A chaplain in Baghdad

Excerpted from War in the Garden of Eden: A Military Chaplain’s Memoir from Baghdad (Seabury Books.)

By Frank E. Wismer III

The first Sunday afternoon that I visited St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad to lead worship was an unforgettable experience. Following the service, I was standing outside the church building, speaking to Maher Dahkil. Maher worked as a translator for the U.S. military. The U.S. military hires both linguists and translators for work with our forces when deployed internationally. Linguists are individuals who are fluent in English and can help military personnel converse with the local nationals. Translators are those who are not only fluent in English but can also read and write English and thus translate documents from or into English. Maher worked within the Green Zone as a translator at the 28th CSH. He assisted the hospital staff in communicating with Iraqis who were brought in for treatment. He also visited with Iraqi nationals who had been admitted to the hospital.

One of the things I have discovered about individuals who are converts to anything is that they are more ardent in their beliefs than those who have grown up with the things in which they believe. Maher Dahkil was no exception. Maher was a convert to Christianity from Mandeanism. [ed. note: the Mandeans are descendents of the original disciples of John the Baptist.] He possessed a burning desire to share his newfound beliefs with everyone with whom he came into contact. He explained to me that he visited the suicide bomber and other Muslim terrorists in the hospital wards and always shared his faith with them. He encouraged them to embrace Christianity and renounce their life of terrorism.

I was the only non–Arabic speaker at St. George’s when I went there to conduct services. Maher served as my linguist during worship. He would also pick me up in the Green Zone and escort me to the church in his 1983 beat-up white Toyota sedan (I’ll come back to his car in a bit). As I said, I was speaking with Maher following my first Sunday conducting services at St. George’s. It is customary following worship that groups of people will chat with each other to catch up on one another’s activities. I spied a small group of people chatting rather loudly about some topic, turned to Maher and inquired, “Maher what are they talking about?” He responded, “I haven’t got a clue. They’re speaking Aramaic.”

Aramaic was the language of Jesus. I was taught in seminary that it was a dead language and lost forever to the world. But here in Baghdad I had just worshipped with people who still speak the language of Jesus. I felt as if I had been transported back into the Bible. I was living in the land of the Garden of Eden with people who spoke Aramaic. What was even more incredible is that the person who was my translator had not that long ago been a follower of John the Baptist. This was the adventure of a lifetime!

My Sundays in Baghdad followed a daily pattern. I conducted an Episcopal-Lutheran-Anglican service at 0730 hours in the chapel at the palace. I then led a general Protestant service at 1000 hours at the palace. On Sunday afternoons, Maher Dahkil, a translator who had converted to Christianity from Mandeanism arrived at the palace to pick me up and secret me out of the Green Zone to St. George’s Anglican Church. I conducted a 1600 hours service there and then went to Maher’s home for dinner following the worship. Since the service at St. George’s was always two hours long and dinner followed, I didn’t generally return to the Green Zone until about 2100 hours. Actually, my Sunday routine began at noon on Saturday. For it was at about noon on Saturday that the struggle within me started regarding whether or not I would be putting

my life on the line by going to St. George’s the following day. Traveling out of the Green Zone always carried with it the possibility for injury or death. And worshipping with a Christian Community in Iraq was also cause for concern. Churches were being bombed and Christians murdered at church on Sunday by terrorists. The decision to go to Church in Iraq is not simply a matter of what one is to wear or a question of whether or not one feels likes going. It is a life-and-death decision that places one in a very precarious position. I would be traveling out of the Green Zone in Maher’s old Toyota.

We in the United States take for granted that the automobiles we see on the road are safe to be driven. Cars that are imported by individuals into the U.S. must meet government safety regulations. If one were to buy a car in Europe and then have it shipped to the United States, many upgrades would need to be made before it can be registered to be operated. This is not the case in Iraq. Not only was Maher’s car old, it was a wreck! The windshield had a number of cracks running lengthwise. The doors didn’t all open, and the lights didn’t work well at night. Lord knows what else was the matter with the car. It was certainly not a vehicle that one could trust on a long journey.

