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
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.
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
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.”
Andrea B. Crouse
incidence of leukemia among Iraqi children is linked to radioactive
debris from uranium-tipped U.S. missiles deployed during the
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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