The small Catholic community in Baghdad is celebrating the Stations of the Cross each Friday during Lent. The devotion is significant; as their chaplain reports, the cross is "what Muslim extremism hates the most" about Christianity.
Fr. Khalid Marogi is an Iraqi priest currently on assignment in the diocese of Port Pirie, Australia, ministering to immigrants and prison inmates. Recently, I spoke with him about the significance of the cross to persecuted Iraqi Christians:
Collura: Father Khalid, what is the history of the Stations of the Cross in Iraq?
Marogi: I think the Stations came from the west, from missionaries. It's not a very ancient practice in Iraq -- maybe 100 years or less -- but in Iraqi Catholic culture there's something significant about the Stations as a journey to the cross: Jesus is going through an unjust trial, an unjust torture, and an unjust death. And this is what many Christians are experiencing in their daily life.
Even before the current situation, Iraq was involved in civil war in the ’60s and ’70s, in a war with Iran in the ’80s, then the first and second Gulf Wars, and there’s been so many displaced people … I think this is what has made the Stations very special. Iraqis in the diaspora have Stations every Friday during Lent, too. It's very popular. People see their lives in these images.
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Collura: You say that in the Eastern tradition, there is often a plain cross, without the body ... ?
Marogi: We say Jesus left it for us. It’s his, but it’s also to remind us of our own cross. Jesus is like a brother who lived an experience we are living now, and we are following him, walking in his steps.
This is why ISIS has such problems with the cross. It’s created a question in the minds of all these tough fighters: all this persecution and killing, and they haven't convinced a single Christian to convert. And they think the cross is the trouble. They think that if they got rid of the crosses, maybe people would convert. So in all of the places ISIS attacks, the first thing they destroy is the cross.
Collura: For Iraqi Christians, what is the basic meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross?
Marogi: The death of Jesus represents the injustice in the world, the suffering of innocents. But it’s also an answer to violence. You don't need to combat violence with violence; you can win by using nonviolence. It can be costly; basically people are risking their lives, because there’s no guarantee their approach will win. That's why Christians who played a major role in developing the Middle East, for many centuries, always faced the ultimate price. They only did this because they believed. They didn't do it because it promised security.
Collura: When I speak with you, I have the sense that Jesus’ death means more than that we need to suffer in this life in order to have happiness in the life to come. Suffering has something to do with the struggle for justice in this world, in the here and now.
Marogi: In my Church, suffering is just part of being a Christian. It’s unjust, but their suffering is also part of practicing nonviolence, so that the suffering doesn’t make me a horrible person. When I accept my suffering it makes me a witness to my rabbi, who used nonviolence as a response to the violence he suffered.
Being a Christian in Iraq means being honest, being a person of peace, and you work hard to develop your community -- not just the Christian community, but your whole country. Christians in Iraq were never involved in a life of violence -- militias, armies, carrying weapons -- but focused on the economy and education instead. They have always been very skilled in these two fields, very creative.
Collura: Is it really true that Christians are mostly pacifists in Iraq? Why is that? There aren’t just as many pacifists, proportionately, in the Muslim community?
Marogi: Pacifism is generally unique to Christians. It's more to do with the tribal system; we Christians don't have tribalism in our community, because the faith is the center of our community, not the tribe. I don’t know, it may be because we're the minority now, but even when we had bigger numbers, we had the same approach. I think we take “turn the other cheek” literally. Some people say it's because we're weak, but I don't think so. It's because we believe in it. And we’ve never changed. Even today we've never changed.
Collura: I do remember reading about a Coptic bishop who said he forgave ISIS for murdering so many Egyptian Christians ...
Marogi: It seems like a crazy idea when you present it to somebody in the world who focuses on how strong I am and how weak my enemy is … but when extremists or fundamentalists burn a church, there's no retaliation from the Christian community. The Christian community just keeps praying, and praying for our enemies. That's always included in our prayers. If any major groups of Iraqis adopted Christian policies, Iraq could be a better place today. Because what's happening today is retaliation based on past events throughout the history of Iraq.
Collura: But where do Eastern Christians get the strength to persevere in their pacifism when it involves so much more self-sacrifice than retaliation would?
Marogi: There are ancient stories of persecution -- I don't know if they’re true -- but apparently people believed that by lining up to be killed, they could change the heart of the person holding the sword. It's hard for us to imagine, but these people always believed in changing the heart of the evildoer.
Collura: Some Americans pray the Stations of the Cross during Lent. Is there something we can learn from our Iraqi sisters and brothers who are praying them?
Marogi: In the West, we may not need the Stations so much because they’re not so related to our own situation ... but they could be. They could be said or prayed in solidarity, seeing that they’re not only related to Jesus, but to the suffering of so many Christians in today's world.
As an Iraqi Christian, you witness to your faith by the way you live every day. It’s not just at church, at mass; it's even in the way you buy food in the shop, the way you talk to people. You are always a witness to your faith as a Christian. And you know, in my tradition we believe the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith. Our first father Abraham faced the same thing.