A true resurrection in IraqTwo Christian communities in Baghdad show real hope for Iraq’s historic diversity – if politicians do their bit

iraqs-christian-community-0071.jpgMichael Nazir-Ali guardian.co.uk,
Members of Iraq’s Christian community pray for peace in a church in central Baghdad. Photograph: Jassim Mohammed/AP
The savage attack on Christians worshipping at Our Lady of Salvation Chaldean Catholic church in Baghdad drew the world’s attention to the violence against Christians and other minorities, such as the Mandaeans and the Yazidis, which has become almost routine in Iraq since the “troubles” began. Priests and bishops have been kidnapped and brutally murdered; Christian schools, businesses and homes have been targeted; hundreds have been killed or injured; and hundreds of thousands have fled to Syria, Jordan, Turkey and – the lucky ones – to the west. Other religious minorities have not fared any better.

Everyone in Iraq seems to live in deadly danger, but religious minorities are much more exposed as they do not have militias of their own to protect them. At the moment, however, there is a lull in the violence and this must, therefore, be a time to take stock and think about the future.

It would not be true to say that there is no fear, but the Christian community has not given up on its commitment to serve all the people of Iraq in the name of the gospel it professes. Just two examples will show what I mean: a few years ago St George’s Anglican church in the heart of Baghdad was derelict, abandoned because it lay in a dangerous area. That was until Andrew White (“the vicar of Baghdad”) arrived. At Coventry cathedral he had become involved in the work of relief and reconciliation in the Middle East and now he set about not only rehabilitating St George’s, but making it a premier location for the delivery of essential services to Iraqis – regardless of religion.

Every day of the week St George’s hums with activity: the clinic is full to capacity with patients receiving primary medical care that the hard-pressed state hospitals are unable to provide. Most are Muslim, and most of the staff are Christian but it seems not to matter a whit. Unemployed and disabled people can collect a weekly ration that just about enables them to survive. There is a small school for children, and, in the desert of war, a bookshop. Most of all, there are people to listen, to give advice, to help with food, clothing and shelter.

It should not surprise us that this work is rooted in prayer, sacrifice and service. So many of those who need help are women, and the strong mothers’ union works all hours of the day to minister to the needs of these women, many of whom have lost their menfolk in the conflict.

The worship at St George’s is attended by hundreds from all sorts of backgrounds – no one is quizzed about why they are there or where they have come from; they are just welcomed. The atmosphere is vibrant with Arabic songs but there is also a recognisable liturgy, influenced by the ancient churches of the land, but Anglican in its general contours. The Lord’s Prayer is said in Aramaic, the language of the One who taught his disciples to pray. For many Christians, a form of this language is in daily use.

Across the Tigris, and with strong links to St George’s, is another example of resurrection in Iraq. It is the House of Love, run by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. The sisters are from India and Bangladesh, and they have rescued, sometimes from the streets, severely disabled children who have been abandoned by their parents. They are a vivid reminder of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against his own people. Many of the disabilities have undoubtedly been caused by the dictator’s use of chemical and other prohibited weapons against dissidents and minorities. It is most moving to see how the sisters and their helpers (some from the mothers’ union at St George’s) care for these young ones, many without arms and legs, and how the children respond to the love and friendship. One of the things I would most like them to have is a computer that can be operated with the voice. It would transform their lives.

While politicians, diplomats and soldiers seek to bring some sort of order to society, a gathering of leaders from all the different faiths has succeeded, at least for the time being, in halting the worst violence against Christians and other religious minorities. This has shown many the value of inter-faith dialogue where, without compromising the integrity of any faith, the hard issues of violence, security, freedom of belief and peace can be discussed fully and frankly in face-to-face encounters. There are now plans, with the support of a number of religious leaders – Muslim, Christian and others – to move from “top-down” dialogue to local dialogue in the towns and cities of Iraq about the building of peaceful and secure communities. This could become another sign of Easter in Iraq.

The international community can also contribute to securing the future of religious minorities in Iraq. Many, like most of the Christian churches there, are extremely ancient and pre-date the arrival of Islam in that country. As Yonadam Kanna, a leading member of parliament, says, they are part of the fabric of Iraqi identity. If they are lost, Iraq’s very identity is jeopardised. In the Balkans, Iraq and elsewhere, the international community has shown that it has the will to protect ethnic minorities. Will it show the same will to secure the future for Iraq’s Christians and other religious minorities?

This cannot just be about exhortation and wishful thinking. It must be about concrete action on the ground that secures localities, institutions, leaders and ordinary people from the violence caused by those who do not want Iraq to survive in its present form and who wish to impose a monolithic theocracy on its historic diversity. The world must not allow this for the sake of a renewed and prosperous Iraq, a safe region and a peaceful world.

The Ba’ath party claimed to be the party of “national resurrection” but it brought only repression, fear and death. The Iraqi people deserve a more authentic resurrection. St George’s and the Sisters of Charity show us how it can be done.