Pastor John Shuck of Southminster Presbyterian Church of Beaverton has returned from the pilgrimage of a lifetime to the Middle East — but not to the Holy Land.
Shuck described his recent journey at a Washington County Public Affairs Forum luncheon on Monday, Dec. 3.
He was among the estimated 15 million people — and one of the few Westerners — to take part in an annual Shia Muslim gathering known as the Arbaeen, observed in Karbala, Iraq. This year's event was on Oct. 29-30, although the pilgrimage lasted two weeks.
Known in Arabic as the Ziara, the pilgrimage dwarfs the estimated 3 million annually who make the hajj, the journey that every Muslim with the financial means and the physical ability is expected to make during a lifetime to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad.
"This is the largest peaceful religious gathering in recorded history," Shuck said. "Yet most people in America have never even heard of it."
Josh Townsley, executive director of Evergreen Habitat for Humanity in Vancouver, Wash., was with Shuck on the trip.
Shuck is the host of "Progressive Spirit" and "Beloved Community" on Portland radio station KBOO. His church is on Southwest Denney Road across from the Islamic Center of Portland, a Shia mosque — and his participation in conferences at Portland State University and the Husaynia Shia Islamic Society of Greater Seattle led to his invitation to Iraq.
"I learned more about my neighbors by going to Iraq," he said.
Shuck was part of a tour group that made the 50-mile trek from Najaf to Karbala, which is in central Iraq, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. Karbala is home to a shrine to Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad — and to Shia Muslims, he is the rightful heir to Muhammad's legacy.
"I was moved by the story of Hussein and those who follow him," he said. "I wanted to be inspired by his courage."
Hussein and 72 followers were killed in the 7th century Battle of Karbala after he refused to pledge allegiance to the Umayyad caliphate. That battle, about 50 years after Muhammed's death, solidified the divide that persists today between Shiite and Sunni Islam. Hussein's half-brother Abbas also died in the battle.
A U.S. State Department advisory says: "Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism and armed conflict."
"But I went there and I never felt safer," Shuck said. "When I was in Iraq, they were shooting up people in the United States."
Iraqi police and security forces were present at the shrine, which has been a target for suicide bombers, but Shuck said he was able to walk unescorted in most places.
The tour group stayed in hotels, not tents as most pilgrims did.
Karbala, which is just under 1 million population, has no water or sewer system, and no electrical grid. Generators supply most power. But mosques, charities and others along the pilgrimage route provide food without charge.
"They were incredible hosts," Shuck said.
"When they found out that I was from America, and they found out that I was a Christian minister, they were flipping over backwards with gratitude that I came to document their story and honor them."
The pilgrimage received scant news coverage in the United States. Most American-based news media left Iraq after U.S. forces withdrew at the end of 2011. About 5,000 remain, down from a peak of 170,000 at the end of 2007.
The pilgrimage was illegal when Saddam Hussein (no relation) ruled Iraq from 1979 until 2003, when he was ousted by a U.S.-led military coalition.
"What came to me was: Here I am, representing a country that has really devastated Iraq and has not rebuilt it, yet I am welcomed there and embraced there — and I am in solidarity with them," Shuck said.
"So it was a powerful emotional experience for me."
"It was an amazing experience to go and realize that this is a walk for peace, justice — and resistance to tyranny wherever it may be.
"It means that every place and every day has its moments of injustice, but the call to respond is to say "I am with you, Hussein.' This is about who will stand for justice, regardless of religion."
Shuck said he witnessed something akin to crowd surfing at rock concerts, where a surge of people would gather at Hussein's shrine.
When he could not touch the shrine itself, he recalled, "Here was this brown hand putting my white hand up against it."
This pilgrimage was the first since Iraqi forces prevailed over the Islamic State, a fundamentalist group that seized large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Shuck said opposition to Shiites comes from fundamentalists such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which in turn emerged from the Wahabi and Salafi movements within Islam.
"All are painted with the same brush," he said, particularly by some Western journalists unfamiliar with Islam. "But Shias are victims."
During a question-and-answer session, Shuck said that while the United States is not viewed favorably in Iraq — partly because of the war and partly because of its alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia — "individual Americans are, and that was the point to my going over there."
Link to Washington County Public Affairs Forum presentation by the Rev. John Shuck of Southminster Presbyterian Church on Dec. 3:
On ending U.S. support for Saudis in Yemen
The Rev. John Shuck says if the Saudi killing of a journalist prompts Congress to cut off U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, it would be a good thing.
Following a Nov. 28 briefing by the secretaries and state and defense, Oregon's two U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, voted to place a measure (Senate Joint Resolution 54) for a direct vote by the full Senate later this month. Both are cosponsors of the resolution, which chief author is independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. President Trump has threatened a veto.
The day after an appearance by Shuck, pastor of the Southminster Presbyterian Church of Beaverton, CIA Director Gina Haspel described the agency's knowledge about the killing, which took place Oct. 2 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
"I hope it did have some effect" to prompting congressional action, Shuck said after a Dec. 3 talk at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum. "That would be a positive thing to come out of it."
— Peter Wong
NOTE: Adds comment by the Rev. John Shuck on congressional movement toward ending U.S. support of Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
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