Monday, September 04, 2006

The Conditional Republic and the Babylonian Captivists

During a break from his work in Baghdad, Christian Isely took a trip with a friend to a "must on any traveler’s itinerary in the Middle East."

Baghdad Despatch # 23
Baghdad — January 10, 2005

Israel, the Conditional Republic

After leaving Lebanon, Ryan and I traveled to Israel. The striking feature of the country is the difference between the secular and the religious and no two cities epitomize that difference more than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. However, in both cities, we found the Israelis to be extremely friendly and I think they have the most honest taxi cab drivers of any country. Jerusalem of course, has a high population of Orthodox Jewish sects. As for Tel Aviv, I do not remember seeing a single yamaka. Tel Aviv in appearance is very much like a Southern European city complete with good restaurants and nightclubs. The only reminder that one is in Israel is the fact that everyone speaks Hebrew.

As an interesting anecdote, during our visit to the traditional tomb of King David, we overheard an Israeli tourist guide lecturing about Israeli politics. He stated that Israel is a conditional republic and that when the Messiah comes, he will become king and Israel would become a monarchy. I don’t imagine a majority of Israelis hold this view however I thought the perspective on how the apocalypse would affect the government structure of Israel fascinating.

As far as the mission in Iraq goes, most Israelis we talked to seem strangely disinterested in our work. This was a bit of letdown seeing as we just came from Lebanon where people took a keen interest in the matter. In the nightclubs of Beirut, when one mentions that one works in Iraq, it serves as a great conversation starter. Not in Israel.


Jerusalem was clearly one of the highlights of the entire trip. Its ancient beauty and holiness is marred only by the super aggressive street merchants and tour guides. Of course this is nothing new. We were simply the most recent of thousands of years of pilgrims to be set upon by these persistent entrepreneurs.

We hit all the major sites save for the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Unfortunately, these are not very tourist accessible (partly because of the Muslim call to prayer that occurs five times a day). However, we did see the Western Wall (the original wall of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where many Christians believe Christ was crucified and buried), and the Via Dolorosa (the traditional path along which Christ carried the cross to Golgotha.) As for the Western Wall, the Israelis have dug a tunnel along the old temple wall underneath the Arab Quarter where one can see the various layers of history from the Macabees to the Crusaders. This is a personalized tour complete with guide. They even provide you with a bodyguard at the tunnel exit in the Arab Quarter.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a must for anyone with a Christian background and it is jointly administered by the Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic Churches. The Greeks have all the best real estate and the Ethiopian Coptics are relegated to the roof since they had to exchange their real estate for food a couple hundred years ago. The keys of the church are held by a Muslim family since none of the various Christian denominations could decide amongst themselves who should possess the honor. During the Orthodox Easter, a spontaneous flame apparently appears in the Tomb and Syrians and Armenians rush to capture it first. Unfortunately, this almost always results in a physical brawl and stabbings.

On Sunday, we attended a Syrian Orthodox mass conducted in Arabic and Aramaic (the language of Christ) and later took part in a candle-lit procession with the Franciscans through the church. The chanting of Latin echoed throughout the dark halls as we visited the last 4 Stations of the Cross. I will always remember this procession as one of the most beautiful and spiritual experiences of my life.

I must mention of course that there is another Tomb that is revered by Christian Protestants just outside the Old City. I hear that above the entrance of the cave there is a sign that says something to the effect that “He is not here.”

The Chief Sephardic Rabbi

Ryan and I had the good fortune of meeting up with Father Andrew in Jerusalem. Ryan had met Father Andrew in Baghdad. He is an Anglican canon who specializes in backdoor religious diplomacy in the Middle East. Ryan got to know him because he was helping to raise funds for St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, a church Father Andrew had been also supporting. In Baghdad, Father Andrew had also been engaged in hostage negotiations and religious diplomacy between prominent clerical leaders in Iraq. In addition, he has also been very active in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process also via backdoor religious channels. He was also the primary mediator when some Palestinians seized the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem a couple years ago. Anyway, he is well connected in the Middle East and knows a wide variety of people from Sunni and Shia clerics in Iraq to Palestinian ministers to prominent Israeli rabbis and politically connected Christian Americans.

Upon reaching Jerusalem, Ryan and I met up with Father Andrew and he invited us to attend a very unique meeting with the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. To provide some background, Rabbi Yosef is in his 80’s and was born in Baghdad. He is widely seen as a king maker of Israeli politicians. He is the spiritual head of the conservative Shas party. Our meeting was apparently the first time he had agreed to meet with Gentiles in over ten years.

We drove up to his neighborhood in Jerusalem. It looked like any normal modern middle class neighborhood of apartment buildings that you would find in the States. We parked just in front of his building where we met some Sephardic rabbis dressed in the very traditional dark suits and hats common among the Hasidim. Unfortunately, Father Andrew’s young aid, Guinivere, was not allowed to join the meeting since women were not seen as a welcome presence. She was quite upset. Well, we went up without her to the Rabbi’s library apartment. It truly was a library – thousands of books lining all the walls. I think only the kitchen was the exception.

Suddenly, the revered Rabbi entered with his entourage of handlers and the leader of the Shas party, Eli Yishai. The Rabbi looked like an incredibly wise gnome – also with a dark suit and hat in addition to thick sunglasses. We sat after he sat and got down to greetings and formalities. Father Andrew spoke English while another Rabbi translated. He opened first by extending the greetings of Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq! I don’t know if it was true or not – could it have been just some diplomatic ploy? More importantly, Rabbi Yosef accepted the greetings and extended the same to Al Sistani.

