Report from Iraq
- This is from Tom Cornell of Peter Maurin Catholic Worker farm. Robert
Waldrop, Oscar Romero House, Oklahoma city
A contemporary essay in the Catholic Worker tradition
from the Cradle of Civilization -- To the Grave?
By Tom Cornell
Eez beautiful, my city, Baghdad! Thirteen year old shoe-shine boy
Ahmed throws his arms into the air, his face beaming to the morning
sun across the Tigris. Eez beautiful city, no, Baghdad?
I cant tell him, once surely, a beautiful, even a magnificent city,
unimaginably beautiful: broad boulevards and splendid mosques of
gleaming tiles, glowing domes, lovely private homes and public
buildings, parks and monuments depicting tales from the Thousand and
One Nights. But now the park bordering the river across the street
from our modest hotel is derelict. Its open air fish restaurants seem
rich and gaudy lit up at night with neon. In the light of day they are
revealed bleak and forlorn.
Ahmed has a spot on the sidewalk in front of our modest hotel for his
shoe-shine box. He is proud of his city. Ad ogni ucello il suo nido e
bello, I remember the Italian proverb, To every bird its own nest is
beautiful. Ahmed belongs here and his city belongs to him. He is in a
state of denial. Everyone here has to be. We are under unspeakable
threat. No one could function here constantly aware of the
overwhelming destructive power of American technological warfare
gathering to strike. Bomb shelters offer slight comfort after two U.S.
shells pierced through five layers of reinforced concrete at the
Al-Amariyah shelter in 1991, killing hundreds, wiping out entire
families. Shadows of victims are still imprinted on floors and walls.
Rubble in the streets, broken pavements, hollowed bombed out
buildings, piles of bricks from demolished buildings everywhere;
buildings destroyed by the force of concussion still stand empty
shells alongside working buildings. All this the result of five weeks
of around-the-clock U.S. bombing in 1991 and the embargo, sanctions
ever since. Men in military uniform carry automatic rifles on every
street, boys many of them. There is no soft-core pornography on
billboards luring customers to buy tooth-paste and automobiles.
Beggars press upon me, women hold malnourished children for display,
little girls follow doggedly pleading; old women and men sit on the
sidewalk with paper cup in hand. But there is no evidence of
homelessness. People apparently still take care of their own.
Portraits of The Great Leader are everywhere, Saddam carrying a
sword, Saddam brandishing a rifle, Saddam sitting serenely in a chair
looking very Western in tie and tailored suit, or praying or wearing a
kaffiyah around his head. The great leader, duce, fuehrer. Saddam
Hussein is one of many ruthless dictators around the world, some of
them are our best friends, as he was not so long ago when the U.S.
supplied his military.
Few women are on the streets, and most of them are accompanied by a
man. Very few are veiled, fewer in the all enshrouding burqa, but
almost all women wear a scarf. Most men on the street wear Western
dress, a few wear caftans, most have a kaffiyah on their heads, some
flowing, some twisted as a turban. Men wink at young boys in the
street and they smile, as Americans did when I was a boy. But that was
many years ago. You cant do that in the home of the free and the
brave now, not any more.
The atmosphere on the street is brisk. Men respect each other but
there is a no-nonsense feel to the place. And a sense of God. The Call
to Prayer sounds from the minarets five times a day. Sometimes you can
hear competing chants from mosques not far from each other, echoing.
Few seem to notice, no one stops to pray, or so it seems. They bustle
on, but many with prayer beads in hand recite the names of Allah. It
is a kind of consolation to me that when I ask about the teachings of
the Koran, most people seem to know as little about their religion as
fellow Christians in the West do about ours. Nevertheless, there is an
awareness of the saturating presence of The Other here, far more than
in Times Square.
As night falls three pre-teenage boys sift through a mound of garbage
for lettuce leaves, stuffing them into their mouths. I thrust a few
dinar notes into the hand of the nearest and rush away in shame.
Households have been given five months' food rations in order to get
supplies out of the main storage sites in the event of bombardment.
