KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A group of people carried a large wooden cross to the back of a modest chapel at the Kandahar military base, but they were not Christian worshippers marking Good Friday.
They were Muslims preparing to make use of the plywood building for traditional Friday prayers - to be led one last time by a young Canadian officer who's going home soon to Petawawa, Ont.
Capt. Amir ElMasri, 29, of 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, said he never thought he would have led some 40 religious ceremonies during his tour of duty in the war-ravaged country.
Muslims on the coalition base - mostly expatriate civilian workers - were looking for someone fluent in English and Arabic to head their prayer services.
ElMasri, who grew up in Kuwait and is of Egyptian descent, fit the bill. "I was told I'd been volunteered," he said in an interview.
"I'm far from being an expert on Islam, I only did your basic Islamic studies. This is purely a voluntary effort for the well-being of the community on the Kandahar base."
He rarely had time to attend a service in a mosque when he's back in Canada. So he's been reading about his faith in books and online in order to prepare for the Friday prayers he led.
He kept his sermons very simple.
"Islam doesn't require it to be elaborate. A simple subject can give you the drive to continue in your duty as a Muslim until the next week."
Friday prayers are very important but one doesn't have to be an imam to officiate, ElMasri said.
The Kandahar base has two places of worship used by a number of religions. Many of the international coalition of forces have their own religious leaders. The buildings are converted for use by different faiths with a few adjustments.
For this particular service, the cross was removed from the wall and a curtain was drawn so that the altar and a stained glass window were out of view. Then prayer mats were spread on the floor near the front. A veiled female reporter was asked to move to the back because her arms were uncovered.
ElMasri said he's not bothered that the prayers were held in a church building because in the end it's a house dedicated to the Creator, no matter the religion.
There were only some 20 worshippers at first, but others slowly turned up. By the end of the ceremony, more than 50 were in attendance.
Their faces and skin colour reflected the diversity of contemporary Islam, faithfuls coming from places as far apart as Bosnia and Indonesia. Some wore traditional embroidered trousers; others sported baseball caps flipped backward.
ElMasri told them about the importance not only of reading the Qur'an but of understanding it.
"It's like a car that needs to be warmed in winter," he said. "Hearts also need to be warmed up to truly understand the Qur'an."
He alternated with apparent ease between English and Arabic while reading from the Suras, or chapters, of the Muslim holy book.
At the end of the service, a number of the faithfuls came forward to say their goodbyes.
"I've found this a experience very gratifying," ElMasri said. "I never thought I'd get so much from it."
Many of the faithful are of Indian, Pakistani and Turkish origin - and were impressed that he was fluent in Arabic, he said.
"I could read their enthusiasm. They would come see me, take my hand and tell me how happy they were to see me. That was my reward, that's what motivated me, because honestly, my schedule was full and it was often hard to find the time to prepare each Friday's sermon."
"A new door has been opened for me," he said. "I'm planning on becoming a Muslim military chaplain for the Canadian Forces. I've spoken with the main chaplains already."
He's aware that Taliban insurgents lay claim to the religious cause, but he believes that education will be the source of peace that will push out the extremists.