Appreciating the small things

I’m currently in the middle of a move to another camp. In the process, I had to visit one of the mega-camps that the US Military has here for about a week. My time here has been great. When you go without for so long, you definitely learn to appreciate the small things.

Within my first few hours of being here, I ate a Whopper (actually a triple Whopper with cheese) from Burger King!, took a shower in a real shower!, bought myself a Red Bull from the PX!, went to the bathroom on a toilet! that flushes!, and then took a nap on a bed! with a mattress! in a two-man! trailer!. I haven’t done any of the above in over three months.

Another thing I haven’t done in three months is attend any church services whatsoever. There aren’t many Orthodox chaplains in the military, unfortunately. I wasn’t the only one missing out. Services of any kind were pretty scarce at my old camp. Our unit chaplain is Protestant so of course there was the “General Contemporary Protestant” service every Sunday. The only other service than that was the monthly Roman Catholic Mass, which they had to fly in a Catholic chaplain for each month.

There is a small Romanian camp-within-a-camp here and so the happiest part of my trip has been being able to attend Orthros and the Divine Liturgy there on Sunday. The Priest is a chaplain in the Romanian Army and most of the Liturgy was conducted in Romanian. I was lucky to be here at this time because another (American) unit, whose chaplain is a Deacon in the Orthodox Church, just moved to this base a little more than a week ago. He assisted the Priest in the celebration of the Liturgy and, of course, all of the Deacon’s prayers were in English.

Last time I was at this camp, back in June, I was the only American in attendance at the Liturgy. The Priest at the time, whose name is Father Adrian, was thoughtful enough to notice me and so said a few of the shorter prayers of the Liturgy in English, I’m assuming, for my sake. I’ve been trying to pick up a few words in Romanian since I’ve been here, but the only one I can remember is their word for “hello.” It sounds exactly like the English word “salute,” which makes it easy to recall.

I definitely feel refreshed after only a couple of days spent here. Being able to attend a Liturgy has been my prayer for the last couple of months. At home, it’s sometimes hard to drag myself out of bed on Sunday mornings. Being in the military, I don’t get many days to sleep in and my parish is a little more than an hour from my house so I have to wake up early in the morning to make it to Liturgy on time. Going without church while I’ve been here, though, has felt like a blank space left in my life. I never feel right on Sundays when I get up and just go off to work. Days tend to blend and blur together. One day flows into the next without end. Praying to God in a real temple with a Priest leading the service surrounded by fellow Orthodox Christians has lifted me up immeasurably. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since being here, it’s to appreciate the small things.

How I’m observing Ramadan

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is almost over now. Muslims believe that Muhammad received the first revelation of verses from the Koran during this month. They commemorate this by spending the month reading the Koran, fasting, praying and, historically, conducting jihad. The most pious of them will read the entire Koran this month, go without food or drink during daylight hours, and wake up in the middle of the night each night to spend time in prayer.

As soldiers, we are order to do our best to accomodate Muslims in their observance of Ramadan and avoid being a source of temptation for them. We aren’t allowed to smoke, eat or drink in public places. We have to be a little more quiet and considerate. The Ramadan fast is difficult to accomplish, especially in a hot, dry desert environment like southern Iraq, so we do our best to show empathy with them.

Inspired by this website I have prayed each day this month at least once for Iraq, for Muslims and for their conversion. I also wanted to take this time to introduce you to a few saints you may or may not know who are former Muslims.

