Letter from Baghdad

As President Obama confirmed today a final drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq by Christmas, Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanis was himself returning from a brief pastoral tour of duty in Baghdad.

He shared his impressions with us and offers a poignant reminder that while the experience in Iraq may be coming to an end for us here in the United States, the residual effects of the war and the uncertainty it has engendered, especially for Iraq's Christian minority, will persist far into the future for the people of Iraq.

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Baghdad--In her book “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us that while the simple loving gesture of “kissing the boo boo” does not take away the pain and suffering that a child feels, it does take away the loneliness felt in suffering.

Suffering and fear dominate the lives of so many, too many, around our world.

Try as we might, we can’t alleviate the suffering, end the fear, but we can stand in solidarity with those who suffer, who are fearful, to help them realize they are not alone.

I reflected about that as the Airbus in which Bishop George Murry, S.J., and I were passengers prepared for our mid-morning landing at Baghdad International Airport, the former Saddam International Airport.

We were coming to Iraq in early October at the invitation of the bishops of the Chaldean, Latin, Armenian and Syrian Catholic communities there. They had been hoping for some time that bishops from the United States might make a pastoral visit to Baghdad to see first hand what life is like in their country.

Despite the cautions we heard about our safety, we wanted to go. We wanted to express to our brother bishops and to the people of the Church in Iraq the love and support of our Church in the United States. We wanted to assure them they are not alone.

After being greeted at the airport by Bishop Shlemon Warduni, Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad, and Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the Apostolic Nuncio in Baghdad and Jordan, Bishop Murry and I stood in the line to have our passports checked.

I saw a man who had been a passenger on our plane running to the open arms of a man who had been waiting for him. They embraced, kissed, and cried. He had come home, I thought. Even though his country was so torn by war, even though danger, violence and death were daily events, he had come home.

As we drove from the airport, we saw workers planting palm trees along the route. A nice beautification project, I thought, but the trees didn’t do much to camouflage all the armored vehicles lingering on both sides and the Iraqi army and police with automatic weapons clustered near the vehicles or walking in patrols.

My other first impressions: roads marred by ruts and blocked by rolls of barbed wire and huge barrels; cement walls 10-feet tall around buildings; check points everywhere; people wary, vigilant, watchful for random acts of violence.

In the next three days, we met and talked with our brother bishops. We visited the people they shepherd in the churches, convents, schools and hospitals of their communities in Baghdad. We saw the programs and services of Caritas Iraq and met with Caritas staff.

Each of the bishops expressed their great concern about the plight of Christians. Many have been internally displaced in Iraq having left their homes and belongings for what they deem is the relative safety of the north; others have left the country as refugees to Lebanon or Syria, hoping to begin their lives anew.

Many who have fled hope to come to our country, but because our government has put a hold on Iraqi refugees, they remain in limbo in Syria, Lebanon or Egypt, insecure and marginalized.

(I have met Iraqi refugee families who have come to the Diocese of Tucson. Like many Iraqis who have come to our country as refugees, their circumstances are difficult. Unable to find jobs, not knowing the language, receiving little government support, they find themselves traumatized again. We are working as a community to help them.)

The bishops encourage their people to stay in Iraq, this land that has been home to Christians from the very beginning of the Church. The people, though, ask their bishops if they can assure their safety. The bishops are frustrated that they can’t give that assurance. Christians continue to leave.

The bombing of the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance on October 31, 2010, was a defining moment for Christians in Iraq. They realized that beyond the dangers they face day-to-day in Baghdad, they now are not safe even in their churches.

When Bishop Murry and I went to Our Lady of Deliverance to visit with Bishop Warduni and Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka, Archbishop Emeritus of Baghdad, we saw the scars that remain from that tragic day: blood stained walls; a bloody hand print; the embedded outline of an automatic rifle left in the ceiling by the attack of the suicide bomber–searing images of the tragedy and violence that took place in this church during prayer.

A banner hanging at the entrance of the church shows the faces of those who were killed–men and women of varied ages and two priests, Father Thair Sad-alla Abd-al and Father Waseem Sabeeh Al-kas Butros. The heroism of the priests on that awful day is remembered in the homes of Christian families and in Catholic institutions in Iraq by the display of their portraits.

Bishop Murry and I were encouraged and inspired to see the work of Caritas Iraq.

Assisted by Catholic Relief Services, Caritas Iraq is alleviating the suffering of Christians and Muslims. In reality, the great majority of those helped are Muslim since they so outnumber Christians in Baghdad.

Regardless of religion, Caritas Iraq programs are reaching out to assist families with children with disabilities, to provide dental and medical assistance at a clinic, to teach women to sew, to cook, to develop a trade that they might better care for their families.

So importantly, Caritas Iraq is bringing people, especially young people, together for dialogue to create an environment in which peace can be nurtured.

Caritas staff told us of the divisions that are tearing the community apart. One worker said, “We have lost the bridges of communication. We need peace building. We need peaceful messengers among Christians and Muslims, people who see peace as a viable alternative.”

So much has been lost.

As one bishop told us, “We lived in an Eden garden, and now we have hell.”

Concluding our visit, Bishop Murry and I knew that we had been blessed to have this opportunity to meet people who even in their suffering pray with hope for peace, people who long for the opportunity to begin their lives again.

We cannot take away the tragedy that the people of Iraq have experienced and continue to experience, but we can stand in solidarity with them as they try to rebuild their society.

Through our witness, I hope we can encourage our government and our Church to provide the resources to help the people of Iraq recover their Eden garden.

As I write this, President Obama is declaring an end to the Iraq War, announcing that all our troops will be withdrawn by the end of the year.

I think of the people and bishops I met in Baghdad.

What are we leaving behind for them? 

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