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The Iraqi Church Cries Out

Knowledgeable roofers begin the roofing process.
Photo by Carol Ann Morrow

Chaldean Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid on his flight to the United States.

Images of 1990’s Operation Desert Storm linger, encouraging a less-than-friendly attitude toward Iraq. The indefatigable leader of that nation’s Catholics urges Americans to consider the children.

By Carol Ann Morrow


Spiritual Leaders From Baghdad

Influential People

Iraqis in the U.S.

The Church in Iraq

Church and State

Family of Abraham

Helping Iraqi Children Now

Rumor has it that important churchmen are on our international flight. One is of particular interest: the Chaldean Catholic patriarch from Baghdad, Iraq, Raphael I Bidawid. He is traveling to the United States to discuss the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations against his country.

Other Iraqi religious leaders are with him on this mission, I am told. They want to ask mercy for their people. I ask to speak with him for St. Anthony Messenger.

Many questions loom—some small, some large: Does he share our nation’s low opinion of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein? What is a Chaldean? What should I call a churchman of such high status? How are Iraqi citizens able to travel to the United States? What is his opinion of our foreign policy? What should I know about the turmoil in the nation that is his home?

I know so little about Iraq. I hardly expected any Catholics at all in that distant, exotic, beleaguered Arab land. I decide to say little and listen much.

Spiritual Leaders From Baghdad

“I want you to know the suffering of our people,” the patriarch says. The U.S. State Department did not wish Raphael I, religious head of the Chaldean Church of Babylon (in union with Rome), to visit. He and his traveling companions have waited in Amman, Jordan, three days for clearance to board Royal Jordanian Flight #261. Reported to be impatient with this long delay—and who wouldn’t be?—the patriarch nonetheless appears calm, benevolent and ready to talk.

Raphael I is 77 years old, just two years younger than Pope John Paul II. He has been the chief prelate of the Chaldean Catholic Church for 10 years. Patriarch Raphael wears a red-trimmed cassock for this 14-hour journey, and his pectoral cross. On this flight, many travelers from the East—including the other members of his delegation—wear long, flowing garments.

He speaks so softly that the buzz of other travelers threatens to drown out his words. I lean closer and closer and finally decide to sit at his feet. He smiles.

The patriarch’s words—spoken in English—are simple and sad. “In nine years of embargo, one million people have died from lack of food and medical care. I want the American people to be sensible to our tragedy. With the aid of our brethren, I hope we succeed,” he says. He is referring to his two fellow travelers, leaders of Iraq’s Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Since these Muslim clerics speak no English and I speak neither Arabic nor Syriac, we are limited to smiles and polite bows.

“We represent the people,” the patriarch says. They are the highest-level Iraqi delegation to visit the United States since the end of the Gulf War.

“The embargo is inhuman and immoral,” Patriarch Raphael continues. “It makes no sense. It is a matter of politics. After nine years, what has been the result?” He answers his own question with a melancholy phrase, “Disaster for the Iraqi people!”

He continues, “The government of the United States accuses the government of Iraq of creating this situation in which we are deprived of all necessities, including water and food. Now, [since 1997] under U.N. supervision, we have been able to trade oil for food, but people are still starving. We are giving millions of dollars of oil, but we are still starving.”

Photo by Andrea B. Crouse

A high incidence of leukemia among Iraqi children is linked to radioactive debris from uranium-tipped U.S. missiles deployed during the Gulf War.

United Nations reports confirm the patriarch’s dire assessment. UNICEF says 5,000 Iraqi children a month die from diarrhea, pneumonia, breathing problems and malnutrition as a result of the economic sanctions. Iraq has been allowed to sell $5.26 billion worth of oil for food and medicine every six months under the U.N. arrangements described by Patriarch Raphael, but this does not suffice to bring the nation’s people back from the brink. Economic sanctions have cut revenues by 90 percent!

“It seems as though we have no voice, no influence. It is very strange,” he says, almost in a whisper. “We need influential people who can see our situation.”

Influential People

The situation is this: The Gulf War destroyed the ways and means for ordinary people to live normal lives in Iraq. The terms of the cease-fire were established by the United Nations Security Council in at least seven standing resolutions which required Iraq to remove or render harmless weapons and missiles and to cease developing or acquiring new ones. U.N. inspectors were to ensure that this was happening. The embargo or sanctions are the penalty for not cooperating with the conditions of the cease-fire.