  • St. Abu of Tbilisi (commemorated January 6). I have doubts that his real first name was “Abu” but this seems to be the only name extant for him. “Abu” is a title in Arabic that means “father of.” It’s customary for Arab men with sons to call themselves “Abu So-and-so.” I’ve never seen it used as actual name. Nonetheless, St. Abu was born and raised right here in Iraq. He was from Baghdad, but moved to Tbilisi, Georgia, later in life. While there, he became greatly interested in Christianity. He studied the Holy Bible and writings of the Church Fathers. He attended Divine Liturgy and other services. He spoke with and asked questioned of Christian scholars. Eventually he was baptized and began to preach the Gospel to his brethren in the Muslim neighborhoods of Tbilisi. This went along well enough for some time, but once it was discovered that he was an apostate from Islam troubles began. Apostasy is a crime punishable by death in Islam, and so he was imprisoned in December of 775 and scheduled to be executed early the following month. While in prison, he was able to secure a visit from his priest who gave him Holy Communion for the last time. He sold all of his belongings and gave the money to the Church. On the morning of January 6, 776, he was brought to the site at which he was executed. The executioner three times brought the dull side of the sword down upon his neck, hoping that through fear he could induce Abu to return to Islam. Abu refused and was martyred for Holy Orthodoxy.
  • St. Christopher Sabbait was a Palestinian Arab. He converted from Islam and joined the monastic order in the lavra of St. Sabbas. He was martyred on April 14, 789.
  • St. Antony-Ruwah was a Damascene Arab nobleman of the Quraish tribe, the same tribe as Muhammad, the founder of Islam. He converted to Christianity after seeing a vision while attending the Divine Liturgy. He was beheaded for apostasy from Islam on Christmas (December 25) of 799.
  • St. Pachomy was a nephew of the caliph, the ruler of the united Muslim empire, who was martyred after taking vows at St. Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai in the year 800.
  • St. Barbar (commemorated May 6) was an Arab from North Africa and a member of the Muslim army. He deserted the ranks of the army and fled to the Byzantine Empire, where he was baptized. He died in the year 820.
  • St. Abrahamy (commemorated April 1) was a Bulgar merchant and convert from Islam who was martyred while preaching the Gospel to the Bulgars in 1229.
  • Sts. Peter and Stephan of Kazan (commemorated March 24) were Tatars who were tortured and executed for apostasy from Islam in 1552.
  • St. Serapion of Kozheozero (commemorated 27 June) was born a Tatar with the name Tursas. As a nobleman, he was taken hostage to Moscow when Russia conquered the Tatar territory. While there, he converted to Christianity, taking the baptismal name Sergius. He desired to live up to the highest principle of his new religion and so was tonsured a monk shortly after, taking the name Serapion. He later founded the Theophany Monastery at Kozheozero in northern Russia, where he raised up seven monks who were also to become saints of the Holy Orthodox Church. He fell asleep in the Lord in the year 1611.
  • St. Hodja Amiris the Soldier attended the Paschal services in the Holy Sepulchre in the year 1614 and witnessed the miracle of the Holy Light there. He immediately abandoned Islam, but when his friends found out they seized him and turned him over to the Muslim authorities as an apostate. He was tortured but refused to recant his newfound faith. He was executed shortly after.
  • St. Ahmed the Calligrapher (commemorated May 3) was a noble and a high-ranking official in the Ottoman Turkish government. One of his concubines was a woman from Russia whom he allowed to attend the Divine Liturgy on Sundays at a Greek cathedral in Constantinople. Ahmed noticed that when this concubine returned from Liturgy she nearly glowed with graciousness and peace seemed to exude from her. He decided one Sunday to attend Liturgy with her. While there, he noticed that each time the Ecumenical Patriarch raised his hands to bless the people and bestow peace upon them, light would come from his fingers and go to the foreheads of the Christians surrounding him, but not to Ahmed’s. He immediately requested of the Patriach, after Liturgy, that he be baptized. He was made a catechumen and eventually received Holy Baptism and Chrismation. He lived secretly as a Christian for many years, growing in the Faith and in his love for his Russian concubine. One day his friends were debating a certain issue of difference in theology between Islam and Christianity. When asked what he thought of the matter, he replied simply, “the Christian Faith is better.” His friends mockingly asked, “Are you a Christian?” to which he replied in all seriousness, “yes, I am a Christian.” His friends tortured him and order him to revert to Islam. He refused and endured the tortures with contentment and peace. He war martyred in 1682.
  • St. Constantine Hagarit (commemorated June 2), whose Muslim name is unknown, worked as vegetable-peddler in Smyrna from early childhood. His work often brought him to the home of the Metropolitan of Smyrna for deliveries. While there he made many Christian friends and unintentionally began to learn about the Orthodox Christian Faith. He decided to convert and went there seeking Holy Baptism, but was refused because the Christians there feared the repercussions should they baptize a Muslim. Instead, they sent him to Mount Athos to be baptized at one of the monasteries there. After being baptized and chrismated and staying on the Holy Mountain for a time, he received a blessing from his spiritual father to return to Smyrna and preach the Gospel to his young sister. He was, however, detained while on his way by Muslim authorities and confessed to them that he had converted to Christianity. They beat him and threw him into prison. While he was in prison, they offered him riches and prestige if he should renounce Christ and return to Islam. He refused and was further tortured as a result. He was moved to Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman Turkish government, to be sentenced for the crime of apostasy. While in prison there, a local priest visited him and told him that the local Christians might be able to pay a ransom for his release. Constantine thanked him for the offer, but refused, saying that the Theotokos had appeared to him in a vision and told him to continue on to martyrdom. He was executed by hanging the following day in 1819.

