Presbyterian Missions—Personal Observations (5th of 6) An Iraqi priest writes to Louisville on my Behalf

I and my family moved into Zakho, located on a river mentioned in the Bible.

The town of Zakho

I remember reading in one of Kenneth E. Bailey’s books about small villages in northern Iraq where ancient Christian populations still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. (What Bailey book was it? I have been looking for the quote today in Poet and Peasant and The Cross and the Prodigal, but still have not found it. Maybe one of my readers can locate the quote for me.) Words cannot express the frisson that I felt when I realized these ancient Christians were living on the other side of my town.

I and my family had moved into Zakho after Operation Provide Comfort had succeeded. Zakho is located on the Habor River, and the Habor River is mentioned in the Bible:

Habor River, Zakho

That was in 722 BC. Jews lived in Zakho “on the Habor, the river of Gozan,” from that time until 1948, when they were forced out of Iraq altogether at the founding of the nation of Israel. Ariel Sabar wrote an excellent book, My Father’s Paradise, about the last generation of Jews who lived in Zakho. The Jews had spoken Aramaic, and so did the ancient Christians who lived on the other side of town. I walked there and knocked on the church door. That is how I met a Christian priest name Father Peter. Father Peter became a good friend and colleague.

Father Peter spoke Aramaic as his first language. He also spoke Kurdish, the language of the Muslims in Zakho, and Arabic, the language in which teaching in school was conducted. Father Peter was known as Abuna Butros to his congregation. You know how it feels when you like someone from the moment you meet each other. I asked him, “How many members are in your congregation?” He replied, “I have 46 households in my congregation.” That made me think of the teaching of Deuteronomy chapter 6, which is directed to the head of a household:

The way of the Lord, then, is for the father to take his place as the teacher of his household. Every time a new marriage takes place, a new household is established. Unmarried men or women are still in their father’s household. Father Peter counted the number of households in his congregation. How does the reader feel about this?

The days passed and I was issued a United Nations walkie-talkie radio. One day a UN representative called and asked if I would drive Father Peter across the Turkish border to a refugee camp. The UN had agreed that Father Peter should be able to conduct worship for the Chaldean Christian families in Turkey, at the refugee camp. About 12,000 Kurds and Christians were living on the ground with tents over their heads and latrines at the end of every row of tents. I said that I would be pleased to drive Father Peter to the refugee camp in Turkey.

Father Peter and I drove across the border and arrived at the refugee camp. What happened next defies all attempts to explain it in words. When Father Peter and I began to walk down the rows of tents, a spirit of love and joy and celebration filled the entire camp. Every refugee, Muslims and Christians alike. welcomed Father Peter. Thousands and thousands of refugees came to see him, and he decided to walk down every row of tents in the entire camp. Mothers lifted their children above the crowd, that he might bless them. Men folded their hands in prayer over their hearts. This went on for hours. It was a hot day, a summer day in Iraq. I was thirsty. I was not ready to walk past every row of tents with Father Peter. But on he strode, in his plain beige robe and his big smile and his kind face.

The next Sunday Father Peter and I visited the camp again, with not nearly as much electrical charge in the air. We came every Sunday. We would bring notes from “home,” meaning Zakho. We brought clothes and food, and we began taking notes with us for families back home. Every Sunday Father Peter would conduct worship for the Chaldean Christians. I wrote to Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey to come and see for himself, these Iraqi Christians who still speak and worship in the language of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One day I asked Father Peter to write a letter to Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, director of Presbyterian missions in the United States. Dr. Kirkpatrick is a good man. I knew Dr. Kirkpatrick would be pleased to receive a letter from Father Peter, inviting me to work alongside him in the presentation of the gospel in Iraq. The reader may remember that a local invitation was the condition which the Presbyterian mission office had set for our team at a meeting in May 1989, as I wrote about here.  Father Peter wrote a beautiful letter in Arabic, on church letterhead, and addressed it to Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick. Abuna Butros used very flowery language, respectfully asking that “Robert Blincoe be confirmed by the Presbyterian Church to live in Iraq and work for the gospel among the people of our city.” A colleague translated the letter into English, and when I made a visit to American in 1992, I mailed both copies to Dr. Kirkpatrick. Unfortunately, Kirkpatrick sent me a reply in which he wrote, “I cannot answer Father Peter’s letter; I need to hear from his bishop.”

Look up Disappointment in the dictionary; it will say, “What Blincoe felt when he read Dr. Kirkpatrick’s reply.” It seems that I needed more than an invitation from a Middle East pastor; I needed a letter from a Middle East bishop. I asked Dr. Kirkpatrick, “Can you send a reply to Father Peter? He wrote to you in such flowery language.” “I am afraid I cannot reply at all,” Dr. Kirkpatrick told me, because, as I was made to understand, this would go around the administrative process that had been arranged. When I returned to Zakho I went to see Father Peter. “Dr. Kirkpatrick greets you,” I said, “But he needs to hear from your bishop.” At this Father Peter burst out laughing. “My bishop!” He lives in Baghdad and is a puppet in the hand of Saddam Hussein. When Saddam’s military comes back to the north, the bishop will point me out as a conspirator, and I will be hung.” From this I came to realize that the Presbyterian Church, once so active in countries such as Iraq during the colonial era, when it could procure missionary visas, did not know how to operate in a post-colonial world.

Years later, after Saddam Hussein had been removed from power, Father Peter became bishop of the Chaldean Church in the governorate where we had lived. I was never able to see him again.

Presbyterian Missions–Blincoe’s Personal Observations. This is my 5th blog post in a series of 6.

1. In 1986 I applied to be a Presbyterian Missionary. I Received No Reply.

2. Meeting New Friends Who Were “All For One and One For All”

3. Which is it, “Go?” or “No Go?”

4. An “Open Sesame” Event of Considerable Interest Occurs in Iraq

5. An Iraqi Priest Writes to Louisville on my Behalf.

6. Forty Years On, What “Lighthouse and Flint” Means to Me.