Four months ago, I arrived in the land of desert sheikhs, Aladdin's lamp, and Ali Baba. A land where the desert sands hold the history of its ancient people. The cradle of civilization. The birthplace of Abraham. The land where Nebuchadnezzar held Israel captive. I was in Iraq. My mission: to embed with U.S. military chaplains and tell their stories.
This was the type of assignment most journalists crave—reporting from a combat zone. And I was no different. Sure, I'd seen and heard the reports on tv of bombings, attacks, and kidnappings. Friends thought I was crazy wanting to traipse around the desert. But I saw it as a great adventure and knew I had a host of prayer warriors back home (including my supportive husband) interceding for my safety.
I wasn't sure what to expect in the war-torn nation. What I found is a country with a complicated past, present, and future trying to crawl its way toward democracy and independence. A country steeped in tradition and religion. I also found that God is at work in Iraq.
I traveled the 15-hour flight to Kuwait, where two U.S. soldiers met my colleague, Tim, and I, and escorted us to a military life support area in the region. Every military personnel and dod contractor traveling to the Middle East must pass through this military transit base. That's 3,000 to 5,000 people a day going or coming.
We were there two days, training on how to survive and thrive in the region. Then late one evening, a soldier told us we were to travel that night to Baghdad (we did all our travels in the middle of the night). We boarded a C130 plane, a four-engine turboprop, and one hour later, landed in Iraq.
Shivering in the night air, I struggled into the 20-pound Kevlar vest, strapped on my helmet, and grabbed my bags, one in each hand. The extra gear added about 60 pounds to my petite frame. I crawled onto the armored bus that would take us to the base and fell into the first seat. I sat in the dark, waiting for camo-clad soldiers to climb on board.
The final passenger was a civilian security guard. He instructed us on what to do in case of an ambush or ied explosion ("homemade" explosives).
Did he say explosion? My mind began to race as I tried to grasp his directions.So, let me get this straight. If we hit an ied, we're supposed to jump out the back of the bus and run to the armored bus behind us, all the while trying not to get hit by flying bullets. I can barely walk with all this gear, much less run. Assuming I even survive the explosion. That's when I realized I was sitting in the front row. Umm, does someone with a gun want to switch places?
Our convoy traveled the famous "Route Irish," the name for the 7.5-mile road between the secure International Zone in Baghdad and Baghdad International Airport. This stretch of highway was once one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq. I'd read about the white-knuckled rides and the looming dangers of suicide bombers, ambushes, and booby-trapped litter. Today, the road is probably one of the safest in Iraq, with U.S. and Iraqi military checkpoints along the way.
Still, I was thankful for the helmet and Kevlar vest I'd lugged all the way from Atlanta. And even more thankful to be traveling with highly trained soldiers. I willed myself to stay alert and prayed for safety as we weaved through the Red Zone. Within 30 minutes we were safely inside the International Zone (IZ), where I would stay for a few days before making my "home" for 10 days with chaplains of the XVIII Airborne Corps stationed at Camp Victory, Baghdad.
Around the IZ
Once in Baghdad, I spent a few days exploring the city within the boundaries of the IZ—now controlled by the Iraqi government. The IZ (formerly known as the Green Zone) is a heavily guarded diplomatic/government area in central Baghdad. It includes the main palaces of former President Saddam Hussein as well as the new U.S. embassy; the Monument to the Unknown Soldier; the former Ba'ath party headquarters; the Al-Rasheed Hotel; the Convention Center; and a large park including the crossed sabers and Hussein's famed parade grounds.
Iraq has a terrain of palm trees, incidental water, and endless desert. But the citadel on the Tigris is an oasis of sorts with its tree-lined streets and private gardens. Mosques and tall, skinny minarets dot the landscape of the city. Five times a day, residents are called to prayer by wailing music over a loudspeaker.
The IZ is protected by armed checkpoints, coils of razor wire, and "T-Walls" (reinforced and blast-proof concrete slabs). Escorted by a couple good-natured soldiers, we visited some of the pertinent "tourist" spots. When we stopped to take pictures, we often met smiling Iraqi soldiers all too willing to pose for photos.
The Iraqis are a lovely people with manners both primitive and polished. Their actions are guided by traditions of conduct and morality that go back to the beginnings of civilization. With the birth of a new democracy, they have hope for a new life, a new beginning. But don't expect them to throw off the old traditions and cloak themselves in Western ideals and culture. The Iraqi people have begun an intricate dance that will ultimately lead them to find their own balance between ancient traditions and the modern world.
Browsing the shelves of a couple gift shops in the Al Rasheed Hotel, I encountered the tension between Muslims and Christians living and working side-by-side. The first shop owner was a Christian woman wearing conservative, Western-style clothing. The second shop owner was a Muslim woman covered from head to toe in a billowing black abaya with a black headscarf.
I entered both shops, eager to find souvenirs to take home. Wanting to seem impartial, I decided to buy a scarf from each. The Muslim shop owner hovered close as I ran my fingers over the stack of hand-woven scarves.
"You like this one?" she asked.
"Oh, yes. It's beautiful," I told her.
"I make you a better deal," she said firmly, nodding at the plastic bag holding my previous purchase from the Christian shop owner next door.
She furrowed her brow and lectured that her items were better quality and better priced. I smiled, picked out a scarf, and handed her a crisp $10 bill. I tried to explain that I thought they both had beautiful items and that I was happy with both purchases. Still lecturing, she hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, and sent me on my way. I felt dismissed. So much for trying to be the peacemaker.
I waved at both women as I walked away. There was no acknowledgment between the two. This goes way beyond healthy competition, I thought. Will this country ever find peace?
God at Work in Iraq
Our military escort, who also was a chaplain, explained that Iraq is a country that respects the freedom of worship but not the freedom of religion. In other words, Christians are allowed to worship God and meet together. Muslims, however, are prohibited from converting to Christianity.
Iraq is smack dab in the middle of the 10/40 Window (the term missiologists use to define the countries that lay between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north latitude)—that part of the world that for so long has been closed to traditional missionaries. Christians in North America have been praying for this area of the world for the better part of three decades. Now God is bringing Christians to Iraq in the form of U.S. soldiers, civilian contractors, and workers from countries such as Uganda, Peru, and Fiji.
While proselytizing Muslims is strictly prohibited, Christians in the military demonstrate the love of God in their actions. The fruit of the Spirit that exudes from our chaplains and Christian troops is not lost on the Iraqis.
During my visit, I met a Muslim-background believer. He told me about his spiritual journey, how God had revealed himself through the testimony of a stranger. "The reason more Muslims do not believe in Christ is because they have not yet heard the gospel," he told me.
Only God knows the future of Iraq and its people. His ways are not our ways, and his plans rarely fit into a nice, neat package that we can comprehend. But God has a plan for the people of Iraq, of that I'm sure.
I heard again and again that history is being made in Iraq. "His Story" began in what is now modern-day Iraq and continues there to this day.
Carol Pipes is editor of On Mission at the North American Mission Board.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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