The Bishop of Cyprus & the Gulf in the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, Michael Lewis, has spent Holy Week and Easter in Baghdad. Here is his diary of an Iraqi Holy Week.
The first time I travelled to Baghdad 10 years ago it was by RAF Hercules and helicopter and the body armour I had to wear for the last lap was almost as heavy as my suitcase. Many visits later, my wife and I touch down on a uneventful commercial flight from Amman, one of many. Faiz Jerjees, my parish priest here, has wangled a rare airside pass and our way is smoothed.
They love Palm Sunday, the two hundred or so Iraqis who regularly worship at St George’s not far from the west bank of the Tigris. Soon after 5 pm, old and young fervently wave olive branches. We enter, I with a tall palm, to a joyous Arabic hymn. The compound around the 1930s yellow-brick church has over the years become crowded with buildings serving anyone who cares to come: the medical clinic (funded by the charity FRRME UK), the kitchens, the church shop, a new resource centre constructed on a roof, the church hall, the bishop’s flat, the vicarage, the kindergarten bursting with more than 150 infants and their teachers, and now the longed-for three-storey primary school, not yet finished (how hard it is to raise the money) but due for a September opening.
Amidst all this, worship is central. Thousands use the compound, very many of them Shi’a and Sunni Muslims and others from religions scarcely heard of outside Iraq, but it’s the committed Christians, filling the church, who give life and soul. Afterwards I say hello to a sole Englishman, Tim, an oil executive, who has become a regular. How many Christians still in Iraq? Some say 250000, some half a million. Once it was very substantially more. Numbers are not the measure of faith.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
Inside the compound, a little group joins me for Stations of the Cross each day. I’m translated either by Dawlat, churchwarden, or Ban, the young woman who runs the kindergarten office. Virtually all who choose to worship at St George’s know the practices of the faith very well. On their own initiative they start verses of a traditional Passion hymn between each station.
Outside, we pay essential visits. Patriarch Louis-Raphael I Sako, doyen of Christian leaders in Iraq and head of the Chaldaean Catholic Church, knows us well. We sit with civil servants of the Endowment for Christians, Yezidis, and Mandaeans. And one evening, as often before, I call on the key Shi’a leader Grand Ayatollah Husein al Sadr. His first speech and mine are strictly formal. Then we eat roast lamb and masgouf, the huge river carp of Iraq, as conversation ranges freely over Iraq’s complex religious and even more complicated political scene.
In the pews – yes, pews, newly made – expectation runs high and devotion is palpable as the Great Three Days begin. I preach in English but all else is in Arabic. The Agnus Dei is a haunting refrain. We strip the altar – and in Iraq it’s then covered in black and tomorrow’s huge cross is carried in and laid against it.
Hundreds come to venerate. Before we kiss the cross we drink a vinegar drink from small cups. We leave in absolute silence.
Like so many Christians across the world we kindle new fire, light the Paschal Candle, and proclaim Christ risen. Not a hitch until, now inside, swirling wax briefly swamps the flame, but not for long. I sing the Exsultet and remember many previous Easter Eves. Alleluia. He is risen indeed. We make our first Easter communion and (much later) I have a beer and a beef vindaloo.
Church is packed – of course. Incense rises. Television channels record all. At the recessional women ululate ecstatically. And this year we have been joined by special guests who eat with us afterwards: Turcomans and Kurds; a Mandaean; sheikhs, scholars, and business people. In my sermon I’ve made the point that Christians are not to keep Christ for themselves. He is the light of the world. He died and rose for all. They kiss me and say, Come again.
Photos by the Diocese of Cyprus & the Gulf.