There are many more than these, as well. Their example is truly inspiring. Apostasy is a crime whose only possible punishment in Islam is death. The only exception to this penalty comes from the Hanbali school of Islamic law, which says that women are not to be executed for apostasy. Instead, they are to be imprisoned and tortured until they revert. As converts from Islam, these great saints knew what they were doing. And there are many more martyrs for Christ everyday all over the Islamic world. See this recent case, for example. Many people all over the Islamic world are ready to embrace Christ and leave Islam, if only could hear and learn about Him! And there are a few great, brave Christians who are willing to teach Muslims about Christ, such as Father Zakaria, a Coptic Orthodox priest who runs an organization aimed at evangelizing the Muslim world. He also hosts a very popular Arabic-language television program in which he discusses the doctrines of Christianity, explains why certain Muslim beliefs and practices are incorrect, and debates with Islamic scholars. Al-Qaeda recently put a 60 million dollar price tag on his head. Please support his work! Overall, though, there are not nearly enough Christians willing to preach the Gospel in the Muslim world. I’ve heard several times of Muslims who went to Christian churches seeking baptism and were turned away. I understand the fear that motivated the churches to turn these people away. I probably would have done the same if I were one of them. It’s a certainty that if people found out that they had baptized a Muslim, there would be reprisals against the church, its clergy and its members. That being said, however, someone has to take that stand and being willing to risk his or her life. The reward, I know, is great. “… The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.” – Luke 10:2 My thanks goes to anyone who can point me in the direction of an icon of one of these saints. The only one I was able to find is this very small one of St. Ahmed.

Hope for the future of Iraq

Iraq is the most ancient, beautiful, awe-inspiring, unbearably hot, dangerous, dirty, disgusting place I have ever been. The people of Iraq are the most giving, hospitable, friendly, violent, unreasonable, deceitful people I have ever met. Iraq is a place filled with contradictions.

I have spent about a year and a half in Iraq total, most of that time in Baghdad and now down here in Maysan Province. During my time in Iraq, Iraqis have never failed to impress me, or confuse me. Iraqis have an entire culture shaped around freely giving what is asked of you. It’s actually considered shameful to tell somebody “no” or refuse to do or give something. Constant, often spontaneous gift-giving is of the utmost importance in any friendship. My interpreter while in Baghdad, Haifa, used to bring in gifts for the platoon nearly every week. Usually it was something small, some food, such as lamb kebabs or rotisserie chicken. Often it was exactly what we needed, like a birthday cake for one of my soldiers. Near the end of the deployment, she bought us all Arab-style clothing, the headdress and dish disha (“man-dress”), and dressed us up to take a picture. We added a “special touch” by pulling some AK-47s out of the locker we kept confiscated weapons in and posing with those.

I have had some great times here and experienced the wonders of Arab hospitality. A few weeks ago, one of my soldiers, our interpreter and I went to do some business on an Iraqi Army camp nearby our own. It was about lunch time and as we were getting ready to leave their camp, a half-dressed Iraqi soldier yelled at us from the doorway of a building, “Akil! Amrikee Jundee, Akil!” We walked over to find out what he was shouting about, our interpreter informing us that “akil” means “food” in Arabic. “Amrikee,” we already knew, means “American.”

The Iraqi soldier (“Jundee” in Arabic) vigorously shook our hands with a big smile on his face, saying “Allo! Allo!” He was by far the largest Iraqi I have ever met. Most Iraqis are about average height and rather skinny. He stood about 6’5” and probably weighed somewhere around 250 lbs. Later in the day, he would grab his bare belly and exclaim “Izza baby!” while shaking it. He escorted us to the back of the building and into a room where six other Jundee in various states of undress were sitting or laying on the floor in a circle around several large plates of rice and three whole rotisserie chickens. They all simultaneously looked up at us and exclaimed “Salaam al-akum!” He yelled at them to move over and make room for us as he told us, using a combination of his best charades act and significantly limited English vocabulary, to take our hats and boots off and sit down to eat with them.