The Iraqi food distribution program, according to Denis Halliday,
Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and UN Humanitarian
Co-ordinator in Iraq (1997-98) who resigned in protest, is efficient,
involving 49,000 food distribution agents with strict accountability.
Iraqis are also stock-piling water.
Under the UN Oil-for-Food Program only about half the oil revenues can
be used for buying food and other necessities for the population of
the center and south of the country; the rest being used for
compensation to Kuwait, food for the Iraqi Kurds in the north, and the
costs of the UNMOVIC weapons inspections. According to UNICEF,
twenty-five percent of Iraqi babies are born weighing less than five
pounds, a key indicator of famine. One million children under five
suffer acute or chronic malnutrition.
Father Michael Baxter, C.S.C., of the theology faculty at the
University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, the new national
secretary of the revived Catholic Peace Fellowship, and I, the old
national secretary, are here to visit people, especially in the
religious communities, especially fellow Christians to bring the
message home that Iraqis are people, that many of them, over a million
Iraqi Christians in the same Mystical Body of Christ pray just as we
do, and for the same things.
Fr. Baxter has taken a shine to little Hassan, Ahmeds eight year old
apprentice shoe-shine boy. They play soccer in the afternoon with a
group in the park. Ahmed spots me for an easy touch. I dont mind.
After we get to know each other I ask him what he earns and he tells
me. He is making three dollars a day. But he wears just the same
thin turtle-neck pullover every day and a light-weight golf jacket. He
coughs in the morning cold. At three dollars a day and a six day work
week, the boy is taking home more than a college professor, but he
certainly isnt spending it on himself . Hes giving it to his
family, the major breadwinner. I have been there myself. So I put him
on account, a retainer, as it were, and have my shoes shined three
times a day. Its been decades since I had my shoes shined in New
Hassan is small for his age and grimy and out much too late at night.
His father is an Ali Baba, a thief, the taxi man tells us, currently
in jail, and his mother in the underground economy, so Hassan is
neglected. But he is spunky and maybe something of an an actor. He can
call up the tears at will as he puts fingers to mouth to mimic
eating. Monney pleeze, monney, he pleads, trotting along beside his
target. Hes so funny I peel off a couple of 250 dinar notes, two
bits, twenty-five cents. He smiles as I teach him how to accept folded
bills surreptitiously, palm to palm in a handshake, as they do at the
fancy restaurants in the States when you tip the maitre d for a good
table. Ive never done it myself but I know how. Later I come upon
Hassan in the dark, crying, and there is no audience. He is hungry and
cold and alone.
Dont eat the fish! I got so sick I lost more weight than ever in my
life and my tongue turned black, Dee Ann tells me. She and her
husband, a physician, are making a second tour. Eating fish taken
from a river that swallows 40,000 tons of raw sewage a day might
compromise ones health. Thats one reason why so many people have
died, half a million children under the age of five since the 1991
bombings of the water treatment plants. Its a form of biological
warfare, and it is also a means of mass destruction.
Voices in the Wilderness got us entry visas into the country. It is
illegal for us to be here without specific U.S. State Department
authorization, at the risk of a one million dollar fine and up to
twelve years imprisonment. No one has yet been prosecuted. Voices
has sent over sixty delegations to Iraq since 1996, breaking economic
sanctions through incurring travel related expenses and by
transferring medical supplies. In November, 2002, the U.S. Office of
Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed penalties on Voices and selected
individuals, a total of $50,000 in fines.
Entry visas are processed at the Jordanian border. Our passports are
not stamped, the visas (renewal stamps are required every week or ten
days) are on separate pieces of paper. We will answer questions on
re-entry into the U.S. fully and truthfully and leave it up to the
feds what to do about it. We are carrying over thirty thousand dollars
in antibiotics to give to St. Raphael Hospital in Baghdad. Its a work
of mercy. So be it.
