A brief history of the Jesuits of Baghdad

Father Alfred Hicks and his first year students in 1961 (photo: Georgetown University)Father Alfred Hicks and his first year students in 1961 (photo: Georgetown University)

July 17 marks the 50th anniversary of the coup d’etat in Iraq that brought the Baathist party to power. After the coup, the two Jesuit schools in Baghdad were closed and the Jesuits teaching there were expelled from the country. The invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British forces in 2003 prompted this reflection from Joseph F. MacDonnell, S.J., author of Jesuits by the Tigris: Men for Others in Baghdad.

In the years following the invasion, a group of Jesuits returned to visit Iraq. Jesuit Refugee Service now works in the country, and the Society of Jesus has an apostolate in Jordan that is supported in part by U.S. Jesuits.

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My first encounter with Iraqis occurred in 1955, when I taught physics and mathematics at the Jesuit secondary school, Baghdad College. Even though I was dismissed from Baghdad along with 60 other Jesuits in 1969 when the Baath party took over the government, my Iraqi students have never been far from my thoughts. Recently the stories and images sent by the “embedded” journalists covering the recent war have moved Baghdad to center stage for me once again.

July 17 marks the 50th anniversary of the coup d’etat in Iraq that brought the Baathist party to power.

In 1932 Iraq was granted its independence by the League of Nations. That very same year the Jesuits arrived in Baghdad. One of the highest priorities of St. Ignatius had been a mission to Islam, which was realized in later centuries in Egypt, Syria and Turkey. About 150 years ago two Jesuits were sent to Baghdad to investigate the feasibility of starting a school. After their caravan was robbed twice while crossing the Syrian desert, they notified the Roman Curia that the time was not yet opportune.

In 1932, however, Pius XI decided the time had come, and at the request of the Iraqi bishops four Jesuits were sent to start a high school. They purchased 25 acres in the northern part of the city and started Baghdad College (“B.C. on the Tigris”), which was founded as a science-oriented secondary school. It became such a great success that in 1955 the government gave the Jesuits 170 acres of land about 14 miles south of B.C. on which to build a new university, to be called Al Hikma.

Although Muslim boys were admitted to both schools from the very beginning, the objectives of the mission never included proselytizing Muslims. This frustrated some of our supporters. On one occasion, after giving a stirring exhortation to benefactors urging support for the Baghdad mission, Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing confessed his feelings privately to his Jesuit friends: “This Baghdad mission has to be the biggest waste of money and manpower in the history of the church—not a single convert from Islam!” In fact, our Muslim graduates have stated publicly that their Jesuit training made them better Muslims.

Our Muslim graduates have stated publicly that their Jesuit training made them better Muslims.

Over a period of 37 years, 145 Jesuits served in Baghdad and in so doing discovered its fascinating history. The splendid cultures that flourished there for the past five millennia included Sumer, Ur of the Chaldees, Nineveh, Babylon and Baghdad of the Caliphs. From here came the code of Hammurabi, the stories of Eden, Nebuchadnezzar and his Hanging Gardens, Jonah, Tobias, Daniel, the fiery furnace, Sinbad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Scheherazade and Haroun al Rashid. Baghdad’s Jewish inhabitants were a remnant from the era of the Babylonian Captivity.

Abraham, revered as father of all three religions, received the first covenant between God and man at Ur in southern Iraq. The Apostles Jude and Bartholomew first brought the faith to Iraq, and much of the country was Christian by the time of the Muslim conquest. Later the Baghdad Caliphs made the 12th century a time of peace for beleaguered Christians and a center of culture, as students gathered from all over the world at civilization’s first university, Al Mustansurria.

Government officials were gradually converted from initial intolerance to enthusiasm for the Jesuits’ educational work. A noticeable change in the attitude toward the American Jesuits occurred in 1942 during the Rashid Ali revolt, a short-lived, pro-Nazi coup d’état, when most Americans fled Iraq. The fact that the Jesuits made no effort to depart impressed the prime minister so much that he brought his two nephews to Baghdad College the following September. After that, sons of prime ministers, governors, sheiks and professional men chose the discipline and learning imparted by the Jesuits.

The year 1967, preceding our dismissal, was the most promising year ever for the mission.

The student population of the two schools was roughly half Muslim and half Christian. Distrust between Christians and Muslims resulted from 12 centuries of conquest and massacres, but here on these two campuses Christians and Muslims found a place where real friendships could develop as well as a deeper understanding of each other’s religion.

The year 1967, preceding our dismissal, was the most promising year ever for the mission. The pioneering years dedicated to survival were over, and earlier Muslim suspicions had disappeared. Wonderful opportunities indicated a stable future, not only for the two schools, but also for the Islamic apostolate, the ecumenical work with the various Christians, the spiritual direction of alumni, the lay apostle program and the opening of a major seminary as well as a Jesuit novitiate.

In 1968, following a bloody coup d’état in August by the Baath Socialist Party, both schools were nationalized, and all 61 Jesuits were expelled. On Nov. 25 the 28 Al Hikma Jesuits were given five days to leave the country. Baghdad College was nationalized the following August with no reason given and no compensation offered. No one was in a position to protest these expulsions, because of the atmosphere of terror created by the Baath. Distinguished Iraqi citizens were being arrested, tortured and murdered, and each day ordinary citizens suddenly disappeared. It was not until several years after the expulsion that the Jesuits came to understand the real reason for their dismissal. The Baathists feared a fundamentalist Muslim revolt stemming from the Muslim schools, and so felt they had to close all private schools.

The most interesting part of the Baghdad Jesuit adventure does not concern buildings or huge campuses but concerns rather the students, their families, the Jesuits and their colleagues. It is the people involved who make this mission such a happy memory, since there was much interaction between young American Jesuits and youthful Iraqi citizens and their families. Much more than other Jesuits in their American schools, the “Baghdadi” Jesuits entered the family lives of their students frequently and intimately through home visits to celebrate Muslim and Christian feast days as well as myriad social events, both happy and sad. Jesuits found the Iraqi students warm, hospitable, humorous, imaginative, receptive, hard working and appreciative of educational opportunities. The Iraqis found the Jesuits happy, fun-loving, intelligent and dedicated.

In the past, great attention was paid to the Baghdad mission by the New England Province, which made major investments of manpower, money, equipment and prayers. After the American invasion of Iraq, some of us were asked, “When are you Jesuits returning to Baghdad?” The melancholy fact is that of the original 145 Jesuits few are still alive. But Jesuits from some province certainly will return, because a place so important to Islam as well as to Christianity cannot be ignored for very long. What form the future mission will take we leave to the Holy Spirit, who took us there in the first place. But one thing is clear: The Jesuit mission to the Iraqis did not end in 1969. – May 26, 2003

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John Walton
4 months 1 week ago

Fordham University has a rather comprehensive collection of 'Al Baghdadi" -- the newsletter of the Jesuit community in Baghdad. Ask the Reference Librarian, or Special Collections. Very interesting observations on the Kurds -- 80 years ago.

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