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An Interfaith Peace Service in Baghdad

This is a letter from Eliyahu McLean, a leader in an interfaith peace movement in Israel/Palestine, who spoke in Palo Alto last year at Grace Lutheran Church and Congregation Kol Emeth. This letter reports his moving journey to Iraq for an interfaith prayer service in Baghdad on the first anniversary of the U.S. war on Iraq.

It is an unusual letter of hope in a time when hope seems scarce. We include it on our website with his permission. (If you wish to receive occasional email updates directly from the Holy Land about his "heart bridge building work" email Eliyahu McLean at

Dear friends,

Most of the news coming from the Middle East these days is discouraging, both from the Holy Land and from Iraq. This report I hope will serve as a point of light amidst the darkness.

On the anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, March 20th, a group of religious leaders came together in Baghdad to pray for the peace of Iraq and of the whole world. I was part of an interfaith delegation that traveled to Iraq to join a prayer gathering at the National Theater in central Baghdad.

We met in Amman, on Wednesday March 17th. James Twyman, a musician and spiritual peace activist, invited me to be part of a colorful group to travel overland from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad. In our group was Jose Arguelles, an expert on the Mayan calendar and prophecies and his apprentice; Chief Arvol Looking Horse, chief of the Sioux nation and 19th generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo pipe, with his 20 year old daughter Grace. Also joining us were Yarovit, a shaman from Russia and his translator; Warigia, a spiritual teacher from Kenya; and Sofia van Surksum, from Durango, Colorado, who helped with the logistics of the trip.

As we first gathered together in our hotel in Amman, we heard on the news that night that a hotel in downtown Baghdad had been bombed and many people killed. The news just strengthened our resolve about the importance of our mission and we decided to continue with the journey.

On Thursday morning we left Amman for the Iraqi border, driven by two Iraqi Chaldean Christian drivers. On the way, I said 'Tfillat Haderech', the Jewish prayer for a safe journey and Arvol said a Lakota prayer. In my car I learned a little spoken Aramaic from our driver Sahel, e.g. 'hashlama alukhum' means 'peace be upon you'.

After we crossed the Iraqi border we stopped and held a small prayer circle for the safety and success of our journey to Baghdad. Jose Arguelles offered a Mayan blessing. Chief Arvol said "creator help us make this journey of peace...many people are praying for world peace and harmony and are praying with us." Warigia offered a prayer in Swahili, I offered a prayer in Hebrew and Yarovit shared an invocation in Russian.

Just inside the border I noticed a monument in the form of missiles pointed towards Israel. I had been on the receiving end of missiles from Iraq during the first Gulf War, so it was a bit unnerving. Our drive took 10 1/2 hours, and after hours of driving through vast and seemingly empty desert, we finally saw lots of trees and green as we approached the Euphrates River and passed the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.

When we arrived to the Arab Palace hotel in downtown Baghdad, we were welcomed by Donna, an Australian, and Ra'id, a young Iraqi. Donna talked about her work in Baghdad- the centers she founded to help Iraqi youth to heal from the traumas of war. We also found out that our hotel was just 3 blocks from the hotel that had been bombed the night before. Indeed from the window of my hotel room on the 7th floor I could see the damaged hotel.

That night there were rolling power blackouts, which are a regular part of life in Baghdad. We heard the sounds of tanks driving by. We were a bit anxious when we heard a very loud explosion outside. We soon learned that such sounds can be heard on most nights.

On Friday the 19th, several from our group went to the largest Sufi mosque in Baghdad to invite Sufis to come to the next days' prayer gathering. Approaching the main gate, we walked past vendors selling prayer beads, scarves and holy books. Standing in the alley were some young Sufis singing and chanting with their drums, with an aura of joy around them. We entered the large sanctuary, which surrounds the tomb of one of the most revered Sufi saints, Abdul Qadir al-Jilani.

Inside the courtyard we were led to meet with the head sheikh. He welcomed us to his office and said "Islam is a religion of peace... we respect all religions, including Judaism and Christianity". Leaving the mosque, we approached the Sufis we saw earlier and handed them a flyer inviting them to the gathering at the National Theater.

That afternoon, Friday, we walked to the National Theater and were welcomed by the director who explained that the theater was being renovated after its furnishings were looted after the war. The theater staff welcomed us all warmly, even me when I told them I was Jewish and live in Israel. We sang a few songs in rehearsal for the ceremony the next day.

On Saturday afternoon, March 20th, leaders representing the diversity of Iraq's religious traditions, some local Iraqis and camera crews from different media outlets began to show up at the National Theater. The first Iraqi religious leaders to arrive were several Sunni Muslim sheikhs from Baghdad followed by the group of Sufi drummers who we met the day before. A Chaldean bishop and several Christian mystics also came.

In addition we were joined by a Shiite cleric, who teaches at a very unique theological institute, the Hilla School of Religion in Hilla, south of Baghdad. This school teaches young Iraqis about tolerance between the religions, including teaching Christian and Judaic texts.

To read more about this school see the article 'New Iraqi school spans chasms between religions' at:

James Twyman opened the ceremony by singing the Lord's Prayer from the Christian tradition. "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...where there is hatred let me bring love."

Then Chief Arvol Looking Horse told a story from his people the Lakota, Dakota, & Nakota Great Sioux nation. After a great race in the Black Hills of South Dakota between all of creation the two leggeds (humans) won. The eagles offered to protect humanity by flying high in the sky to bless the earth. However they could only be held aloft if people prayed for them with offerings of tobacco, song and prayers. The prayers became weak and now eagles are found in trash pits. Since we are all connected humanity is unhealthy- we see now black clouds of viruses and disease. It is a warning from the Animal Nation to humanity that we must again pray for peace and care for Mother Earth.

