By Army Spc. Darryl L. Montgomery
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 11, 2009 - U.S. soldiers took part in a rare celebration of religious and cultural proportions here recently during a Catholic Mass performed by the acting bishop of Basra, Iraq. The Aug. 8 Mass was celebrated in the historically Persian-rooted Chaldean Rite in honor of the soldiers serving here. Unlike regular services for U.S. soldiers, Bishop Imad Al Banna, a priest and native of Basra, spoke Aramaic, an ancient language spoken in Palestine in the time of Jesus, and still spoken in parts of Iraq.
Banna, who visited with Multinational Division South leaders in early July, led the Catholic service, hosting nearly 50 people in the small room. The Mass was a chance for servicemembers to have fellowship with the leader of the local church here, and for the bishop to minister to them, said Army Chaplain (Capt.)Kevin Peek, a chaplain with the 4th Infantry Division's 8th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Battalion.
"It was a great opportunity to expose our men and women to the local Christian population of Basra province," Peek said.
Fighting in Iraq has taken a heavy toll on the Christian population here, said Peek, an Atlanta native. Before the war began in 2003, about 1.2 million Christians were in Iraq. Six years later, that number is down to about 600,000, he said.
Extremist groups have targeted Christians throughout these years of violence, Peek said. The Christian population is trying to help make peace throughout the country by helping everyone they can, he said.
"I work for all people in Basra, not only Christians," Banna said. "Our goal is to create a peaceful coexistence among all religions."
Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Morris, a Multinational Division South chaplain, said he commends Banna for working through the hardships his religion has faced during the years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "He is a great example of a good shepherd," he said.
As the service concluded, Banna told the congregation that he would help them with anything he could, just as he does for the people of Basra. For more than an hour after the liturgy, he sat with soldiers sharing food and posing for pictures.
He also said he was grateful to be with the American soldiers for the Mass and thanked them for what they are doing for his country.
"We Catholics believe that the Last Supper was the first Mass, and that every Mass that has followed is a reenactment of that first one," said Army Sgt. Neil McCabe, a field historian for the division's 311th Military History Detachment. "Tonight, we heard a Mass celebrated in the same language that Jesus used in that first Mass. How cool is that?"
"I will never forget this day," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Ulmen, a mortuary affairs noncommissioned officer with the 34th Infantry Division, and a Minnesota resident. "It was an incredible experience to attend a Mass conducted by an Iraqi bishop, definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
(Army Spc. Darryl L. Montgomery serves with the Multinational Division South public affairs office)