Sophia's Peace Work

Sunday, April 10, 2005

A Post from my friend Sheila on the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq

Christian Peacemaker Teams is an ecumenical violence-reduction program with roots in the historic peace churches. Teams of trained peace workers live in areas of lethal conflict around the world. CPT has been present in Iraq since October, 2002.
To learn more about CPT, please visit
Photos of our projects may be viewed at

Kerbala's Pilgrims
by Sheila Provencher
April 1, 2005

I write to the sound of chanting pilgrims. When CPT came to Kerbala
to follow-up with the developing Muslim Peacemaker Teams, we found
ourselves in the midst of an enormous religious festival! The
occasion is the Arba'een, the fortieth day of Muharram, which is a
time when Shi'a Muslims remember the death of Imam Husain.

Imam Husain was a beloved leader of the Muslims who became known as
the Shi'a when the Shi'a/Sunni split began. About 1400 years ago,
he and much of his family died in the desert of what became
Kerbala. He knew that he would die, and he embraced his martyrdom
so willingly that some Muslims and Christians compare his death to
that of Jesus.

His last act was to invite his enemies to prayer.

The story is full of tragedies: the Christian servant John who
refused to leave his Muslim masters and died with them; the entire
community slowly dying of thirst while Husain's brother Abbas died
trying to bring them water; Husain's baby son shot to death with
arrows in his arms; and the last cry of Husain, inviting all around
him to surrender to God.

Being in Kerbala at this time I feel as if I am attending a vast
Passion play in which everyone takes a part. Pilgrims walk for days
from all over Iraq. People along the way and throughout Kerbala
open their yards and homes and feed thousands. "Does the city
organize the hospitality?" asked one of my CPT colleagues. "No,"
our Iraqi host replied. "Everyone just does his part."

I helped the women of the family stir huge pots of rice and beans.
Young boys and girls then carried the food to pilgrims. As the
thousands walked through the streets, Kerbala residents stood at the
side of the roads saying "You are welcome!" and beckoning travelers
to makeshift stands serving tea, fruit drinks, water. Others set up
plastic chairs and rubbed the tired feet of pilgrims who had walked
for days. Still others erected large tents made of old rice sacks
sewn together.

In ceremonies throughout these days, women weep, men rhythmically
beat their backs with chains in a slow dance-like motion, and all
chant songs – "Ya Husain! Ya Husain!" -- in remembrance of their
beloved leader.

At one point, a re-enactment of Husain's last travels processed
toward the main shrine. A man dressed as Husain rode on horseback,
followed by several camels. The man's face was covered by a white
cloth, since the face of the imam is impossible to replicate. As
the convoy passed, everyone rose to their feet and followed behind
for several paces. The woman next to me began weeping. I suddenly
felt that I was in a crowd similar to the one that accompanied Jesus
to Calvary two thousand years ago.

An elderly woman noticed that my teammate Justin was a foreigner.
(With his blond hair and blue eyes he is hard to miss). "Mister!"
she said, and handed him a sweetbread. This is the spirit of the
time: hospitality and lovingkindness amidst a celebration of grief
and remembrance.

Husain was a warrior. But our Iraqi host, who co-founded Muslim
Peacemaker Teams in Kerbala, looks to Imam Husain as an example of
nonviolence. He points out that Husain died without hating his
opponents. Last August, many of the same people who filled Kerbala
this past week also filled the road to Najaf, in a nonviolent march
top try to stop the battle between the Mehdi Army and the U.S.

May such energy and spirit continue and thrive.


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