Christian Peacemaking Teams, mostly Mennonites and Brethren have for
many years done excellent accompanying work in Palestine, and now
Iraq. Our whole group numbers nearly thirty, shifting frequently,
delegations and individuals coming and going. Coordinating such a
group is extraordinarily difficult. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry assigns
an officer to clear our plans beforehand with his superiors and then
arrange to have mindersaccompany us wherever we go. The minders tell
us what we may and may not do, where not to take photos, for instance,
or to aim field glasses. They accompany us to museums, concerts and
private homes and on trips to other cities. The most freedom we have
is in religious houses. Our Foreign Ministry man is as cooperative as
he can be and seems genuinely concerned for our safety. He is shaken
by the death of George Weber, a 73 year old Canadian CPT veteran of
several campaigns in Hebron. George died in an automobile accident on
the road back from Basrah in the south. The government man allows us
more lee-way. The Voices volunteers and the CPT people are doing a
hard job with skill, patience, good humor and prudence. Kathy Kelly
is the central organizer, and Gabe Huck, once of Liturgy Training
Publications in Chicago, an old friend from the Viet Nam days, works
full-time in the Chicago office. It is a delight to see him again and
his wife Theresa Kubasak here in Baghdad.
Cathy Breen of the New York Catholic Worker has here for three months.
She intends to stay as long as the authorities renew her visa, come
what may. What a joy to see her, an effective ambassador of goodwill!
In a matter of fact way, we discuss in a meeting the possibilities of
being taken hostage, of what to do with our mortal remains if it comes
to that. My mother and father want to know its really me, Cathy
says. Just have someone identify the body and dispose of it as you
Voices and CPT people are in three hotels, two around the corner from
each other. Cathy is only about six blocks away. She and Cliff Kindy
of CPT have become invaluable detail people. They even have kitchen
privileges at their hotel. We have to be very careful how we present
ourselves, and Cathy and Cliff know just how to do it. Iraqis are
sensitive to breaches in good manners and the media will twist and
misrepresent our message without conscience, so everyone has to be on
guard. Its also necessary to anticipate what might compromise an
on-going presence in an authoritarian state under siege.
There is a huge electrical generator in a cage on the sidewalk in
front of our hotel, and huge plastic containers of gasoline to fuel it
in case of a power failure. The hotel manager assures us that his
staff will take care of us in case there is an attack and we cant get
out. They too are stocking up on bottled water. My dear Mister
Thomas, how are you this morning? the manager greets me, upturned
moustache and British accent making him like seem like a character
actor in an old movie.
This is certainly a male society and almost all the men smoke almost
everywhere and they drive like maniacs. So does the young nun who
drives me home from a visit to her school and church. I was impressed
to see thirty-five or so young women in the Catholic church venerating
the relics of Saint Therese which are here on loan only for a day.
There were prayers and hymns and a student rose to the ambo to deliver
a meditation. The girls filed out. Then another group, the same
routine, then another. About three hundred and fifty young women in
Cathy Breen introduces us to her new friend, a neighbor, Adma. She
paints Iraqi scenes on paper, cloth and canvass and sells her work to
supplement her husbands income as a religious teacher in a mosque.
She is hospitable, offers small glasses of sweet tea and freely
speaks of her faith and customs with sensitivity and respect for
ours. Later she, her gorgeous little daughter and two smaller boys
accompany us to a power plant outside the city for a candle-light
demonstration to highlight the vulnerability of the infrastructure
and the devastating effects on the civilian population of its
destruction. Nine year old Abeers beauty is unforgettable, blue eyes
set in perfect features, fair complection and flowing, gleaming black
hair. What is more precious? I think of my blond granddaughter Rachel
and staunch the tears. We demonstrate on New Years Day also at the
UN headquarters. The inspectors wave at us as they drive out in their
It is the people we came to see, especially the Christian communities.
There are at least one million Christians in Iraq. The largest
communities are Orthodox, then come Catholic, both Latin and Chaldean
rites. The Chaldeans use Aramaic, the language of the Holy Family.
