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This page last updated 16 August 2004
Anglicans Online last updated 22 October 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online

Back to Iraq
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.
8 August 2004

Who is to blame? Five churches in Iraq were bombed a few Sundays ago. At least eighteen people died, according to friends there, and scores were wounded. Three of the churches were among those I had visited last year, just before the war began, including St George’s Church, inside the St Simeon Seminary compound in the Doura neighborhood of Baghdad. Hannah Georgis, sister-in-law of my guide Yako Elish, was among those killed at that church. She was 50, mother of three, wife to his brother Agip. Her killers burned her to death along with three others just as she came out of Divine Service.

It isn’t hard to kill a lot of people in a packed church. And they are full, every Sunday, in Iraq. Bishop Clive Handford, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, has allowed the Chaldean Patriarchate, largest of Iraq’s churches, to use St George’s Anglican Church. They pack the little mustard-yellow building on the Tigris, with its colorful memorial to the British military dead of World War I, several times a Sunday. Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, and I had been planning an appeal to our jurisdictions to benefit Iraqi children, the aid to be distributed through St George’s.

But suicide bombers in churches? How can anyone plan anything when you wonder whether someone will walk in or drive by, loaded with nails and plastique, ready to take as many people as possible into death? The great fear that the Christians of Iraq have been expressing since before 'Shock and Awe' is now becoming reality: zealots are attacking them. It started recently with the murders of Christians who sell beer and wine. Now it has escalated. Who is to blame?

Depending on the threat level, our churches in Europe have various security measures. As a parish priest I never allowed loaded weapons inside my church, those handguns or ceremonial rifles that come with services for police officers. Now I am shocked to discover my own relief at seeing soldiers with assault weapons standing guard on our important feast days. (At the same time it only makes us bigger targets, I know.) Moreover, our congregations have had to adopt security policies that have increased costs and inconvenience, requiring bags to be searched, for instance.

Now the churches in Iraq will look oddly enough like American churches in Europe. Who is to blame?

Iraq was the most religiously tolerant Arab nation of all. It is true that Saddam Hussein, under pressure, had begun to allow some aspects of sharia law to be applied to Christians (mostly concerning intermarriage). On the other hand, he did not allow some Shiite festivals to be celebrated publicly. Nevertheless, as one bishop there said to me, 'I get more respect in the streets of Baghdad in my purple cassock than I do in the streets of Rome!' Does he still walk those streets in his episcopal vestment? Probably not... Whom should we blame?

Another way to ask the same question is whether the Christians of Iraq will survive. The answer to that depends on the success of a new Iraqi government in keeping one of the very few good things about the old régime. If Christianity disappears from a land where it has flourished since the first century, who will be to blame?

Clearly one could begin by answering that the terrorists are to blame. The unanimous condemnation by Iraq’s Muslim leaders of all stripes shows that these heinous bombings are the work of foreign terrorists, al-Qaeda or their wannabes. Then one could ask why Al-Qaeda exists in the first place, and we would get into the politics of petroleum and combating the Soviets in Afghanistan and so forth. We could discuss currents within Islam and their relations with politics in the Middle East. Then we could ask why we attacked Iraq, and why we had no plan to win the peace after winning the war. Then we could assign some blame, and feel better.

The Iraq situation and the wider conflicts may be tempting some of us to say that it is time to withdraw back to America. Time to get out, blame the terrorists and our people who got us into this, and like Candide, cultivate our gardens at home. Blame is something you assign when it’s all over. However, going home will solve nothing -- in fact, it will only make things worse. So we have no time for the blame game, for washing our hands of the situation. We need to figure out what it will take for Iraqi Christians (and European Episcopalians) to be able to worship God and reach out to the marginalized without the protection of heavily armed troops.

The problem isn’t going to be fixed merely by electing a different president. John Kerry has stated (correctly, in this writer’s opinion) that America will need to be in Iraq for a long time. Right now we need to be thinking how to overcome a lot of mistakes and help the vast majority of Iraqis -- Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Mandaeans -- who want nothing more than to live in security and dream of better lives for their children. As a prominent Iraqi Dominican, Fr. Youssef Thomas, said of those Sunday’s attacks, 'This is an attack upon all Iraqis, not just Christians.'

Beyond Iraq, we must find a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, we need to be working to build strong international consensus that makes support for terrorist politics (for terror is a political strategy after all) very difficult for any government to envisage without severe consequences. And we must encourage states and international organizations -- beginning with our own government -- to address and correct in concrete ways the grave injustices that provide the breeding grounds for terrorists.

The Church can help build international consensus. The Anglican Communion includes 167 countries. We can and must bring people together at home. What is required is a vision of peace and the perseverance to pursue it wherever we find ourselves.

So where do we start? Bishop Jacques Isaac, the Chaldean in charge of the seminary that was attacked, telephoned me not long before the attack. It was wonderful to hear his voice again after so many months of war. I started to talk about all the help we would like to give them, how we plan to send money, what we can do to support his seminary overflowing with students (including many women), and so on. He cut me off. 'Pierre,' he said in a grave tone, 'we need your prayers and the prayers of all your people. Every day. Yes, we need other help, but most of all, prayer.'

Now we also need to pray for the dead and those who grieve, like Hannah’s husband and children and their families. For the wounded, many of whom will never be whole again. For the survival of the Christians in Iraq, and indeed, for all people of good will in that country. For the wider vision of a world without terrorism. But we also must pray that God will show us the part we must play in bringing that about, and give us the courage to fulfill it. It is too easy to sit back and assign blame. It is too safe. And it changes nothing.

[Bishop Whalon's essay on his visit to Iraq can be found here.]


Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bppwhalon@aol.com.

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Pierre Welté Whalon is Bishop-in-charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.