04 April 2008

"Politics, Anbar Style" - Sheiks' Meeting

John and I had the opportunity to attend a meeting between some of the local sheiks (tribal leaders who are respected mediators within their locale) and local USMC officers to review some issues within their areas of concern. These meetings are key to the social and local political relationships within Arab life, and must be cultivated over time. In order to both maintain and cultivate these relationships, it is necessary that quality social time is spent with these leaders, while listening and addressing their concerns and those of their tribe. These meetings require proper local social skills, and the hospitality of the hosts (and correct and gracious responses by the guests) is closely scrutinized. (FYI - Never show the sole of your foot to an Arab, and always accept/eat/return food and drink with your right hand. The sole of the foot and the left hand are considered unclean.)

Tribal relationships are a key factor within most of the social, geographical, and (therefore) political aspects of most of the communities within Iraq. These tribes are extremely close knit (and have long collective memories - a reason for some of the inter/intra-tribal revenge-violence that has occurred), but some "blurring" occurs between tribal boundaries due to inter-marriages that may occur to help foster relationships between neighboring tribes. Sheiks are men who command great respect within their tribal (neighborhood) communities (but have often been the target of repeated assassination attempts because of their relationship with US forces), so I have obscured their identities for their security.

Arab society is built upon hospitality (much like the Southern U.S. where I have spent most of my life.) You are warmly welcomed upon your arrival, enthusiastically greeted, and quickly seated. The sheik host sits at the "head" of the room, and the guests' social standing (within the context of the meeting and other guests) is determined by your proximity to the Sheik. It is considered good manners to remove your footwear when you enter an Arab abode (although we did not do so, because the Iraqis understand that the US military does not follow this custom for a variety of reasons - security being an important factor.) Guests are quickly seated upon floor cushions, with other cushions to recline upon. We were careful to either place our feet upon the floor, or sit cross-legged to avoid displaying the soles of our feet to our guests.

Once seated, we were formally welcomed by the sheik and his brother, and introductions were made. After a few minutes of polite conversation, young men brought small crystal "shot" glasses of chai (hot tea) with a triple helping of sugar undissolved in the bottom of the glass. These cups of chai were served upon a china tea saucer with a small silver spoon with which to stir the chai and sugar. Several rounds of chai were served before a pitcher of espresso and one china cup were brought out. A shot of espresso was poured for each guest, starting farthest away from the Sheik. The guests would quickly drink the espresso, before the empty cup was refilled and passed to the next guest. This rotation of hot chai and espresso continued throughout the discussions for the next two hours (often interspersed with ice cold bottled water, poured into individual glasses set before each of us.)

Finally, once the "business" discussions were concluded, a vinyl floor covering was spread over the beautiful carpet and two huge platters of food were brought in and set upon the floor. Everyone scooted up, off the floor cushions, and (with their right hands) began scooping up the delicious rice, vegetables, roasted lamb and chicken, depositing each handful as carefully as possible in our mouths. Finesse was required, as we had no plates or napkins, and certainly did not want to spill food on our host's beautiful carpet. The food was absolutely delicious, and we all ate until we were stuffed. Once we were through, the guests seated further away from the Sheik moved up to take our places.

After everyone had eaten, we began our farewells, exchanging business cards, and taking a few photographs to be shared later. John and I felt very welcome, and I have since received several emails from the Sheik encouraging me to return again soon.

01 April 2008

Iraq's Christians In Peril - Interview with Canon Andrew White

If you are a Christian, and your son or daughter was killed because of your faith, what would you do? If your Muslim neighbor came to you and said, "Your daughters must convert to Islam and marry our sons, or we will kill your entire family," how would you respond? "Convert or die" is the message of choice for Islamic jihadists in Baghdad and Iraq who are working overtime to rid Iraq of "infidel" Christians.

I must strongly caution anyone that the following story and contents are extremely graphic, and may be disturbing to anyone reading or sharing them.

On 1 March in Baghdad, I met a man who refuses to give up hope for the future of Iraq's Christians. This is in spite of repeated threats to his life; the kidnappings, extortion, torture, and murder of hundreds of his congregation; and the abductions and subsequent mutilations and murders of his friends who are the few remaining religious leaders in Iraq. On top of all these challenges, the church he pastors has little money to continue to feed and provide medical care and medicine to the 1500+ members of the church he pastors for the most despised, yet often poorest of Baghdad's citizens - Baghdad's Iraqi Christians.