There are Armenian Orthodox and Catholic and Assyrians and Nestorians
and... its bewildering. One seminary in Baghdad serves students from
all the communities, with 47 faculty and over 263 students, some in
training as catechists and DREs, a few for the priesthood. Bishop
Jacques Isaac, a Chaldean Catholic, is rector. He takes most of a day
to pick us up, drive us to his school, walk us through and introduce
us, then take us to a neighborhood called The Little Vatican where
many Christian communions live side by side with Muslims as well, and
to houses of religious women.
If an Orthodox priest has to leave town unexpectedly, he is likely to
call upon the Catholic pastor down the street to cover his Masses for
him, so the bishop tells me. They dont ask their bishops conferences
if its all right because the Orthodox bishops refuse intercommunion
except in cases of dire necessity, in extremis. Its an on-the-ground
ecumenism that Bishop Isaac thinks is a blueprint for the future.
He also claims that the tenacity of the Chaldean church during the
time of the Islamic and Arab conquest was due to their liturgy. It was
and is an organic expression of their own culture, whereas in North
Africa, Christians were eased away from their Christian religion into
Islam because their liturgy was in Latin and followed forms that grew
out of an alien, European culture.
An Armenian Orthodox priest invites us to his home after Mass. He had
been a soldier in the army before seminary, he tells us, and his
language resonates the barracks more than the sacristy. If you send
ground forces, he says, well beat the shit out of you. Were not
afraid to die. You are. We will take tens, hundreds of thousands of
losses. You will not! He is not pacific. Our leader will protect
Over and over we heard that Christians are respected in Iraq, that
they have been there six and seven centuries before the Muslims,
except for the Armenians who came only a hundred years ago from Turkey
to escape persecution, that they are deeply embedded in the society.
On top of that, the current government is swift to squelch any
manifestation of religious extremism. All Christians we spoke to, in
all the churches, said the same thing. This government protects us.
We fear chaos more than anything because it will make us vulnerable
to extremist elements. People do not speak of political alternatives.
They dare not. The first item on the agenda has to be faithfulness,
simply to keep the faith, then survival.
Fr. Baxter went to Basrah for Christmas. He concelebrated Christmas
Mass in the Chaldean rite with Archbishop Kassab. I had a bug and
stayed low in Baghdad. But Kathy Kelly, the leader of Voices in the
Wilderness, saw me straying past the desk at our hotel and nabbed me.
Are you well enough to visit the papal nuncio? she asked. Hes on
the telephone. You can go over with Cliff and Cathy. He probably wont
give you an interview today but you can set something up for the CPT
and for yourself later. We took a cab.
Archbishop Francesco Filoni, the Popes ambassador to Iraq, was
expansive, very hospitable, from Southern Italy! He spoke from a broad
vision of the need to develop cultures of peace, how impossible that
is in a matrix of materialism. He spoke of his recent predecessor,
Bishop Maroon Oles, who had been here during the 1991 bombing. Oles, a
Pole, refused to leave his home for safe ground and stayed alone in
the house. A building nearby was leveled. So Bishop Oles was revered
by all for his courage. Filoni will stay also. I spoke of the duty to
disobey, of conscientious objection. He listened carefully and agreed
that citizens have the duty of conscience. He had no sympathy for
President Bushs intentions toward Iraq and made it clear that he
stands with the Pope and the bishops around the world who have
questioned the morality or even stated clearly the immorality of
preemptive war. He reminded us that every social, economic, political
or military policy has to be looked at under the question, What does
it do to the most vulnerable? He thanked us for our work and he
blessed us individually laying his hands upon our heads.
The happiest people we met were religious women, the Little Sisters of
Jesus, the Chaldean Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Mother
Teresas Missionary Sisters of Charity, the Dominican Sisters of the
Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary who run St. Raphaels
Hospital. Sister Mary Anne Pierre is a classic type, large and jolly
and gently forceful. When she calls a man down off a scaffold he comes
down, fast! Her sisters love her as a mother, and their home, as the
other womens homes, is a refuge of peace because their lives are
entirely given over to God whose will is their pleasure. Vowed life
may not be better, but it seems happier. Baxter delivers the
antibiotics to Sister Mary Anne and takes blueprints of the addition
the sisters hope to be able to build onto their hospital. She insists
that Fr. Baxter take a rug as a gift, a wall hanging representing The
In an archway in the ancient wall of Nineveh, Fr. Baxter reads aloud
the whole of the Book of Jonah. It is short enough. I heard it as for
the first time and very gratefully. Baghdad is more than a castor oil
In Babylon we walked through the remnants and reconstruction of the
palace of Nebuchadnezzar next to the river where the Psalmist hung his
harp upon a willow: How can we sing the Lords song in a strange
land? Our guide tells us Alexander the Great died in this room,
right here. Alexander, great but vile, the one who established the
oecumene, the ordered house that became the great empire under Rome.
