ISIS’ brutal persecution in Syria was the backdrop when Murhaf Obeid wrote a special icon now taking pride of place in a Brisbane church.
Mr Obeid recently presented his icon of The Last Supper to Bracken Ridge parish priest Fr Gerry Hefferan as a gesture of gratitude for the way Fr Hefferan and the parish had welcomed him, his wife Rim, and sons Michel, now seven, and Marc, four, when they arrived in Australia as refugees.
They arrived in 2016 from Lebanon, after fleeing war-torn Syria.
Mr Obeid, an iconographer, made sure he found room for the large icon, as well as his painting brushes and colours, when he packed to leave Lebanon.
He presented the icon as an Easter gift to Fr Hefferan, who showed it to parishioners who viewed a live-streamed Mass under COVID-19 restrictions last Sunday.
Mr Obeid said the ISIS takeover in his homeland was foremost in his mind when he wrote The Last Supper icon in Lebanon in 2014.
“I was thinking about us as Christians and how we were dealing with the current situation and all the things happening at the time,” he said.
“I started with Jesus and then I started to draw Jesus’ followers – St John, Judas and all the rest, and I was thinking about how we are the same; we were doing the same at that time.
“We are like Peter – some of us were dealing with the situation like Peter. Maybe we started to fight back or just run away or just deny Jesus or just cry …
“But some of us start to be Judas; we start to betray Him; or some of us were just like John who decided to follow Him until the end, even to the Cross.
“Other people were killed just because they were Christians, especially in Maaloula (near the capital Damascus), where people are still speaking Jesus’ language – Aramaic.”
One of Mr Obeid’s brothers was there when ISIS entered the city on the way to Damascus, “… and some of his friends were killed”.
“And he told me the stories, like they asked them, ‘You’re supposed to deny Jesus …’ and these two young men, they said, ‘No, we are Christians and we will die as Christians …’ and they killed them,” he said.
“So all the background, all the stories, which I heard from people who were still living in Syria at that time and were facing these troubles (were in my mind)… like another brother was in a town where ISIS was about to arrive and he decided to sit there and do nothing.
“He decided not to keep running away but in the end ISIS didn’t arrive in that town and he was saved.
“I was drawing while at the same time I’m thinking, it just fits the reality at that time; it’s not just thinking about faith … It’s the living faith, I think, at that time.
“Some Christians, I heard, they decided just to say, ‘Yes, yes, I want to be Muslim. It’s okay, it’s okay, so I will be with you …’, because they’re sick of running and of all the troubles …
“So I think it was the same situation like the Last Supper where all Jesus’ followers were thinking about maybe the way we may all think, ‘Is this the real Jesus or not? Is this Jesus who we’ve been waiting for? Should we keep following Him or not?’
“I think it’s the same situation – the Last Supper and that situation and 2014.”
Since coming to Brisbane in 2016, the Obeids have welcomed a daughter, Angelina, now eight months old, and Murhaf has been ordained a sub-deacon in the Melkite Catholic Church.
He works for an employment and training agency, offering employment coaching, especially for migrants, and the family are about to settle into their own home in North Lakes.
Mr Obeid said he decided to give The Last Supper icon to Fr Gerry and the parish because of the way they had welcomed him and his family.
“Since we arrived here, they visited us and everyone at the church is looking after us and thinking about us,” he said.
“When we started to go to this church, we were so comfortable.
“It’s a multicultural church, with lots of people from all around the world so we were comfortable and we felt we were part of the family.
“This church made us … because when we arrived in Australia, it’s a new country, new culture, new people, new everything, and I was by myself with my family so we were alone.
“So the first connection for us was with Fr Gerry, and we started to feel like we were comfortable.
“We were part of this place, and people just welcomed us and kept trying to or thinking how they could help us.
“I kept hearing from other families how Fr Gerry and the church helped them …
“And every time I ask Fr Gerry, he is always there with his kind smile and kind face.
“And all the church members keep asking after Mass, ‘How are you? How’s the family? How’s everything?’
“I was hoping this icon would be good enough to help others to pray …”