His name is Andrew White, and his official Anglican Church title is Canon White, but almost everyone he knows just calls him "Baba" ("Father" in Arabic.) He is a thoughtful, intelligent man who is a gentle giant, yet is terribly afflicted with the awful disease of multiple sclerosis.

Prior to my first military embed assignment in Iraq in January 2007, I was unaware that Christians even existed in Iraq. However, during that embed, I met a young Iraqi Christian woman, who had served as an interpreter for the U.S. for over three years, despite death threats to both she and her family. After she explained that there were over one million native Iraqi Christians, and that most were in great danger because of their faith, I was horrified and had to know more. After our meeting, I spent three months researching the story of the ongoing religious genocide of Iraqi's native Christians. Wait, did he say Iraq's native Christians? Yes, Iraq's Christian population pre-dated the Muslims in Iraq by almost seven hundred years!

Most of Iraq's native Christians call Nineveh (or the Nineveh Plains) their ancestral homeland. Those of you who have read the Old Testament will recall the story of Jonah and the whale in the Book of Jonah. Jonah was a reluctant prophet, who finally went to Nineveh where his testimony inspired the entire city of Nineveh to convert and repent. After Christ was crucified and was resurrected, Thomas the Apostle traveled to Nineveh, and his preaching facilitated many of the Ninehvites to convert to Christianity.

The Christian majority in Iraq gradually became a minority by the immigration of Muslims from the Ottoman Empire into Mesopotamia after 682 A.D. (Does this scenario sound somewhat vaguely familiar to my fellow Americans and our European allies?) The Christians and the Muslims had many differences, and much blood was spilled during the 1300+ years between then and now. The two religious groups generally settled into a tenuous co-existence throughout history, even through Saddam's reign. In fact, Saddam's right hand man, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian (and an "enforced" acquaintance of Canon White's during the First Gulf War.) I have learned that many of Saddam's household staff and servants were Christians because he felt that he could trust them not to assassinate him!

After Saddam was deposed during the U.S. invasion in 2003, some Islamic jihadists took the opportunity to begin a program of discrimination, extortion (jizyah), and coercion to rid their country of the (infidel) Christians. This program eventually changed into more violent tactics such as kidnappings, torture, and murder. My friend's brother was kidnapped, and a ransom was paid, but he was shot in the leg before he was returned to his family. Unfortunately, this is one of the success stories.

Truth be known, much of Iraq's Christian population has either been forced into exile or has been murdered as a message to the remaining Christians. Of the estimated 1.4 million Iraqi Christians in Iraq in 2003, only an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 remain there. Many families are simply told, "Convert or die! Your daughters must convert to Islam and marry our sons or we will kill your entire family." There are eyewitness accounts of the kidnappings of priests who were subsequently decapitated, and had their bodies deposited at the door of their church with their heads placed upon their chests. Those young Christian men unwilling to convert or carry out suicide attacks are kidnapped and murdered. I heard accounts of both the crucifixion of a teenage boy, and of a boy who was roasted atop a pile of rice as a message to his parents and fellow Christians. Canon White related how he officiates many funerals of the murdered, but seldom gets the bodies back to bury them after they are kidnapped.

I know these stories are both shocking and horrifying. However, there are both recorded interviews and/or photographs to substantiate what I am telling you. As fellow Christians here in the U.S. and abroad, we must do something to help our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Iraqi, or are refugees before they are all driven out or killed.

In spite of their sufferings, there is hope. The U.S. Congress passed legislature in December of 2007 which acknowledged the plight of Iraq's Christians, and allotted $10 million to conduct a study to see what could be done to resolve the issue (too little and too late, but a good start.) My friend, Michael Youash, of www.democracyforiraq.com co-sponsored this bill, and I encourage everyone to view their website for updates. Canon White encouraged us to research this issue, but also to take action by writing our Congress and Senators, spreading the word to fellow Christians, and most importantly, to donate money for the direct support of these fellow Christians in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and internally displaced persons within Iraq to those organizations listed below that will make sure the aid is distributed properly.

Please contact your fellow Christians within your congregation and have them write their Representatives and Senators within Congress, and pray for our fellow Christians in Iraq and elsewhere. You can find additional information by visiting www.rfcnet.org, www. csi-usa.org, and www.iraqdemocracyproject.org or by doing a Google search for Iraqi Christians, or by contacting me via a comment or email.