Most of the ensuing conversation covered the Ancient Hebrew heritage in Iraq and the Rabbi asked Father Andrew to use his influence to secure many of the Jewish historical pieces still in Iraq for eventual shipment to Israel. Father Andrew promised to do his best. Throughout the conversation, Ryan and I just watched in awe while drinking the Coke served to us. Eventually, the meeting came to a satisfactory close and Rabbi Yosef blessed our party by slapping our faces! Then, Ryan, Father Andrew, and I posed for a picture with the rabbi. I shall remember it always. For the Sephardim, it was the equivalent of visiting the Pope.

Christian Zionists and Charismatics

Father Andrew also took us to dinner with an interesting group of American Christian Zionists and Charismatics. Forgive me a moment to define these terms since I was previously unfamiliar myself. For those truly learned in these matters, forgive me my inaccuracies.

Christian Zionists are Christians who believe that the Holy Land should be the homeland of the Jews. (That is not to say that this necessarily precludes peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians.) This belief is due to scripture and in part it is meant to be a prelude to the Second Coming and the Apocalypse. We had dinner at a Christian Zionist home and what I found most interesting was that there was not one reference to Christianity in the entire place. Rather, their home was entirely decorated with menorahs, shofars, Stars of David, and other assortments of Judaica. I also got the feeling that this group has a great deal of political clout. Apparently, one of them helps to organize the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington at the Cedars. In fact, some of our hosts went to DC to pray and “intercede” for a Bush victory during our Presidential election last fall. Of course, anyone familiar with American politics is also familiar with the discussion of the Jewish Lobby and their effect on US foreign policy and its support for Israel. However, Christian Zionists also should not be left out of the discussion.

As for Charismatics, I am still trying to understand exactly who they are. Therefore, what I now relate may not apply to all of them but definitely applies to some. Charismatics are Christians who relate in some way to various religious revivals in the last three decades. One of them told me the Charismatic movement was started at the University of Notre Dame during a Bishops’ conference in the 70s. Later, there followed religious revivals in Britain, Canada, and most recently, Pensacola, Florida. Charismatics put a very strong emphasis on a direct relationship with God. (Although I think most religions tend to claim this.) In a way, it seems that they have stripped away a great deal of the “intervening” clergy. Charismatics are also known to “speak in tongues”. Upon entering into a discussion with one of them, I asked if this was the universal language of angels and if it can be universally understood by more than us mortals. Actually, it is apparently not universally understood by angels and no mortal can really understand much of any of it and there is not much of any real syntax or established vocabulary. It sounds very strange to the ear almost like baby babbling. I have never heard anything like it.

Back to our dinner with this interesting assortment of people. I will also mention that the home where we dined was also decked out with many patriotic symbols including the American flag. The table cloth was a paper one with a pattern of fireworks – perfect for a 4th of July BBQ! Naturally, we began our meal by saying grace. This was not led by anyone in particular so most people just started saying their own prayers out loud. Some even broke out in tongues. After several minutes of this, we all sang the “National Anthem” followed by “God Bless America”. I had certainly never started off a meal like that before!

Conversation started on the subject of Iraq and Ryan and I told everyone what we do there. This was followed by the Charismatics telling us about their various visions and direct experiences with God – some of this can be initiated by a third person who simply prays for the subject. The subject will often times collapse on the ground and be overcome by the “Power and Glory of God”. Apparently, one woman’s lips were burnt by this power and had blisters for over a week. During the Pensacola Revival, this kind of activity would happen for about 5 hours every night. I asked them if anyone ever got hurt from falling to the ground. Fortunately, they had people stationed around the church to catch anyone who fell.

The Captivists

What is striking about Iraq in particular is that it possesses tremendous religious importance for not only Muslims but also for Jews and Christians. Sites relating to Abraham through to the Babylonian Captivity are important to all three religions. In fact, Ezekiel’s tomb is located outside of Najaf in southern Iraq. (Ezekiel lived during the Babylonian Captivity after the Jews were conquered by the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, in the 6th century BCE.) The tomb is located inside a 6th century AD synagogue and Ezekiel Chapter 43 is written in Hebrew along the top of the walls. The Shia of the area revere this place as being extremely holy. Given its tremendous relevance to Christians, Muslims, and Jews, I’m thinking it would be a strong candidate for World Heritage Site status.

Some of the Charismatic Christians we met in Israel hold a very interesting belief relating to the Babylonian Captivity. Simply put, some people believe that the “Power and Glory of God” traveled with the Jews to Babylon after their conquest by Nebuchadnezzar and that it did not return to Jerusalem with them after their liberation by the Persian Emperor, Cyrus, but stayed in Babylon and is still in Iraq to this day. It is also believed that the “Power and Glory” will be revealed when Babylon has fallen. Some believe that the toppling of Saddam Hussein represents this second fall of Babylon. I am not sure what is supposed to happen next but I am trying to understand how the return of the “Power and Glory” relates to stability and democracy in Iraq. For lack of a better term, I have decided to refer to these believers as “Captivists” in reference to the Babylonian Captivity. I am not proposing that US policy is driven by this train of thought but I do think that it is a factor and has the potential to spark even more interest among devout Christians in the US in the future. Where these religious energies are channeled to provide funding for the restoration of spiritually important sites and to help foster greater understanding between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the upside is potentially very large. After all, we are all the children of Abraham of Iraq.

To the promise of 2005!

After Note - Israel is must on any traveler’s itinerary in the Middle East. I have included the picture with Rabbi Yosef and an Iraqi painting of said picture commissioned by Ryan as a gift for Father Andrew. It is highly representative of Iraqi Surrealist-Realist art as I call it. I should have commissioned some paintings myself.

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