A Memoir of Babylon, 10 Years Later

People around the world recently took notice of two high-profile events in the life of the Church: the inauguration of the pontificate of His Holiness Pope Francis, and the enthronement of the new spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend & Right Honourable Justin Welby. A busy week indeed.

Yet, even as I attended the pope’s joyous inauguration and first audience in Rome, there was another, somber event in my thoughts: The day also marked the 10-year anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq and the tragic refugee situation it created.

In January 2003, I was invited along with other religious leaders in France to go to Iraq. The acting head of the Chaldean Church, the Patriarch of Babylon Emmanuel Delly, wanted as many Western Christian leaders to take note of their fears on the eve of the war that the United States was threatening to unleash. Both the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, whom I represent in Europe, and the then-new Archbishop of Canterbury, desired a strong Anglican presence, not just as a show of solidarity with the Christian and Mandaean communities, but to help give voice to these precarious minorities. (The text of my report with pictures is here.)

As the start of the war approached quickly, the other religious leaders who had initially accepted to travel with me would change their plans. By then, however, Canterbury had paid my plane fare. So, just one month later, three weeks before the beginning of the war, I went. My oldest friend, Jean-Michel Cadiot, an Iraq specialist, and his friend Yako Elish, an Iraqi businessman resident in France, would accompany me. Elish, the Patriarch’s lay representative in Paris, would also serve as my guide.

Baghdad, we found, was generally resigned to a seventh war in 40 years. U.N. sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War had bitten hard. Medical supplies, in particular, were scarce. UNESCO estimates that one million Iraqis, half of them children, died as a result during those twelve years. Only Saddam and his sons, as well as their buddies, profited from those years.

The Christians and Mandaeans were unashamed to tell how afraid they were of the consequences of the war. In 2003, Iraqi Christians, Mandaeans and Muslims shared a peaceful co-existence, living as neighbors. But Christians feared that Iraq would disintegrate and they would be severely oppressed. As these Christians have been present on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates since the first century of our era, they have long memories of intermittent persecutions and longtime suppression by Muslim rulers.

As we now know, their worst fears were not only realized, but they could not have imagined what actually was going to happen. The largest migration in recorded history of the Middle East took place: 2.8 million Iraqis fled, 1 million inside the country as displaced people, and another 1.8 million as refugees. Of the more than 1 million Christians in Iraq in 2003, today there are fewer than 300,000. No one knows how many Iraqis have died in the past 10 years as a result of the war: estimates range between 100,000 and 1.5 million. The British medical journal The Lancet calculated a total of 650,000.

For me, my trip initiated changes in my life. In 2007, I received pleas for help from an Iraqi family with whom I had spent a night during my 2003 trip. The family’s mother had been killed in a church bombing in Baghdad, and they had decided to stick it out in her honor. But now they were being directly targeted with death as Christians. Told to relinquish their home and wealth, or else give a daughter in marriage to a fanatic, or leave Iraq — or die — they were looking for a way out.

The U.S. Ambassador, a good Episcopalian, explained to me with tears in his eyes that U.S. law then forbade delivering visas to Iraqis in-country. I turned to the French government. The foreign minister then, Bernard Kushner, had just been to Baghdad and seen the plight of Christians. An initial goal of 500 refugees was set.

In order to identify those who would eligible under the 1951 Geneva Convention for refugee status as people directly threatened with death for reasons of their faith, Elish, Jean-Michel, and I along with others formed a non-profit corporation called l’Association d’entraide aux minorities d’Orient. Eventually we helped rescue 1,300 Iraqis, mostly Christians but with some Muslims as well. They now live in safety in France, but as a rule they want to return to Iraq.

But they cannot, yet. Iraq is still the hellhole it became after 2003, even worse than under the monster who was Saddam Hussein. The government is ineffectual, and much of it is under Iranian influence. There remains a real possibility that the country will split among a Kurdish territory, a Shiite land and a Sunni enclave. (Iraq was after all an artificial creation by the British.) That could lead to a wider war, experts warn.

Since the end of 2012, there have been regular, massive protests by Iraqis against their government. They are trying. But virtually no media outlets report these demonstrations. News from Iraq today is mostly perfunctory reports on the latest bombing. Who can bear to hear any more about Iraq, since these reports are so painful?

And what will be the fate of those refugees at the mercy of the international community’s dwindling good will? Thousands of Iraqis still remain in Syria and Jordan, who received most of the refugees; Iraqi refugees in Syria today are desperately trying to find third countries to accept them for resettlement.

The unintended consequences of Operation Iraqi Freedom will have to be endured by us all for a very long time. When I was in Iraq 10 years ago, I was keenly aware of the leadership of Pope John Paul II in trying to prevent the war. Even though he did not succeed, it was truly a moment of great ecumenical cooperation — all the churches were working together, and even my own itinerary was planned specifically to complement that of the pope’s envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray. Now we have a new Archbishop of Canterbury, and another pope. The warm reception the Anglican delegation got at the Vatican last week augers well for the ecumenical collaboration that is crucial if we are to effect change in the Middle East, save lives and make peace. Ten years after, it is still as if we are just getting started.