How twisted is human history, how ambiguous, mysterious the interplay
of good and evil, how real Original Sin!
On to Mozul in the north. It is a rainy day and we dont have much
time, Just enough to walk the market place and notice the hostility
of the stares directed our way, to eat at a popular local restaurant
and to visit the Dominican Fathers. Why the hostile stares, so unlike
Baghdad where I felt safe anywhere walking alone, looking like a
well-dressed American? This is Kurdish country. Is it because the U.S.
promised to come to their aid if the Kurds rose up and then left them
stranded? Who knows?
The Jesuits are gone from Mozul, the New England Jesuits who educated
me at Fairfield. I can not find parishioners of my late classmate and
friend, Father Walter Young, who served here for more than twenty
years. I preached for him at the prison for young adult men in
Cheshire, Connecticut, after he returned from Iraq the victim of a
stroke, just after Gulf War I, in 1991, when Baxter and I returned
from counseling American military personnel in Germany who refused
deployment to the Gulf. Nothing I could say against Gulf War I was
strong enough for him then. His men, the Iraqi Christians, were the
cannon-fodder of that war, on the front-lines, shot in the back from
U.S. helicopters as they fled and buried alive or dead in the sand by
U.S. tanks and bulldozers. But the Dominicans are here. Prior Nageeb
Mekhail led us through the splendid complex of his church and told us
the same story we heard over and over again. How can the U.S. not
understand the folly of its present course?
Fr. Baxter has brought along three books which I poured through as he
read War and Peace. I have bought them to continue studying and I
recommend them to you. One is Iraq, the Bradt Travel Guide, by Karen
Dabrowski, Globe Pequot Press, 2002, Guilford, Conn., available at
most book stores with a travel section. The next is A Peace to End
All Peace, by David Fromkin, from Holt, and The Vision of Islam, by
Marata and Chittick, from Paragon House in St. Paul, Minn., which goes
into greater depth than Karen Armstrongs excellent Islam: a Short
History, from Modern Library Chronicles. Fromkin details the lunacy of
British and French imperialist policy propelling the disastrous
division of the fallen Ottoman Empire after World War I. Armstrong,
Marata and Chittick make available an appreciation of the beauty, the
authenticity, the strength and vitality of the Muslim way to holiness,
something that few Westerners seem even to want to understand. But if
it in fact comes down to a clash of civilizations, dont count on
technology to win over spirit!
Will you come back to Baghdad? Ahmed asks me. He knows that Mike and
I are preparing to leave. No, probably not. But I wont forget you,
I tell him. I hope you find a good wife and have many beautiful
children. He smiles broadly, shakes my hand, and then kisses me on
the left and then the right cheek. I bend to kiss little Hassan.
We left Baghdad by overland route to Amman. A herd of camels, one
hundred and fifty raced our Suburban, which cruised at 150 kph. They
lost. Nobody passed us in ten hours on the road. From Amman by plane
to Rome and four days of meetings in the Vatican, first with
Archbishop Renato Martino and Dr. Giorgio Filibeck at the Pontifical
Council for Justice and Peace. Cardinal Stafford for the Council for
the Laity was very encouraging in an extended telephone conversation.