International support for the sanctions is waning, since it appears to have failed in stopping—or, at least, in monitoring—weapons development. More importantly, from a moral perspective, it is itself a weapon of mass destruction, causing the deaths of people and the suffering of many others who have no power to effect the political outcomes the Security Council set out to achieve.

Many people are mobilizing to effect a change in this failed international policy. Iraqi-born U.S. citizen Samir Vincent, who has lived in the United States since 1958, calls action on the embargo a “political dead end.” He and Dr. Joseph Ritchie, also a private citizen, decided to go down a different road—away from politics and politicians, toward the world of religious belief and influence. The two businessmen prevailed upon Dr. Billy Graham to invite the Iraqi religious leaders to visit several sites in the United States—and later, London, England.

Vincent, a Chaldean Catholic, was with the delegation throughout the U.S. visit. Their travels—to Boston, Detroit, Atlanta, Plains (Georgia) and New York City—began inauspiciously with an hour-and-a-half grilling by U.S. immigration officials. Dr. Ritchie placed his private plane at the service of the three Iraqi churchmen.

Later, he remarked that he was most inspired by their interfaith partnership in this quest to end the sanctions. When he is asked if things are moving in a good direction, Dr. Ritchie says, “Anyone of goodwill who listens for an hour to the entire scenario wants to end the embargo, but Americans listen to soundbites. We have to deliver the message in soundbites.”

Patriarch Raphael, the English-speaking spokesman, put those brief messages out there. Dr. Graham, whose age and health limit his activities, met with the three leaders in Boston, pledging the Iraqi trio that he would “take up their cross,” though he did not speak out specifically against the sanctions.

What did the three leaders want of him? the evangelist asked. Patriarch Raphael responded, according to Vincent, who was an eyewitness, “Help our people by using your influence on the decisionmakers in your country to see clearly what they have done to Iraq with their malicious actions.”

Later that week, former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, welcomed the delegation to their home in Plains. Carter listened intently as the patriarch, flanked by Dr. Abdul Latif Al-Hemayem, Sunni Muslim leader, and Sayid Hussein Al-Sader, Shi’ite imam, described the crisis in Iraq.

Carter reiterated his opposition to the sanctions. He assured the delegation that he and Dr. Graham will cooperate in working for change. Carter’s son Chip is vice president of the Friendship Force, an organization seeking to promote global understanding by reciprocal visits between people of various nations. The younger Carter accompanied the delegation on a tour of the Carter Center in Atlanta.

In New York, the three Iraqi religious leaders met with Cardinal John J. O’Connor at his residence. Despite the cardinal’s illness, he was pleased to receive them. Cardinal O’Connor was distressed by the delegation’s description of the situation in Iraq. Vincent quotes the cardinal: “These sanctions must end. There is no just political or moral reason for them to exist.”

As its ex-officio president, Cardinal O’Connor also pledged the continued assistance of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association to Iraq. Urged by his interfaith peers to visit their nation in turn, Cardinal O’Connor reported that the U.S. government has pressured him not to visit Iraq.

In its November meeting, which Cardinal O’Connor was unable to attend, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) spoke out once again against economic sanctions and against American and British air attacks, which have harmed Iraqi civilians. Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the NCCB, had earlier cosigned, with 23 other religious leaders representing various denominations, a letter to President Bill Clinton urging “more focused and morally defensible means” to prevent any renewed military buildup in Iraq.

Other influential voices speaking out for Iraq’s suffering people have included Nobel Peace Laureates Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Adolfo Perez Esquivel, led by Fellowship of Reconciliation Director Rev. John Dear. Later last year, five U.S. congressional staff members visited Iraq. In late November, other members of Congress, both Democrat and Republican, circulated a letter urging President Clinton to lift economic sanctions.

At this writing, the situation is quite fluid: U.S. Air National Guard units are assisting NATO forces in Kuwait to protect no-fly zones in Iraq. U.S. and British jets bomb Iraqi targets every other day, knocking out radar sites—temporarily. The Security Council is considering lifting sanctions if Iraq will cooperate with new weapons monitors. This move is criticized by some as a stalling technique, because it would begin a new monitoring system, which could well take months to establish. Meanwhile, the sanctions remain in place.

