Iraq #4: Iraq is Holy Ground

by Tony Lorenz

“Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”  Exodus 3:5

Iraq is holy ground. I realize this more and more each hour, each day, each trip. My first trip to Iraq was a year ago, a whirlwind of visits and flights punctuated by prayers, tears and amazing meals.

This visit has been no less a whirlwind but with fewer flights. Sunday morning did, however, find us on a big yellow bus headed from Erbil to Kirkuk in order to visit and worship with our brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian church.

The smooth border crossing from Kurdistan enabled us to keep our first appointment of the day with Yousif Thomas Mirkis, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. As we listened to this humble servant of God tell us about his ministry we were amazed. Some of these ministries include: a kindergarten and school, a training center for Muslim girls to learn life skills, and a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients who are often abandoned by families.

As he spoke of working with the other Iraqi Christians and religious minorities, Archbishop Yousif Thomas said, “I am a bishop for Iraq, not just Chaldean Christians. If Iraq improves it will be better for all people, including religious minorities.”

As we said goodbye to the archbishop, we headed to another piece of holy ground, a place full of life and joy, the Good News Kindergarten and Nursery run by the Kirkuk Presbyterian Church. Young faces greeted us with waves and shy smiles as we visited the colorful classrooms. The overwhelming majority of the 250 students are Muslim, but their parents are happy to have them in a Christian school where they are learning the values of honesty and truth and where they are experiencing love and compassion. Education is a precious commodity in Iraq and the Presbyterians are continuing the great heritage of the Reformed Tradition by educating the next generation.

After an enormous lunch, we made our way to the holy ground of the Presbyterian church. This is indeed holy ground where 17 families (73 individuals) found refuge in 2014. The refugees were forced to flee from the historic Christian villages of the Nineveh Plain as ISIS advanced. First, they came to Erbil and then to Kirkuk where the Rev. Haitham Jazrawi and the people of the church welcomed them. Sunday school rooms, offices, and even the church library were converted into apartments for the Christian refugees. As more and more Christians arrived, the church kept opening its doors and The Outreach Foundation was one of the main supporters who stepped up to help financially and prayerfully.

In 2018 when I visited there were still four families living at the church as others had begun to make their way home. Today only one family remains. They have found work and a good life and now plan to stay in Kirkuk. They will be welcome at the church as long as they need to stay.

As we gathered for worship on Sunday evening, God’s presence was felt in abundance. Team member, Mike Kuhn, preached, commending the congregation for sharing Christ’s love in such a dark and difficult time. Like all good Presbyterians we gathered for food and fellowship after worship. We even had a little surprise, a birthday cake for Rev. Nuhad Tomeh.

As we drove back to Erbil Sunday night, our hearts and stomachs were full and even though our feet were tired we knew we had been walking on holy ground.