News: Soldiers celebrate Easter at historic monastery
Story by Sgt. Keith Vanklompenberg
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq — More than 250 service members and civilians celebrated Easter with a candlelit mass Saturday at St. Elijah Monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq.
The mass was one of three Christian services scheduled at the monastery for Easter weekend.
"This is the second time we've done this," said Capt. Patrick Van Durme, the battalion chaplain with the 1-19th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division and a Dansville, N.Y., native.
Van Durme said turnout for the event 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 Contingency Operating Base Marez, Iraq, with the Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), said he was honored to be part of the services at the 1,700-year-old monastery.
"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.
Whitaker said he expected more than 1,000 Soldiers and civilians to attend the three services.
Van Durme said the monastery has held great historical relevance throughout the ages.
Local traditional suggests the monastery was first built in the year 350 AD and the current 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, and Christians in the area have been persecuted since, said Van Durme.
"If you go back 50 years, you'll find 1,000's of Christian families in Mosul. You'll now find maybe 100," Van Durme said. "You have to wonder what it's future will be."
Whitaker said the chaplains are working 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," said Whitaker. "The plan is still ongoing."