Iraqis in the U.S.

Within our national borders are many who follow these news reports with trepidation—America’s Chaldean Catholics among them. To understand their ties to Iraq, I turned to their chief prelate in the United States, Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim, a native of Tel Keppe, Iraq.

Bishop Ibrahim is the leader of the U.S. Chaldean community, and lives at the Cathedral parish in Southfield, Michigan. This part of suburban Detroit is so heavily Chaldean that Detroit’s city officials are considering a proposal to post street names in both English and Syriac, even renaming them after national heroes and Iraqi towns. The Chaldean Federation of America has its offices in Southfield.

Besides the five parishes in the Detroit area, the diocese has seven others: two in Chicago, Illinois, four in California, and one in Scottsdale, Arizona. In all, U.S. Chaldean Catholics number 150,000.

In a telephone interview, the bishop confirmed that Patriarch Raphael had visited Southfield last September, celebrating the Eucharist and staying overnight. He insisted that the visit was pastoral and that they had no opportunity to discuss the volatile topic of Iraqi sanctions. He was, however, willing to respond to a few questions himself.

Bishop Ibrahim says that all the people of his diocese “are very close to their brothers and sisters in Iraq. They share the suffering of the Iraqi people. This attitude was evident from the first day that the embargo was imposed on Iraq. They are continuously sending financial aid and showing moral support.”

According to the bishop, their public position is that the U.N. “should not punish the children and the elderly and the civilians because of the regime in that country. We should de-link the military embargo from the economic embargo.”

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, one of the archdiocese’s five auxiliary bishops, has long been active in the struggle to end the sanctions against Iraq. His diocese, after all, holds this country’s largest number of Chaldean Catholics. After his fifth trip to Iraq last December, Bishop Gumbleton spoke with St. Anthony Messenger by telephone. “The infrastructure of Iraq is destroyed. It’s been almost 10 years and still Iraq has been able to do only minimal rebuilding....There is raw sewage in the Tigris River and the water is not potable. Chlorine is a dual-use substance [a chemical with possible military uses] so they can’t get enough to purify the water....The sanctions have to end so the country can rebuild,” says the bishop.

“Iraq is no threat to the U.S.,” asserts Bishop Gumbleton. He describes a land which, he notes, was already in great turmoil after its eight-year war with Iran (1980-88). Now, after the Gulf War (1990-1991), once-prosperous people beg openly on the streets. Plumbing, electricity, transportation, business and employment: All the systems necessary to a modern nation are held together with baling wire and even that is in short supply.

Bishop Gumbleton finds U.S. citizens generally unaware of U.S.-British bombing raids, a low-level warfare which takes its share of victims. According to any just-war criteria, the bishop says, these bombings are unjustified. He believes that “flooding the White House”—by phone, postcards and letters—is the way to end sanctions which enable Saddam Hussein to point to the United States as the Iraqi people’s enemy.

The sanctions are “destroying the next generation,” Bishop Gumbleton says, describing children he saw dying from malnutrition and lack of medical care. Those who live will be intellectually impaired and emotionally destroyed, he believes.

In Iraq, Bishop Gumbleton met with Bishop Gabriel Kassab of Basra, with Bishop Emmanuel-Karim Delly, auxiliary to Patriarch Raphael, and with the patriarch himself. Together these churchmen continue to prick the world’s conscience.

The Church in Iraq

As patriarch of Baghdad, Raphael Bidawid continues a succession of Church leaders from the time of Thomas the Apostle. Ur (now Tell el-Muqayyar), in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq), is the home of Abraham. It takes little imagination to link his patriarchy to that of the patriarch Abraham.

The Iraqi people have certainly been brought low as were the Hebrews of biblical times. The land between Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is traditionally regarded as the site of the Garden of Eden. Iraq’s agricultural potential is immense and beneath that soil lies 15 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

Today, Abraham’s land is 95 percent Muslim. Shi’a Muslims constitute a 55-percent majority of Iraqi citizens, but Sunni Muslims (40 percent) traditionally dominate economic and political life. The remaining five percent include about 200,000 Chaldean Catholics. It is not easy to be counted among them.