We were received graciously by Monsignor Khaled Akasheh at the Council
for Inter-religious Dialogue in charge of relations with Islam who
asked us to try to make the American people more aware of what really
motivates Muslims, and to let Muslim leaders know that we have great
sympathy and respect for them. We met too with Father Augustine DeNoia
Council for the Doctrine of the Faith. No one spoke for attribution
but only for background. No one in the Vatican is defending the
proposed attack on Iraq. Archbishop Martino told us to look for Pope
John Pauls statement due on the 13th of January. He said it would be
startling. It was the clearest condemnation of the proposed war yet!
The bottom-line in Vatican political thinking is that the U.S. is
threatening the fabric of international law which is a sine qua non of
any lasting international peace.
We brought up the question, is there ever a duty, as well as a right,
to disobey? Gaudium et spes, of the Second Vatican Council, numbers
79-81 and Evangelium Vitae, John Paul IIs 1995 encyclical which uses
the term conscientious objection for the first time in a authoritative
document, explicitly in the context of abortion and euthanasia,
clearly indicate that this is so. Then what if an American service man
or woman forms his or her conscience on the basis of explicit
teachings of the Church and comes to the conclusion that military
service is no longer justifiable, either in general or in a
particular instance: does the Church then have an obligation toward
that individual? The answer, go to your bishops in the States, ask
them, go to the Military Ordinariate,
to Bishop OBrien! All right. We will go and ask them to follow
through on the promise they made upon the re-institution of
registration for Selective Service to make the good offices of
Catholic agencies available to the support of any and everyone who
comes forward with a problem of any kind in regard to military service
or the draft ( USCC Administrative Committee, 1980).
The Community of SantEgidio Vesper Service at the Church of Santa
Maria in Trastevere had three hundred and fifty people on a Thursday
night, a fifth of them black Africans, with Asians and men and women
in equal proportion. Another group of younger adults and adolescents
was meeting at the same time. One of their leaders, a specialist in
Middle Eastern affairs, Claudio Betti, invited a couple of community
members, Baxter and me to his apartment for supper. Ideas crackled
like Roman candles. SantEgidio is the closest thing to the Catholic
Worker I have found anywhere, serving the very poor by direct outreach
and putting into practice the theory of nonviolence, but it is
organized, rational, and gets things done. They agreed that Africa is
the touchstone of globalization, that black Africa is heading to
disaster, not just because of AIDS but because neo-liberal
globalization is marginalizing whole nations on that continent.
Claudio agreed that most of the world acts as if it would prefer that
black Africa simply disappear, just as white America would prefer to
wake up one day and find that our marginalized non-white population
had simply vanished.
Most of the communitys work is practical, down to earth, and they are
prayerful, recognizing the primacy of the spiritual. They are serious
about reading the true mind of the Church and putting into practice
the imperatives of justice and peace that have been defined as
constitutive elements in the new evangelization since the 1971
Synod of Bishops. We can learn something from them.
The pending war is not inevitable. Can the President ignore the will
of such a large cross-section of the people, of a quarter of a million
people in D.C. on January 18, and as many more in smaller
demonstrations across the country, of world public opinion, of Pope
John Paul in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul
and the Primate of the Anglican Communion Rowan Williams in Canterbury
and almost all the religious leadership across the globe?
The President bullies France and Germany and the United Nations,
deploys more troops, aircraft carriers, heavy equipment, over one
hundred thousand troops, as many more on the way. The sleight of hand
that threatens to turn the war on terrorism into a war upon Iraq
will enflame the Arab world and one billion Muslims around the
globe. Pakistans government may well fall. Eighty percent of Turkeys
people oppose the war. A ripple effect in the entire region is not
unlikely. Hatred of Israel will mount. The world economy may not
revive but reverse. Terrorist groups will see a flood of recruits
eager to outdo September 11 in slaugher. Our civil liberties may
never recover. Every stated goal of the war policy is undermined by
Can the President imagine the huge masses of people who would come out
into the streets if he bombs Iraq? Can he imagine how he would keep
the government running if the American people clog its machinery with
our own bodies?
The people may have stopped this war. I want to believe it. God grant
it! InshAllah! Pray for Iraq, for the children, and pray for our
country. We need prayers even more than the Iraqis. It is no sin to
die. It is a sin to murder.