Recently I spent eight days in northern Iraq, a unique and unforgettable experience on both personal and professional levels. My heart is filled now with new friends, travel experiences and memories of shared meals and fruitful encounters with Catholic bishops, priests, Religious and lay faithful. It is filled with stories of the joys and sufferings and hopes and dreams of the people who live and work there.
This was a journey of discovery for me — a new land, a new people, new Church rites, a new mentality. As both a Latin-rite Catholic and an American, it was fascinating and challenging to be in Iraq.
Phrases I heard repeated many times throughout my visit included “before the war” and “after the war.” Expressions such as “things were fairly good before the war” and “we feel more fear in Baghdad after the war” were common. The “war” is, of course, the ongoing one that followed America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein.
That war freed Iraqis from the despotic and merciless rule of Saddam, a man who gassed his own people, a man who killed countless people — including thousands of Kurds — through chemical warfare. It brought freedom to Iraq, but many have used that freedom not to rebuild and improve their country but to further their own agenda, to terrorize those to whom they had been subjugated or whom they despised or with whom they simply had differing opinions.
On some days, as I traversed the northern semi-autonomous and relatively safe Kurd region, I was filled with a strong hope for the future of this nation and its people who have been at war, on and off, for so long.
Other days I felt only a fragile hope that the March 7 elections would bring an improvement in peace and security, most notably for the Christians who have been persecuted and killed, especially in Mosul, Baghdad and southern Iraq.
And yet there were also days when the devastating despair that has caused Christians to leave their homes of generations became palpable to me.
The plight of Christians
Iraq is a kaleidoscope of ethnic and religious groups, of cultures and politics. The more you peer inside, the more colorful and mixed-up and complex things seem to be. The more you ask questions, the more questions you have to ask.
And the answers to the myriad questions a foreigner asks depend on who is answering them: Are they Christian or Muslim? Shiite or Sunni? Pro-Syria and Iran or pro-West? Kurd or Arab? And I have surely left out some group.
My trip was at the invitation of Iraqi bishops and two missionary friends who live in the Middle East and focus on the plight of Christians in the region. The plight of Christians, Chaldeans in particular, as they are the most numerous in Iraq, was also my focus for eight days.
Before 2003, Christians in Iraq numbered around 1.2 million. Today there are between 350,000 and 400,000.
Because Christians, who were here long before Mohammed brought Islam to the region, have been so intimately connected with the building of Iraq over decades as teachers, lawyers, bankers, architects and engineers, their flight and ever-dwindling numbers since 2003 has resulted in a substantial “brain drain.”
Prayer amidst struggles
During my visit to Kurdistan in northern Iraq, I met and spoke with five bishops, dining with two of them. I met and interviewed countless priests and nuns, all of whom are indelibly etched in my mind. These priests and nuns were the warmest, most hospitable, most loving and caring people I may have ever met. They live lives of great simplicity, but exude great joy, notwithstanding all the troubles and difficulties they face, including the daily rationing of electricity.
Some days the electricity was on for only two hours; if you can afford it, you buy or share the expense of a generator. While in the Diocese of Duhok, I learned that the electricity normally comes on for about two hours daily, sometimes three, but because there were elections, everyone had several additional hours a day of electricity.
The priests in Iraq have small flocks, and often their flocks are spread over great distances and in several parishes. Religious sisters — most of the ones I met were Chaldean Sisters of Mary Immaculate — teach and run nursery schools — schools attended by both Muslim and Christian children.
The priests and Religious love their faith, their country, and they love their people. They want to see Iraq become peaceful, secure, modern and a player on the international stage. And they know that for that to happen they need to pray — and that they need more than prayers.
The bishops in this region admit they are divided on many issues. There is an older generation, and there is the new and younger generation — Chaldean Archbishop Emil Shimoun Nona of Mosul, for example, is 42.
Bishops are divided about advising their flock to stay where they are persecuted — hundreds of families have fled to the north from Mosul in recent weeks — or migrate to a safer region or another country.
Bishops wonder if they should accept the status quo and avoid problems or show a strong, united, authoritative face to the nation — and to terrorists. Christians told me this is what they want to see from the Church. I sensed there was division among the bishops in our conversations as to whether or not they were being “authoritative.”
I interviewed Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk for my EWTN weekend radio show, “Vatican Insider.” Why, I asked bishops and priests, are Christians so persecuted? Why are they killed if they are honest people who work hard, who want to be upright citizens and who want to contribute to the common good? The answer was simple. Christians are seen as aligned with the West — with the enemy — with Europe and the United States, and with the Vatican.
The forgotten equation
And yet Christianity was born right in the Middle East.
Theories abound as to why the killings of Christians, in Mosul especially, have proliferated. Two theories dominate. First, Muslims want Iraq to be an Islamic nation, with no vestiges of the “heretical” and pro-West Christians.
Second, Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation, with ties to Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, hopes to take control of Iraq, weakening it as a power in the region and making it answerable to Tehran, Iran’s capital.
A third theory suggests that both Iran and Syria are behind the ordering of the killing of Christians. In fact, if you look at the entire Middle East, there are two areas of concern to everyone on the world scene: Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Iraq is first and foremost a story about human beings. This has generally been the forgotten equation in media reports of what is happening here. Even more forgotten is the plight of minorities, most especially of Christians.
They have been attacked and killed on the streets of Mosul and Baghdad and elsewhere simply because, when asked to show their Iraqi ID card — which states whether one is a Muslim or Christian — their card said Christian. Former Kurd Minister of Finance Sarkis Aghajan Mamendo told me that putting the religion on Iraqi ID cards is about to change — but that won’t bring the dead back to life.
‘Future great land’
I am hopeful and prayerful that the early-March elections will bring needed change to Iraq. I share the feelings of those who told me they want to see Iraq become more peaceful and secure.
A brief newspaper piece cannot do justice to the realities of Iraq and the Middle East or the realities of the Catholic Church there. I’d love to bring you on a tour of the five dioceses I visited, let you see some of the stunning churches and the chapels that serve as parishes. I’d love to take you into the homes and schools of the Iraqis I met. I’d love to have you meet the rector, Father Bashar Warda, the priests and seminarians of St. Peter’s Chaldean seminary in Erbil where I was a guest for during my pilgrimage.
But mostly I’d love to bring you the joyful and beautiful faces of the children I met — Christian and Muslim — who are the true future of this once and future great land.
Joan Lewis is EWTN’s Rome Bureau chief. To hear Lewis’ interviews with Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirku and Chaldean seminary rector Father Bashar Warda, visit www.ewtn.com/vondemand/audio/seriessearch