In a report on religious freedom in Iraq issued last September, the U.S. State Department asserted that Saddam Hussein’s “repressive one-party apparatus...has sought to undermine the identity of minority Christian...groups.” While Hussein’s harshest reprisals are against the Shi’ite Muslims, his regime has also blocked education in Syriac, the native tongue of Assyrians (the Assyrian Church of the East is not in full union with Rome) and Chaldeans. The political rights of these minority Christians have also been suppressed, according to the State Department. These actions undermine the cultural and historical heritage of Iraqi Christians.

The Chaldean Church, which is also called East Syrian, includes 10 dioceses in Iraq, three in Iran and one each in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Turkey and the United States. The hearts of Chaldean Catholics everywhere were lightened when the arrival of Pope John Paul II in Iraq seemed imminent last December. While the papal visit to Basra and Ur is postponed to an uncertain future, the politics of such a visit are extremely volatile.

Church and State

In a visit to Iraq, the pope might well be expected to condemn U.N. economic sanctions and the suffering they have caused to the civilian population. Indeed he has already done so, calling the embargo “pitiless.” Diplomatic protocol would also require that the pope shake hands with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Catholic News Service reported that U.S. diplomats—and some Iraqi scholars who hope the pope will not come—fear “that Hussein would manipulate the papal visit to lend legitimacy to his rule.”

Voices in the Wilderness: A Campaign to End the Economic Sanctions Against the People of Iraq (VitW) is a U.S. citizen-action group encouraging civil disobedience such as joining humanitarian missions to Iraq, which is punishable by law. VitW contends that the United States has added conditions for ending economic sanctions that exceed U.N. Resolution 687, the resolution which maintains the sanctions yet describes regional disarmament as one condition for lifting them. U.S. contractors, however, continue to assist Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran with weapons and technology.

Economic sanctions against Iraq are killing civilians. Saddam Hussein is using these deaths to strengthen the perception that East-West conflicts are inevitable and that the real aggressor is the United States. Meanwhile, the United States is hoping that internal dissent, caused by the sanctions, will cause Hussein’s power to crumble.

Former U.N. humanitarian coordinator Denis Halliday contends that the price of sanctions on the Iraqi people “is unacceptable” and “cannot be justified.” He has also said the sanctions violate U.N. treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Halliday, quoted in BBC World Update, suggested that ending sanctions could be the beginning of a solution. “You stop the isolation, you prevent the alienation, and you try to influence the thinking through support, communication and collaboration, and I think that’s the positive way to move forward.”

Patriarch Raphael deftly avoids any comment on Saddam Hussein. Bishop Ibrahim also hesitates, knowing the situation to be delicate.

Family of Abraham

I now know that Chaldean Catholics are an Eastern Church, reunited with the Roman Catholic Church in 1551 after a split in 431 A.D. over the teaching of Nestorius that Christ had two natures.

I have learned that the patriarch answers to many names—“Your Beatitude,” “Mar Raphael” (the word mar means “holy”) and “Patriarch”—but will respond to any call that garners support for his suffering people.

The patriarch traveled under a cloud of suspicion from his own government and ours, to deliver one message, which he repeated with insistence at every opportunity. He repeats it still: “The embargo is inhuman and immoral....It is disaster for the Iraqi people.”

The Church of the East looks to the Church of the West for support in ending this nightmare in the land of Abraham, our father in faith.

Helping Iraqi Children Now

As Cardinal John J. O’Connor assured Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid in their meeting together, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) stands ready to help the people of Iraq. In cooperation with other charitable agencies, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine (CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East) assists many Iraqi refugees at clinics and hospitals in Jordan, which has an open border. Direct assistance to Iraq is difficult, but is possible through The Iraq Relief Line, established through the combined efforts of the Pontifical Mission office in Amman, Jordan, religious congregations of Franciscan Sisters and of Chaldean Dominican Sisters, Catholic Relief Services and a Japanese Catholic consortium. To assist this effort, contributions can be designated to The Pontifical Mission for Palestine, c/o CNEWA, 1011 First Ave., New York, NY 10022-4195.


Carol Ann Morrow is assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger and editor of Youth Update, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press. Her report on millennial pilgrimage sites in Jordan—from which she was returning when she met the Chaldean patriarch—will appear in the March issue.


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