Maher would appear across the street from the palace in his car. I would hop in wearing civilian clothes, and he would drive me out one of the Green Zone gates to the church. Chaplains do not carry weapons, so I had no means of defending myself against armed attack. Moreover, by leaving the Green Zone with Maher unescorted by security or military personnel I was violating all force protection protocols. The thing I worried about the most in contemplating my weekly pilgrimage to St. George’s was not being killed. It was the possibility of being wounded or kidnapped and held for ransom. Had that happened, I would have been a world of trouble because I knowingly violated U.S. policy! After I arrived at St. George’s and greeted members of the congregation, the turmoil I experienced about going to church vanished. I was with a wonderful community of Christians who were dedicated to their faith and their Lord. Once I was caught up in the worship, all fears vanished, and I was pleased that I’d determined to lead worship for one more week. I do remember one Sunday, however, when Maher called to inform me that he would be unable to travel into the Green Zone. The gates had been locked down for security purposes in response to a recent attack. When I learned that I wouldn’t be traveling to church that day, I must admit that I was relieved.

One Sunday following church, as I ate dinner with Maher, his wife, and his daughter and son, explosions erupted in the neighborhood around Maher’s house. We all went up on his roof to see what was going on and saw a number of fi res in homes on streets nearby. Later I was to learn that a terrorist had intended to attack the Green Zone with a dozen rockets. He was rather inept at his trade, and all the rockets landed in Maher’s neighborhood. What immediately dawned on me is that our security personnel at the entrances to the Green Zone would be on heightened alert. What if Maher’s old Toyota had bad brakes? What if we could not stop when ordered to by the Iraqi and American soldiers? I’d end up getting killed by my own folks! As it turned out, Maher’s car did halt at the checkpoint, and I was permitted to walk a mile and a half back to the palace.

Two events stand out in my mind during the eight months I led worship at St.George’s Anglican Church, Baghdad. The first occurred at Christmas time, andthe second just prior to Easter. The two events were similar in nature. I had just finished leading the service, and the women of the congregation were bringing their children forward for me to bless them. Suddenly at the entrance to the church fifteen Muslim women escorted by two Muslim men appeared. They had been across the street at a wedding reception for a Muslim couple and had seen the light on the cross of the church lit up. They left the reception and came into the church looking for blessings on the newlyweds from Jesus. I think that they wanted some sort of icon with Jesus’ picture on it to take back to the reception.

The other occasion that stands out in my mind took place in much the same manner as the visit by the women from the wedding reception. This time five Muslim women entered the church at the end of the service and were near the entrance looking for something. I asked Maher to inquire of them what they wanted. He reported back to me that they were members of an extended family all living together in a two-room apartment. And guess what? They were having trouble getting along with one another. They had come to the church seeking blessings from Jesus and the Virgin Mary. I asked Maher to speak with them and find out if they would like me, the Christian priest, to pray with them. In a moment he returned with the women and we formed a circle in the nave of the church, and I prayed for them in the name of Jesus Christ and asked his blessing upon them and their family.

Then something very strange and unexpected happened. One of the women for whom I had just prayed stated through Maher that she had been having back pain for years and would I pray for her for healing. I asked Maher if it would be all right for me to lay hands on her while praying. There was no way in the world that I was going to touch a Muslim woman without permission!

She gave her assent, and I laid hands on her and prayed. I don’t know how what I said in English translated into Arabic. I can tell you that Maher’s translation was quite a bit longer than my prayer. It was evident that he knew exactly what Arab women expect to hear proclaimed in a prayer and had loosely translated what I said. Following my prayer another of the women asked that I lay hands on her and pray because of some other ailment. Again Maher translated

what I had said and went on for quite some time.

The Rev. Frank E. Wismer III, was a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1982 to 2008. He served as the senior chaplain for the Coalition Provision Authority from April 2003 to May 2004. This article is excerpted from War in the Garden of Eden: A Military Chaplain’s Memoir from Baghdad .

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