Sunday, October 02, 2005

Five more deaths in Iraq: Iraqi Christians in the war's path

In light of the terrible toll of death and destruction the US invasion of Iraq has inflicted on that country, the disappearance and presumed murder of the entire lay leadership of the Anglican Church of St. George, Baghdad, seems almost a footnote. According to BBC News:

The five Iraqis were last heard from on 13 September when they reported they had already been attacked traveling on road between Ramadi and Falluja….

The missing include the lay pastor of St George's church in Baghdad, Maher Dakel, his wife Mona and son Yehiya.

But five violent deaths are never just a footnote; in this case they are one more episode in an ongoing tragedy.

Why is there an Anglican church in Baghdad? Apparently the usual reason -- where the British empire was, there are Anglicans. But Christianity in Iraq is not a foreign import.

There have been Christians in the area since the first century. Al-Jazeera reports that prior to the invasion, three percent of the population belonged to Christian Churches, primarily the eastern-rite Chaldeans, some Nestorian Assyrians and a sprinkling of European-origin denominations. Many Iraqi Christians still speak Aramaic-Syriac, the language of Jesus.

The US invasion has put all these Christians at risk from Muslims and nationalists who can easily jump to the conclusion they are collaborators with the occupiers. There doesn't seem to be much documentation that their risk is much greater than that of the secular urban middle-class, but that is little comfort. As today's New York Times reports middle-class life is withering in Iraq for people of all faiths.

In fact, St. George's Church did benefit from the invasion. Shuttered and looted under Saddam Hussein, contributions from US and British churches helped to restore it since 2003.

Since then, the church has established itself as an important center for the Iraqi Christian community and has the largest Protestant congregation in Iraq. The parish ministers to a predominantly poor congregation of approximately 200 adults and 100 children, many of whom are widows and orphans. The ministers tend to the spiritual and humanitarian needs of the broader community -- which includes both Christians and Muslims -- offering shelter, protection and help.

So on some level, the invasion which is destroying the lives of so many, has also been a boon.

How are people of good will to respond to these contradictory realities? Recently Church of England bishops proposed that Western churches ought to apologize for the war:

Acknowledging that the British government is unlikely to apologize for the "gravely mistaken" war, the bishops suggest that churches should do so by making a "public act of institutional repentance." … While criticizing Western democracy as "deeply flawed," the bishops appeal for greater "understanding" of what motivates terrorists, and say efforts must be made to address their "long-standing grievances." The war on Iraq, they say, appeared to have been executed "as much for reasons of American national interest as it was for the well-being of the Iraqi people."

Strong stuff -- and controversial. The right-wing Times of London complained that "the bishops of England had confirmed that the war against Iraq was a Christian crusade against Muslims."

The call for an apology certainly seems right to me -- but even more, concrete work and organizing to return Iraq to the Iraqis seems to me the role for concerned Christians in the United States. The results may be good or bad -- but nothing the US is doing in Iraq can make the situation any better; we made the problem and cannot be part of the solution, if there is one.

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