Yousif Thomas Mirkis, O.P., is an Iraqi Roman Catholic priest. He recently welcomed me to his community home in Baghdad, the convent of the Dominican friars. In the courtyard, he pointed to the ground. Look, he said. A cross lay molded into the tiles. This is to remind us that the cross is down here, with us. The cross is in the mud.At 55, Father Yousif has spent most of his life working in the mud, striving to heal his society’s wounds and build healthy communities. He teaches theology and ethnology at Babel College in Baghdad and is the chief editor of Christian Thought, Iraq’s oldest theological journal. Amid the current strife, Father Yousif works to foster peace through understanding. He views education as the best way to respond to the poverty, illiteracy and subsequent violence created by years of war and sanctions. His current projects include a popular university for the working poor, an online distance-learning program for foreign languages and numerous dialogues with Muslim and Christian leaders.
I have no fear, he says. I am prudent, I try to seek wisdom. But I am not afraid. The following interview was conducted in Baghdad last November.
How many Christians live in Iraq today?
We are not very numerous. No one knows the numbers, but prior to the fall of the previous regime we were perhaps 700,000 to 900,000. But Christians have a very important place in this society. About 20 percent of Iraqi doctors, 25 percent of the engineers and between 35 percent and 45 percent of those who have advanced degrees are Christian.
This society is tribal. But Christians have no tribes. Christians tend to live in cities and find work there. And the religious orders always work in education. We do this especially in our Dominican tradition. Since we came to Iraq in 1750, we have founded schools. For 250 years, our job has been to teach, publish books and educate about culture.
News reports speak of a brain drain from Iraq, as both Christian and Muslim doctors and scholars flee.
Yes, this is difficult. But the emigration of Christians is not new. It happens in waves and has gone on for more than a century.
The brain drain is harmful not only in Iraq. I also find suffering in our diaspora communities. I have visited Iraqi Christian communities in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all over Europe. Everywhere the same disease always appears: loss of identity. Who are we? they say. Father Yousif, we are frightened. We are frightened for our future. What must we do? Must we melt into this society where we now live? We see every day that this society is very bad. The government schools are dangerous, and there are drugs and bad language. We cannot adapt to this culture. We cannot adapt.
So they try to transport their Iraqi society. But what do they transport? Not the best aspects, but only the superficial elements: our food, our way of speaking, our way of thinking. They set up abroad an Iraqi Christian society that is mummified. They are looking for an identity. They work hard. But they are fed up; they are depressed. The result is a society of depression, both in Iraq and outside.
What alternative to the violence do you see?
If we stay, we can help this society, and we can be healed faster than those in our diaspora. Yes, we are on the edge of danger, and we could fall deeper into chaos. But we have a chance to play a role, not only for our Christian community, but for all Iraq. If I am a teacher, I can keep going to my school. It is dangerous to go to school, to go outside the house at all. But we need some courageous people. We need to save our hospitals, to save our jobs, to save our government and to help everybody.
To take up this individual responsibility is very difficult, and it is no different for Christians than for Muslims. Because Christians have something of a minority complex, they feel less Iraqi than Muslims. It is a struggle.
Perhaps some groups want to throw us out of Iraq, but we will not go. We must resist. Some groups also want to make war between Sunnis and Shiites. Then who will stay in this society? They will divide Iraq into three partsSunni, Shiite and Christian. This is very bad, like Yugoslavia. Why is Yugoslavia divided into 10 pieces, while Europe is making one piece? The future is not to divide.
How do Christians in Iraq feel about nonviolence?
Nonviolence everywhere in the world is born in violent societies. Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement was a reaction against suffering in the South of the United States. Gandhi’s movement was a reaction against the British in India. Many IraqisSunni, Shiite and Christiannow are thinking about this. I am sure that something will be born. Nonviolent action is not in our traditions. But I think, when a disease is spread somewhere, we want the medicine, no matter how much it costs.
How are relations between Christians and Muslims?
There are Christians in Iraq who say, Nobody can live with Muslims, Muslims are bad, and so we will leave them. They are not the majority of Christians. But those who are not educated see only those Muslims who kill people in the name of God. I think we have to see outside this phenomenon. In Islam, such people are a minority, a very small minority. You can see violence in every religion. You in the United States have your Ku Klux Klan. They slaughtered people in the name of God, in the name of some sort of Christian ideology. Here, between Christians and Muslims, when they are educated, there is a sense of understanding.
How do you feel about the elections?
I think we have to encourage elections. This is not a question of ideology. They are necessary. The word politics is very bad in our hearts, because politics are dangerous. But now we have to take a role in politics to heal our institutions.
But we need something else. We need time. If the United States wants to change our society instantly with elections, then nothing will change. If you come from outside and force people to change the society, nothing will change. I think that elements of change will come with improvements in education, media and publicity, and by helping this society to have its own dynamic strength.
What would Iraqi Christians like to say to people in North America?
North America, especially the United States, is now leading the world. And to be the leader of humanity is a very dangerous game. One can make mistakes, and very big mistakes were made. The first mistake is to believe in the machine more than in the person. One listens to the computer more than to people. But we have wisdom in our society that existed before technology. Mr. Paul Bremer, if he gave his ear to the wise people in Iraq, could have avoided many mistakes.
Before the war, maybe some Iraqis outside Iraq pushed the ruler of the United States very fast to make this war. I think the U.S. leaders decided on the war very fast. This was a bad thing. They did not take enough time. But time was necessary to heal the society, from the inside. Not from the outside.
The same mistake can recur, if the human element is not given its importance. People are important. This is the first message I think should be given to North America and the United States.
How can North Americans help?
The first thing is to be interested. If you like somebody, you want to learn about them. And if you learn, you want to learn more. So I think that the most important thing is to heal the American illiteracy about Iraq. When I go to Western countries, sometimes I have pity on the people there. Some of them have little education and very narrow thinking. Some never read news about events outside their district. Many Americans have never left their home state. Be interested. This will help.
Also, avoid guilt and defensiveness. The guilt feeling about Vietnam is not yet healed in American society, because America made many mistakes there. The same thing is repeated with Iraq. We do not need your guilt feelings. We need your friendship.
We say to Americans, O.K., help us now to heal this country. Help us with rebuilding. It is good that 80 percent of our debt might be forgiven. We have a very rich country, and we will need our money to rebuild the country, because it has completely collapsed. Everything has collapsed. It is a good idea for you to help.
What else might we do?
Really try to understand our society from the inside. Many Iraqi people can speak English, and it is becoming the language of globalization. But I think that Western societies must also try to learn our languages and culture.
The situation is amazing, especially when you realize that the youngest country in the world is making war with the oldest country in the world. The difference is between 500 years and 5,000 years. The youngest, which is both young and strong, must also be humble. To encounter a country that has 5,000 years of history, one must realize that this country has more to offer than camels and tents. But you are destroying, in these wars, many things that are very valuable.
Iraq’s communities have rich cultures. We need to open the minds of North Americans to see. If you worry that many animals are becoming extinct, consider also that many religions and societies in Iraq are maintaining habits and traditions that are very old. We not only have to protect them, but to explore why they have survived for so long.
Ignorance must be healed in Western countries. Westerners know much about some things, but they know nothing about many things. We need dialogue and a willingness to learn from each other.