Jose Arguelles played a flute and spoke as a messenger of the Mayan tradition. He explained that in the Mayan calendar, time began in 3133 BC in Uruk (ancient Iraq) and that this cycle will close in 2012. According to the Mayan prophecy, as the end of that cycle approaches things will accelerate and seem chaotic. Only if we can learn to live in harmony by the closing of this cycle then the coming universal religion will be the religion of peace. "I came to take this message to Baghdad, close to the original Uruk, to help fulfill the prophecy".

Then Sufi Sheikh Ahmad Aziz and three other Qadiri Sufis chanted in Arabic and played their handheld drums, which was quite moving for everyone. Three Iraqi children sang, bringing the voice of the next generation. Then Yarovit, dressed in leather and fur offered a shamanic ritual dance and chant. He then chanted "for peace, for love, al-hamdulilah", getting everyone to sing with him.

Warigia from Kenya brought blessings for the Iraqi people from the elders of her country. Then she read out a letter written by her 10-year-old daughter Nyambura. "War won't solve anything. If they just put their guns down...they will see that killing is only hurting. They don't see we are all one big family in heart and spirit. So find peace and love within yourselves and there will be no more wars." The letter touched everyone's hearts.

The Shiite cleric from Hilla, Shiek Abd Al-Jalil Al-Taei told us: "I believe in the love religion everywhere I go, this is my religion. How much we need the dew points of clemency instead of the hell of begrudgements... Our mission for peace and unity is an urgent necessity. Putting the bridges between us is better than deepening the pits. We must realize the sanctity and hugeness of the message we carry, which belongs to all the prophets."

The Sunni sheikh had some harsh criticism of the policies of Israel and of the American presence in Iraq. He added an invocation calling for peace and justice.

Then the Asst. Patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Baghdad, Shlemone Warduny, spoke about his ancient Christian community in Iraq and offered prayers of peace for the people of Iraq and the world. Sister Nadira Khayyat from the Carmelite monastery in Baghdad offered a prayer for peace in Jesus' name in Aramaic.

As the last speaker I was uncertain how I would be received as an openly religious Jew, wearing a kippah and peyot. The audience relaxed when I spoke in Arabic, apologizing that I only speak a little of the Palestinian dialect and not the Iraqi. I said "I come from Jerusalem, the holy city for all our religions. Remember that the Jews lived side by side with their Arab neighbors here in Iraq for thousands of years. The second most holy book in our tradition was written here and is named after Babylon-- it's called the 'Talmud Bavli'."

And then I said "we are near Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, our shared father and therefore we, the children of Isaac and you the children of Ishmael, are brothers. Also know that many Jews are working with their Palestinian friends for peace and understanding. Of the Holy Land, everyone agrees it is G-d's Land. Ultimately we are all the children of Adam and Eve and thus all one family, the human family. " The Iraqis could all be seen nodding in agreement.

Then we all went outside to dedicate a peace pole in front of the National Theater, adjacent to one of the busiest traffic circles in Baghdad. As we reached to touch the pole and offer a blessing for peace, I got everyone to chant together first in Arabic "a-Salaam il'alam ajma'u", and then in English, "may peace prevail on earth". It was quite a magical moment to see us all openly gathered at such a public spot in the center of Baghdad.

We then held up the peace banners and posed together for pictures. Even though we were told it was risky if we lingered outside as a group for much longer, no one wanted to leave. Many felt it to be a historic moment. Ra'id shaking his head in disbelief, said, "Its a miracle - what happened here today," he said. A miracle for Iraq.' "People will talk about this for a long time."

Donna later wrote 'we had been warned that it was dangerous to bring a Jew into Iraq. The anti-Jewish feeling here is strong and deep. "Muslims sitting with a Jewish man to pray for peace! Its unheard of," Raid exclaimed. That night at our hotel we gathered to sing for James Twyman on his birthday and to honor him for this amazing gathering that he, Donna and others had organized. Yerovit led a shamanic meditation. Then I led our group, with Iraqi friends in attendance, to sing and dance together for havdalah, the traditional Jewish end of Shabbat ceremony.

In our last night in Baghdad, Grace, the daughter of the Sioux chief, and I were invited to the home of our driver Sahel in New Baghdad. There we met his family- his parents and siblings and their wives. We spent the evening comparing words in the Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and Lakota languages.

On Sunday morning we drove back to Amman feeling both a sense of accomplishment and relief. At the Iraq-Jordan border I noticed that the monument of missiles had been taken down. It seemed a sign.

In the lobby of our hotel in Amman, some of us came across a group of Iraqi tribal leaders, each representing the largest tribes in central Iraq. They were delighted to hear that we had just come from downtown Baghdad to pray for peace with the people of Iraq. One sheik said, "we are proud that Abraham is an Iraqi...anytime you want to come back to Iraq you are most welcome as our guests".

I returned to the Holy Land to news of increased tensions after the Yassin assassination and of even deeper crisis in Iraq. Nonetheless I can't help but feel that seeds were planted that day in Baghdad. Our Iraqi friend Ra'id said about our gathering: "We have a long way to go, but maybe this is the first step."

This report was prepared with the help of Donna Mulhearn.

To see some great pictures of this gathering, visit:

Shalom, Salaam,

Eliyahu McLean, Rodef Shalom, 'Pursuer of Peace'

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