St George’s – an oasis of peace amidst the bombed out buildings.
Baghdad is a shot of adrenaline. Whether sit down meetings in unknown locations, or driving ninety on busy streets flanked by security (without a seat belt in case of attacks), or hearing bombs and guns at the break of dawn. It is also a city waiting. Waiting to be pulled out of the depths of violence or waiting for the next attack to drag it kicking and screaming back into fear.
I am greeted with a surprised smile when I show my British Passport at the varying checkpoints dotted along each road. These man made points, armed with artillery and the odd tank gives the sense of anticipation. And they have every right to anticipate the worse. Our meeting at a prison on our last day was cancelled due to the prison coming under attack. We went out for dinner at a church members house and during the two-hour meal seven bombs went off killing thirty and wounding over eighty. And the scene of a bride crying in the streets with the pavements littered with the bodies of her guests and her new husband slaughtered.
Times in Baghdad are slowly on the up. But there is tension, in our compound and outside. Tension, with Iraq’s GDP significantly growing but whilst many of the congregation don’t even have mattresses let along air conditioning. Or the tension of Al Qaeda rebels in Syria, who, armed by the West will flood into Iraq just as they descended into Syria as soon as that government is over thrown. And there is personal tension, as Andrew’s health limits him, he struggles on and after a few hours of meetings, his body exhausted staggers, with the help of his side men, to his bed, where he sits to regain his strength, before a widow comes knocking on his always open door. It’s the tension of the unforeseen, the unknowing, the uncertain.
But, as the saying goes, the night is darkest right before dawn. And here there is a lot to be thankful for. There indeed is much hope for the future, for the future of the church, the capital and the country. It may not be much, but with God’s help its something.
In the middle of all the business of Baghdad, the confusion, the terror, lies a small compound, standing between two shell shocked buildings, with a small garden, a illuminated cross at the highest point and a large cemented area, where the young men play football in the week and the buses pull up bringing the faithful at the weekend.
The most heart-warming sight, and sound, is the secretive service at 5pm. The church is full with hundreds but in an upper room in another building of the compound another few hundred people meet. Muslim woman and their children. They don’t break bread here, nor do their children join in with the churches children’s programme. Please pray that as the prophet Jesus is declared maybe their hearts would be strangely warmed.
I’ve learnt a lot here. Doing pastoral visits to prisons, to see an unrepentant mass murder and a PTSD suffering Brit, locked up, unable to speak the language, scared and looking at twenty years as the only Britain jailed in Iraq. Other trips to see the Sisters of Charity, or dirt poor families and I can smile, take pictures and write about it, but I’ll be on a plane tomorrow, and back safe in Oxford before the sun sets, with their memories etched in my mind.
I’ll remember the two congregations on a Saturday morning in the 100-acre expanse known as the US Embassy, where they care and pray for Iraq and her people, whilst missing their own families and forming bonds unlike many churches I’ve seen. It was Kurt’s last Sunday, a Marine serving his country, who was prayed off by his loving family and said goodbye to Andrew as if a son leaving his father. They all give some money to help the church in the centre, as they know how bad it is on the outside of their embassy walls.
I’ve learnt that nothing is what it seems, where once Saddam was the only dictator, now there are thousands who dictate over the smallest of issue. Getting a visa out of Baghdad costs a days work. But also any pre-conceived conceptions have been shattered and will dwell on my warm welcome from Muslims and Christians alike here in Iraq.
Back here the school carries on, educating Christian and Muslim children together, though as the weather hits high forties, everyone is in need of a nap.
As the dust continues to cover the city above us, we can feel so insignificant. Sometimes sitting outside, late at night listening quietly to the silence of the night, we can misread where we are, as the midnight curfew descends on this historic city. Any other city, in another town, the sky lit with the lights of the intertwined roads and large buildings and we settle back and wait. Some nights, we drift and discuss the day’s events and tomorrows schedule, maybe even politics. And we sip a coke on the roof of our building and pretend we’re anywhere. But we’re not anywhere. Because sometimes the night is shaken to its very core, or tomorrow’s plans are literally blown out the water. And we know we can’t leave without men in guns, or walk down busy city centre streets, or bring my wife on holiday here, or go and buy her a present from a market, we have to plan and prep security for a trip like that and even the thought of walking round more than one shop is laughed out the room.
Baghdad continues to descend into the complexity of violence and intolerance of many. But we must pray and hope that there is more to life than episodes of confusion and hopelessness. Here young men pray for visas to UK or US, there chances are slim, and that’s being nice. The old men, tried and whose dreams of peace are vanishing. Where young woman long for a husband, who may be loving or not and old woman who serve the church wholeheartedly without any praise. There are places all over the world where the blurred nature of violence continues to swell and overpower peace. There are a few here that continue to fight against violence and disillusionment, and serve the poor and the helpless, give hope even in fear, visit the suffering and the imprisoned, bring religious leaders together for unity and discussion, provide education and medicine.
Being in Baghdad it’s hard to know how to pray, or why even bother in the intricate nature of oppression. But we must. If only to join with our brothers and sisters here who continue to pray, even amidst this torrid backdrop. And so as my finals thoughts before I leave try to form, whether Middle East or Africa, Syria or China, Korea or Egypt we must remember those in crisis, and give, with our intellect, finances, time and prayers to the whole wider church and any oppressed people, because no land is forgotten by God and so then, neither must we.