Monday, August 27, 2012

Apostasy in Kurdistan

After we rode out of Alqosh, I thought about something that had disturbed me back in the town.  The local Bishop had been very hospitable, offering us tea and soda in his sitting room, a now familiar routine.  He told us about the church in the region and offered some humorous advice.  "Never become a Bishop" he said, "When I was just a priest I could do what I wanted, but now that I am a Bishop I cannot."  At one point, his excellency was asked about Protestant missionaries who try to convert the Chaldeans.  At this question, the bishop became visibly angry, and denounced the people who try to convert his flock.  The bishop's anger is completely understandable, the last thing that Christians in the Middle East need is division.  However, I found the next thing the bishop said to be disturbing.  He said that to apostatize was to betray ones' people.  This sounded to me like a general condemnation of conversions, not only of "sheep stealing" by Protestants, but evangelism by anyone.  I asked a learned expat about this as our bus rolled away from Alqosh.  He offered a disquieting and I believe correct, theory. 

The Chaldean bishop condemns conversion because if any Muslims in the area were to convert to Christianity, all the Christians in Alqosh would be at risk.  Apostasy is punished by death in Islamic law and Kurdish attacks on Alqosh have happened before.  Islamic attacks on Alqosh occurred until as as late as 1969.  Christians in the Middle East are in a very difficult position.  Ours is an evangelical faith.  We are supposed to preach the Gospel to non-Christians, but if the Chaldeans were to try, they would get killed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

St. Stephen of Hungary

We interrupt this broadcast about Iraqi Kurdistan to bring you an announcement from LOL Saints:

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Orphans and a Dead Guy

The bus full of expats descended the switchbacks down from Rabban Hormizd monastery and took us back to the town of Alqosh.  Our next stop was the tomb of an Israelite.

Alqosh has existed since at least the time of the Assyrian empire, and Hebrews lived there as far back as the 8th Century BC.  A Jewish community existed in Alqosh until 1948, when Muslims chased them out following the creation of Israel.  We visited a crumbling building where the Jews of Alqosh used to live and worship.


Inside the synagogue, the roof and  walls are falling down.  The building is relatively modern, but with the Jews gone, no one has been working on the structure's upkeep.

 If you can read Hebrew, take a look at this inscription:

At the center of the building, a green tarp covers  a sarcophagus.  This tomb is believed to hold the remains of the prophet Nahum, who wrote the Old Testament book that bears his name.  The Assyrian empire had visited great evils upon Isreal and Judah, and Nahum exults in the destruction of Nineveh, praising God's wrathful justice. 
Nahum 1:1-3
Oracle concerning Nineveh.  The book of the vision of Nahum of Alqosh.  A jealous and avenging God is the LORD, an avenger is the LORD, full of wrath; The LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries, and rages against his enemies; The LORD is slow to anger, yet great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.  In stormwind and tempest he comes, and clouds are the dust at his feet.
There are competing claims regarding the location of Nahum's tomb, but I prefer to believe that his tomb is in Alqosh.  For one thing, the place is named Alqosh, the same name as Nahum's hometown, and it's been named Alqosh just about forever.  In addition, the local Jews believed that the tomb in Alqosh is Nahum's, and guarded it for many centuries.    

The Sarcophagus:

After leaving the synogogue, we visited a girls' orphanage.  There are two orphanages in Alqosh, one for boys and one for girls.  Both are run by Sisters from a religious order, the name of which I cannot recall.  You can't adopt these orphans, but you might be able to marry one.  The orphanage is not a temporary residence, but the orphans' true home.  They live there until they are either married, often to someone from the the other orphanage, or discern a religious vocation.

Expats at the orphanage:
(Photo Credit: Matt Lenzen)

There is a chapel at the orphanage, dug out of the rock beneath it:

We were given a tour of the orphanage, where we saw nice dormitory style bedrooms and classrooms.  The kids at the orphanage receive a full education from the Sisters.  From what we could see, it looks like the orphans are blessed with a pretty good life. 

After paying a quick visit to the local Bishop the next day, our group rode out of Alqosh.  Our visit to Rabban Hormizd monastery, Nahum's tomb, and the orphanage made for the best trip I took in Iraq.  Visiting Alqosh is one of the most amazing experiences in my life.  I hope I can go back one day.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Leaving Iraq

Tonight I fly to Kansas City by way of Jordan and Chicago.  My time in Iraq has been unforgettable, and I hope to return someday.  Once I'm settled in at college, I will finish my Iraq posts.

Please pray for the Chaldeans! 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pilgrims at Helm's Deep

After departing Mar Matay Monastery, our bus took us north to the Chaldean town of Alqosh.  As we rolled into town, I noticed the local communist party headquarters.  Communism has a following in Kurdistan because it is tied into Kurdish nationalism.  I find it strange that an internationalist ideology is so often at the service of nationalist causes.  Of course, the vast majority of Chaldeans are not communists and Alqosh is home to something far more impressive than a diminutive outpost of the Comintern.  High in the mountains above the town, sits the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, or as I prefer to call it, Helm's Deep.

Before we visited the monastery/fortress, we made a stop at The Virgin Mary, Guardian of Plants' Monastery inside the town.  A priest there explained that in the 19th Century, Rabban Hormizd Monastery lost access to water, and so the Virgin Mary's Monastery was built to house the monks.

Some photos of the monastery church:

Photo Credit: Walshes

Photo Credit: Walshes
This is a memorial to a previous abbot of the monastery.  It is written in Sureth and Arabic, with a short epitaph in Latin:

After leaving the monastery in Alqosh, our bus drive attempted to get us through the hairpin turns and up the mountain to Rabban Hormizd Monastery.  The bus had to be backed up for an assault on each turn, and every time it backed up, the passengers felt like vehicle was about to fall off the edge of the cliff behind us.  After we had gone about three quarters of the way up the mountain, the road got too steep for the bus, and we trekked up on foot.  The monastery, built in a semicircle on the mountainside, is a sight to behold.