We happily obliged and, over the next four and a half hours, enjoyed the best meal and conversation we have had since arriving in Iraq. The local food does something awful to my stomach, but after two full months of nothing but MREs, I was willing to risk it. Nearly all of the conversation was conducted through the use of hand signs and my interpreter, Ghanam, but it was easier to relate to them than to most American civilians I meet. We talked about everything there is to talk about.

We talked about food, music, family, religion, politics, history and, being an all-male group of soldiers, of course we talked about women and sex. We showed each other pictures and cell-phone videos of our wives and children. We played songs from our MP3 players and even danced and sang for each other. We showed off our tattoos (I even drew a smiley face with a ballpoint pen on the arm of a Jundee who said he didn’t have any, but wanted one). We showed and explained the small religious and sentimental items we each carry; I showed them my travel icon and pray rope; one of the Jundee showed us a miniature (one inch by once inch) Koran he carries with him; another showed the prayer beads he carries; the oddest item, I think, was one of the Muslim Jundee carrying a small, laminated prayer card of the Theotokos with the “Hail Mary” in Arabic on the back; he said he prayed it every day. We drank tea (the Iraqis call it “Chi” but I have yet to figure out if this is a generic term for “tea” or if it refers to a specific type), smoked cigarettes (50 cents per pack here in Iraq, can’t beat that!), laughed, and conversed for nearly all of the afternoon. We did all of this as if we were old friends who had known each other for years, but we had just met each other minutes earlier.

The afternoon is the hottest part of the day and so Iraqis tend to spend that time napping or, at the very last, immobile. They invited us to stay and nap with them, even offering up their own cots and indicating they would sleep on the floor instead. We declined, as we had to return to our camp before too long. As we left, there were the mandatory hugs and kisses on the cheek. It was only then that I learned any of their names. The one who had initially invited us in was Areef Ali (Sergeant Ali). Although I haven’t had the opportunity to eat lunch with him again since then, I make sure to stop by his room and great him each time I go to the Iraqi Army camp. I see him once a week at most, but I consider him a good friend. That’s the nature of Iraq.

It is very difficult to reconcile my personal contact with Iraqis, which is nearly all positive, with the fact that many of them are shooting at me. The truly disturbing part of the equation is that even some of them I have shared a meal with or exchanged kisses on the cheek with are doing the shooting, or at least assisting the shooters. In Baghdad, we had to fire one of our interpreters, a man I had played dominoes and drank Chi with, when we found out he was giving information about us and our camp to a militia that was attacking us and he may have been a member of, or at least a sympathizer with their cause. I have seen American soldiers killed or harmed by attacks that were just a little too “perfect” in their time and location, which were known by only their closest of “friends” and “comrades.”

In spite of all this, I see something wonderful in Iraq. “Salaam al-Akum” is the greeting you receive everywhere you go, regardless of religion. Christians, Muslims, Yezidis and Sabaeans all wish that “Peace be with you” each time they greet you, and you return “Walakum Salaam,” “And with you.” Every meeting is a warm one, with repeated kisses on each cheek, firm embraces, and large, happy smiles. Gifts and compliments are exchanged with an exhausting frequency. Friendships are never transitory; two people can go years without seeing or hearing from each other and pick up just as if they had last been together an hour ago. Iraq is a land of potential; of that I have no doubt. It is also a place where deception is the means of survival, a way of life; this I have experienced. There will be a piece of me in Iraq forever, long after I leave this place; I will be here in what I have accomplished and what all American soldiers have accomplished, I will be here even in the trash I leave behind, and, I hope, I will be here in the memories of the friends I made, as they will be in mine. A piece of Iraq will be in me forever, as well; even after I wash the desert sand from my body and clothes and recover from the food, I will never forget what I experienced here. It has already changed me as a person and it will continue to shape much of who I am, even after I leave. For the rest of my life I will pray for the people I have met here and those I haven’t. I pray every day for the future of Iraq and I hope you will too.