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|This page last updated 16 November 2003|
Sheherazade Tell Us One More?
[View the photo journal that accompanies this article.]
The most famous figure of Baghdad, besides Saddam Hussein, is perhaps Sheherazade (or more accurately, Shahrazad). She is the fictional daughter of a vizier to a king who, to avenge his cuckolding by his queen, swore to marry a beauty every day and throttle her the next morning. In order to end this devastation of the beauty contest business, she volunteers to marry the king with a plan to distract him. Her sister Dinrazad has her bed within earshot of the king's, and every night she calls out to her sister to finish the tale whose cliff-hanger ending had concluded the previous night's storytelling. Eventually, after recounting many wondrous stories like 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves' and 'Sinbad the Sailor,' the king repents and lives happily ever after with Shahrazad and his sister-in-law.
What story could she weave to avoid the destruction of Baghdad and the nation of Iraq?
I visited Baghdad from February 19 to the 22 at the invitation of the Patriarchate of Babylon, the head of the Chaldean Church, to come to Iraq, pray with them and meet and talk with the leaders of the major Christian groups. Also included in the invitation were the presidents of the French Catholic conference of bishops, the Orthodox bishops, and the French Protestant Federation. I was initially reluctant, but the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, and staff of the Archbishop of Canterbury all strongly urged me to accept. I bore the good wishes and prayers of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA to the Christians of Iraq.
In the end I went alone, the others excusing themselves for various reasons. With me were Jean-Michel Cadiot, my oldest friend and Iraq specialist who predicted the invasion of Kuwait in a 1989 book, and Yako Elish, a Chaldean Christian businessman who lives in Paris and served as guide.
As I went down the jetway in Damascus into an old unmarked Boeing 707 jam-packed with Shiite pilgrims, two tough-looking plainclothes security men thoroughly frisked me and took away my cell phone and various batteries. One pulled out my pectoral cross from my shirt pocket, glanced at it, and grunted. I had an urge to bolt then and there, but fought it down. After an hour and a half, the plane landed at Saddam International Airport. It was a strange sight to taxi across an empty airport. Not a single plane besides our pilgrim shuttle was there.
After a bit of a hassle by Iraqi border guards looking for baksheesh, my two companions and I hopped in Elish's brother's Peugeot. This fellow, with the unusual name of Napoleon, was to ferry me across and around Baghdad through a bewildering number of appointments. We became friends. I asked him how he liked his new car. He looked at me and said in broken English, 'It is good car. I made downpayment in 1983 for it'.
Thus Napoleon and Elisha took us in his twenty-year-old new car to a home for priests named St Anne's that is owned by the Chaldean Church. It is run by an old priest named Fr Albert Abuna ('abuna' means 'our father'). Helped by Chaldean nuns, he also runs an orphanage for girls next door. Next morning began a whirlwind of visits.
I met with Mgr. Emmanuel Delly, second bishop of the Chaldeans (their Patriarch is in a Beirut hospital); the Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Assyrian Bishops; the Latin Archbishop (Roman Catholic); other Chaldean bishops; and a Protestant church council. I met with the mullah of the Mosque of al-Kadham in Baghdad, a very significant shrine in Shiite Islam and biggest in Baghdad. I met with the Shaik of the Mandaeans (disciples of John the Baptist). I also visited the Missionaries of Charity home for mentally handicapped children (where I met an American woman from Voices in the Wilderness helping out); the Dominican sisters' St. Raphael hospital; the St. Anne's orphanage; and the ecumenical seminary of St Ephraim the Syrian. I also led an ecumenical prayer service at the only Protestant church in Baghdad, gave a lot of press interviews, and inspected St. George's, the closed Anglican church.
I refused any meeting with people from the regime, although I received some invitations to do so. I was not to my knowledge followed. No one threatened me. No one even gave me a hostile glance, even as I wended my way through thousands of Shiite pilgrims at the mosque. No one tried to get me to say anything in particular. Everywhere I went I was received with great courtesy. Fr Abuna and his nuns went to great pains to make me feel welcome and comfortable.
The people of Baghdad are resigned to war. Unemployed men stand around street corners, smoking, eyes downcast. Women, some bare-headed, some scarved, some covered in alibahs (head-to-toe black covering, bare-faced), hurry about their shopping. At improvised souks people sell everything and anything to get cash—worn-out shoes, bundles of sticks, ancient gutted radios, you name it. During my visit I saw no preparations for war. No checkpoints, no curfews, no machine-gun emplacements covering fields of fire down Baghdad streets. Only a few bored soldiers in sloppy uniforms and terrible footwear, carrying old Chinese-made AK-47s, guarded a few military base entrances.
The government, I was told, has distributed four extra months' rations of tea, cooking oil, rice, and dried beans. The churches and some wealthier private homes have new wells dug inside. People have bought gas-oil stoves for cooking, and stockpiled fuel for them (which should make for some spectacular explosions). But there was no alert and the reserves apparently haven't been called up.