The road up the mountain:

Rabban Hormuz Monastery has a fascinating history.  Founded in 640 AD, it was the home of saints and martyrs for over a millennium.  The most significant event in the monastery's history took place in the 16th Century.  In 1553, Shimun VII Yohannan Sulaqa, the abbot of Rabban Hormuz, traveled to Rome and offered allegiance to the Pope on behalf of the Assyrian people.  He was consecrated as the first Chaldean Patriarch, and reigned from Rabban Hormuz until his martyrdom in 1555.  Rabban Hormuz is the birthplace of the Chaldean church.

I got this photo off of Wikipedia.  It was probably taken in the spring.  When we were there, the grass was brown.

The wall of the Hornburg:

An ancient monk's cell, dug out of the mountainside:

The mountainside is dotted with caves hallowed out by the monks.

A system of caves and tunnels behind the monastery forms the catacombs.

Inside the catacombs:

I think this alcove may be a tomb:

Parts of the cave system are blocked off.

Before we left, I took this video from the monastery roof:


Our visit to Rabban Hormuz Monastery is one the highlights of my time in Iraq.  One feels a sense of peace in that holy place, looking over the valley as a cool breeze blows over the mountains.  I will  certainly never forget it.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mar Matay Monastery

I'm almost done with my time in Iraq, but I want to share an experience from early in my stay here.  The second weekend after I arrived, I took a bus  Westwards with the other expats.  First we visited the Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mar Matay (St. Matthew).  Here is a link to the Monastery's website.

The monastery is built on the side of Mt. Maqloub about 20 kilometers North East of Mosul.
Besides housing the monks, the monastery includes accommodations for visitors, who can go on retreat here.

A view of the Nineveh Plain from Mt. Maqloub:

The monastery was founded in the 5th Century by Mar Matay.  A modern building exists today in next to older ruins.

The front of the monastery:

A view of the courtyard:

We were ushered into a rectangular reception room, the first of many such rooms we would sit in during our trips through Kurdistan, where we were served tea.

The reception room:
(Photo credit: Walshes)

Then we were led into a chapel.

The chapel interior:

Behind and to the left of the chapel, we entered a crypt that holds the remains of Mar Matay and several of his companions.

Mar Matay's Reliquary:

Several ancient headstones were built into the wall, each one concealing the mortal remains of 5th Century monks.  This one is covered in Syriac script:

This ornate headstone marks the spot where one of Mar Matay's companions, a martyr, is interred:

After leaving the crypt and exiting the church, I climbed some stairs to the monastery roof.

From the roof, one can see the ruins of the older monastery, which is presumably built on the ruins of an even more ancient one:

A closer look:


Before we left the monastery, we visited the gift shop.  Christian Iraqis are fond of tacky religious art, and a particularly egregious example was on display at this shop.  Below is a nativity scene that features a water fall and a spinning light ball.  Definetly the weirdest nativity scene I have ever encountered.

Well that's it for Mar Matay.  The Walshes have been blogging up a storm, and I am way behind; by the end of this week I hope to have posted a lot more.  Tomorrow, I'll tell you about our trip to Alqosh, home to communists, orphans, and the final resting place of a Biblical prophet.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mister I Am Games!

My fellow expats and I have been teaching at Mar Qardakh for over five weeks now.  The experience has been difficult but rewarding.

The work week starts on a Sunday at Mar Qardakh.  In Islamic countries, Friday and Saturday are taken off, and we follow that schedule as well, though we do have a somewhat shorter day on Sunday.  Each morning, students arrive around 8:20 and are divided into homerooms based on grade group.  At 9:00, the first of three one hour periods begins.

During the summer program, 1st through 8th grade are put in four grade groups consisting of 1st/2nd, 3rd/4th, etc.  At the beginning of the program, students picked Art, Computers, Drama, or Gym as a major.  Students attend their major class during first period every day.  For second and third period, students cycle through their non-major classes.  After classes are over, students leave the building around 1:00.

The students at Mar Qardakh are both charming and frustrating.  If they are told to be quite, they will remain silent for what they consider to be a reasonable amount of time (3 to 10 seconds) before resuming loud conversations in Sureth.  When the students speak English, many do so in a hilarious pidgin dialect.  For example, they are under the impression that “I am” means, “I want,” or “I will.”  One kid enthusiastically told his teacher “I am games!”  Since then, expat teachers can often be heard shouting the same exclamation to each other.  Students who want to do some task will yell “Mister, I am!  I am!”  The constant shouts of “Mister” are a source of annoyance to all the teachers.  We tell our students that we will only call on them if they quietly raise their hands, and seconds after we say this, they start yelling “Mister!” again.

These are of course generalizations.  Some children are quiet and respectful, and even the loud ones are not malicious.  Almost all the students are good natured and very forgiving.  You can loudly scold your class for talking for the fortieth time, and they seem to love you anyway, cheerfully saying “Bye Mister!  See you tomorrow!” as they leave.

I teach drama to 5th and 6th graders.  The drama majors are working on a play that they will perform for their parents at the end of the summer program.  I have been teaching the same play to my second and third period non-drama students, instructing them in vocabulary, diction, and emotional expression.  My drama majors will perform The Boy who Cried Wolf.  It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but it helps them develop their English and public speaking skills.  The students are all eager to participate in the play.  Whenever I tell the class that I need to cast a part, fifteen voices shout, “Mister, I am!”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

More Blogging

I have not posted as much as I would have liked the last few weeks, but I will try to write more about Iraq in the next several days.  Stay tuned!