at the end of 2003 just after seminary, when in the wake of the US invasion Christians were beginning to be routinely persecuted and brutalized without repercussion. His brother was murdered and his own life was threatened.
He said for a while, isolated Mar Mattai became a place of peace and pilgrimage for Christians from all over the world. Then in 2014 they had to shut the monastery down to house and care for 60 traumatized families whom Daesh, the day before, had given 30 minutes to leave Mosul or face the sword. Literally.
According to Joseph, the whole place lives in the courageous memory of Mar Mattai, whose death the whole community celebrates September 18. I have just missed it. I told him though, funny, my birthday is September 19 and so I am already connected by birth to this brave and beloved monsatic leader, this incredible place and the people in it. Joseph reaches out his hand and smiles, “Brother, my birthday is September 20. So I guess we just have to stick together, whether it’s in life or in death!”
Like I said, I love this place and its spirit. I must sleep now as I worship with these faithful people at 6:00 a.m. Oh, and by the way, sorry Amanda—tomorrow I also buy a razor.
Grace and peace