Soldiers celebrate Easter at historic monastery

Story and photo by Sgt. Keith S. VanKlompenberg
139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Public Affairs

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq — More than 600 service members and civilians celebrated Easter with weekend services April 3 and 4 at St. Elijah Monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq, at Contingency Operating Base Marez.

A candlelit Mass was held April 3 and two other services were held April 4 at the 1,700-year-old structure.

"This is the second time we've done this," said Capt. Patrick Van Durme, the battalion chaplain with 1st Battalion, 19th Field Artillery, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division and a Dansville, N.Y., native.

Van Durme said turnout for the events was large and included civilian workers from around the world and from the Mosul area, which has the largest Christian population in Iraq.

"It's an amazing thing for them," he said.

First Lt. Geoffrey Whitaker, the garrison chaplain at COB Marez with the Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), said he was honored to be part of the services.

"To get to celebrate Easter in the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq … it's a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Whitaker, a Murphy, N.C., native.

Sgt. 1st Class Bobby Brooks, a shop foreman with A Battery, RFS, 278th ACR and a Sevierville, Tenn., native, said it was a privilege to experience so many cultures coming together in a historic location to celebrate Easter.

Brooks said he was most impressed with the group of Ugandan guards who performed a song in their native language.

"It's a blessing to be here and witness this," he said.

Van Durme said the monastery has held great historical relevance throughout the ages.

Local tradition suggests the monastery was first built in the year 350 A.D. and the existing structure was probably added 1,000 years later, he said.

In 1743, the monks and orphans at the monastery were killed by a Persian leader for refusing to convert to Islam. Christians in the area have been persecuted since, said Van Durme.

"If you go back 50 years, you'll find thousands of Christian families in Mosul," he said. "You'll now find maybe 100. You have to wonder what its future will be."

Whitaker said the chaplains work with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mosul to preserve the monastery and repair structural damage that has occurred in the years since the U.S. came to Iraq.

"The Department of the Army has signed on to do some restoration," he said. "The plan is still ongoing."

Whitaker said the monastery is open for tours every Friday, for service members and civilians interested in learning more about its history.


news photo
Sgt. William Olivier, a paralegal with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Smyrna, Tenn., native, holds a candle during Mass April 3 at St. Elijah Monastery at Contingency Operating Base Marez, Iraq.