'Isn't war inevitable?' 'Why are you Christians attacking us Muslims again?' 'Why do you make this war?' 'Does Bush just want our oil?' The questions pelted me. One proud Chaldean Christian father explained how his daughter is graduating this year from college with a degree in computer science and a minor in English. 'Say something to the bishop, honey.' This pretty girl in 'American' jeans and Western-style makeup looks at me and says, 'Will you come to shoot us?'
I talk with people about weapons of mass destruction. The mullah of the mosque, Abdulabbis, shouts at me (and at the French TV crew filming us) 'We have no weapons of mass destruction! They even search the mosques for them and find nothing! All Bush wants is to kill all these people (indicating with a sweeping motion the thousands of Shiite pilgrims outside the window) who have no defense!' The TV crew's Iraqi 'guide' and the man from the ministry of religions who set up my appointment nod approvingly.
Others in private admit after a while that Iraq declared various weapons in 1991 but has never accounted for them. One says to me, 'And when you attack, Saddam will use them, and they will blow back at us and kill civilians--and it will be your fault.'
I patiently explain that since President Bush, a Methodist, has disregarded the Methodist bishops' criticism of his policy, this cannot be a war of Christians against Muslims ('Down with Bush and his cross!' demonstrators shouted at a rally in front of the United Nations building, a rally I refused to attend.) I express the conviction that people outside the US do not understand the fear that is driving the need to strike pre-emptively at enemies we consider capable of hitting us like September 11 or the anthrax letters. I remind everyone listening that the American churches are against such a war. I say that if Saddam coughs up his weapons, things will be brighter.
The Christians of Iraq number approximately one million or about 4 percent of Iraq's population. Of these, 85 percent are Chaldeans, uniate Christians in communion with Rome. The rest are Assyrian Catholics and Orthodox, Armenian Catholic and Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and Orthodox, with a few Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. The Mandaeans, those exotic disciples of the Baptist who have lived in Iraq since the first century, claim one hundred thousand. The Muslim majority is Sunni, with an important Shiite minority.
Like all Iraqis, the Christians fear the war. They predict that Baghdadis will fight, not for Saddam, but for their homes and families. But beyond the fear of war is the even greater fear of the aftermath. My interlocutors dismissed an American military occupation government as a breeding ground for suicide bombers and terrorists of all kinds. As for the opposition in exile, they see no leaders capable of taking over, even Christians, because they all have checkered pasts and no credibility.
What they fear most is a hard-line Islamic regime which will rescind what tolerance they have. Presently Christians have about fifty churches in Baghdad alone. The clergy walk unmolested in the streets. ('I have more respect in the streets of Baghdad than the streets of Rome,' one bishop said.) Christian women get university degrees, have careers, drive cars, walk about with bare heads. The wife of the Protestant council's president introduced herself to me as a teacher of medicine, then introduced her sister the pediatrician and her other sister the dentist.
Even this tolerance is starting to wane, as certain provisions of sharia law are now being applied. Furthermore, the Christians have had to put up with the regime, and a few are prominent in it. Thus they also fear the label of collaborators from the Americans and the eventual new Iraqi government. 'Once we were 100% Christian. Now we are five percent,' one said. 'Soon we may be none. And we have been here for two thousand years.' The Chaldeans claim Doubting Thomas as their apostle-evangelist. While one may doubt the historicity of the claim, there have certainly been Christians on the Tigris since the first century. The liturgical language is Aramean, the language of Jesus (the Mandaeans also use it). They have their own calendar, which includes unique items like the Fast of Jonah for Nineveh.
The Churches of Iraq share one seminary, St Ephraim the Syrian, on the outskirts of Baghdad. Monsignor Jacques Isaak, the bishop in charge, wants to build a 300,000-volume library. They are presently building a large hall for conferences. In the packed classes, men and women study together as equals. Vocations are soaring, both for ordination and the religious life. Churches are full on Sundays. There are big youth groups and catechism classes. This looks like a vibrant church.
Except for the future. Can Shahrazad tell one more tale to avert disaster?
Jean-Michel the Iraq specialist (and there are so few in the West) points out that at the height of Saddam's power, baksheesh was non-existent, there were no beggars in the streets as there are now, and there was no street crime to speak of. The Christians spoke of Saddam backing down on sharia provisions. Saddam, a man who rules by fear, probably cannot make real concessions. He has already lost some of his grip. One sign of real weakness and his own will turn on him. He will soon run out of tales to spin to stave off the inevitable.
What can we do? One French journalist misquoted me, writing that I said President Bush knows only one Christian in Iraq (Tariq Aziz). In fact I said that Americans know nothing of Iraqi Christians, except that one. We must change that. The first thing we can do is get America praying for the one-million Christians in Iraq, as well as all the people of that nation. Second, we can begin to plan to reach out directly to them. If war is averted, let us make contacts with these churches, learn from them, help them. If war comes, let us help them rebuild and pressure our government to protect them, and—again—get to know them and their stories.
What story will we be able to tell, what tale will we be able to spin?
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.