ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Against All Odds: Preparing Iraq’s Priests

Despite brutal, often dangerous surroundings, seminarians at the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchal Seminary of St. Peter in Baghdad are zealous in their calling.

Raw sewage splashed on the sides of our four-wheel-drive vehicle as we approached the entrance to Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Patriarchal Seminary of St. Peter. Boarded-up stores, shabby homes and broken pipes reminded me that Dourah, once a respectable Baghdad suburb, had fallen into abject poverty under the weight of two wars – Iran and the Gulf – and the five-year, U.N.-imposed embargo. Only when we drove past the open gates of the seminary did we find relief from the stench given off by the piles of rotting garbage.

In 1960, the seminary was transferred to Baghdad from the city of Mosul, about four hours north of the capital. At that time, the Society of Jesus still operated Al Hikma University in Baghdad; the Ba’ath Party had begun to consolidate its power and the first class of Chaldean Catholic seminarians had just completed their theology studies.

But today, even behind the walls of the seminary, no one can escape the harsh realities of life in Iraq. The spartan conditions of the seminary, which currently houses 24 men, border on the unsanitary. The plumbing system has had to be turned off in several sections: spare parts are not available. Hot water is only a dream; the hot water tank has not functioned in ages. Even if it worked, the out-dated wiring would no longer handle the extra load. Since all the wires are exposed, Father Shlemun, Rector of the seminary, notes half-laughingly that replacing them should be easy.

Iraq’s Catholic seminarians, however, are well versed in adversity. Many of them fulfilled their military obligations before entering. During the Iranian and Gulf wars, they survived deprivation for long stretches of time. With no fixed tours of duty, and Iraq’s frequent periods of war, soldiers served an average of eight years after university. Consequently, some seminarians did not begin their theological studies until their mid-30s.

Half of the seminarians were born and reared in the ancient Christian villages around Mosul. Although Iraq is 96 percent Muslim, the villagers of Karakosh, Betnaya and Alquoch – to name but a few – have preserved their ancient Christian faith, despite tremendous obstacles. The remaining seminarians grew up near Baghdad, although most of their parents were born in and around Mosul.

The eyes of the seminarians brightened and smiles appeared as they realized that I was quite familiar with their native villages. These tiny hamlets have long provided Iraq with most of her priests, sisters and religious. Even Father Shlemun hails from a small farm in Betnaya.

The Chaldean Catholic Seminary is not exclusively Chaldean. This year, six of the seminarians enrolled are members of the Syrian Catholic Church. And young men of the Armenian Apostolic and Assyrian churches are among the 33 students enrolled in the minor seminary’s philosophy program. The presence of Chaldean Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Assyrian seminarians – in Catholic facilities – demonstrates the desire among Iraq’s Christian churches to cooperate with one another. Pooling available resources has raised the standards of the programs while providing cross-cultural opportunities for these churches, so rich in history and tradition.

Christianity’s roots run deep in modern Iraq. Before the birth of Christ, the people that inhabited the land between the rivers – Mesopotamia – played an integral role in the development of Judaism. Abraham, who in modern terminology would be described as an Iraqi, was “called from Ur of the land of the Chaldeans.”

According to ancient tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle first brought the Gospel to the semitic peoples of Mesopotamia. Clearly, by the third century, churches were established by Mar Addai and Mar Mari, missionaries from the Syrian city of Edessa. These Christians spoke Syriac, a dialect similar to the one spoken in Palestine. Liturgically they borrowed elements of worship from the Temple practices in Jerusalem, including animal sacrifices and the structure of the liturgy.

Concerned by the hellenization of the established church of Rome and fearing the wrath of the Persian emperor, who waged war against Rome frequently, these Syriac Christians – citizens of the Persian Empire – disassociated themselves from the Western churches. The Assyrian Church of the East turned its missionary efforts to the East, spreading Christianity from India to China.

Contacts with the West led some Assyrians to seek full communion with the Church of Rome. In 1553, the Chaldean Catholic Church was created, an Assyrian body in communion with the Holy See. This church, which numbers more than 635,000 people, is the largest Christian church in Iraq. The Assyrians in Iraq number just 50,000 members, while the Syrian Catholics total 30,000 and the Syrian Orthodox, 20,000 people. The Armenian Christian community includes about 15,000 Apostolic Christians and 5,000 Catholics.

Maintaining an active and vibrant ecclesial life has not been an easy task for Iraq’s Christians. The young men who seek ordination to the priesthood must face tremendous odds. Just five days before the Gulf War began in the winter of 1991, eight men were ordained. Now, an average of three are ordained a year.

Sadly, Christian emigration from Iraq – indeed throughout the Middle East – has struck the church a mighty blow. Father Shlemun has watched many seminarians leave the country. Immediately after the Gulf War, 10 seminarians (from both the major and minor seminaries) emigrated. And once these young men move to Australia, Europe or North America, most do not continue their studies.

At present, the families of three seminarians have received permission to emigrate. Without the support of family, a powerful ingredient in Arab life, it would be impossible for a young seminarian to choose to stay in Iraq.

If a seminarian’s family remains in Iraq, stress is constant. The average monthly wage of the family patriarch, the usual breadwinner, provides enough food for barely a week. Average laborers earn about 3,000 Iraqi dinars a month. But this amount, which is the equivalent of $1.50, will buy only 30 eggs for a family with six children.

Unable to work to help nourish their younger brothers and sisters, many seminarians are burdened with guilt. To relieve a portion of this burden, the Rector has given each seminarian 5,000 dinars for his family. Before the Gulf War this sum would have totaled about $15,000. Today, however, it adds up to a mere $3 – almost two months’ pay. While the gesture brightened Christmas for the seminarians and their families, what will occur during the other 11 months of the coming year?

Another burden in Iraq is the threat of unlimited military service. Even if a man has already served in the Iraqi military and entered religious life, he may be called back into service.

Last May, those men born in 1952 were notified of an unexpected reserve duty that required at least one month of service. Father Pius, a Syrian Catholic priest who was one of those called, said that his parishioners would manage with visiting priests while he served. A seminarian who loses a month, however, may lose an entire semester.

One final challenge seems slightly more controllable. Since the U.N. embargo, textbooks have become prohibitive and difficult to import Consequently, our CNEWA-PMP office in Amman developed a means of repairing the seminary’s ancient photo-copier – no easy task in a country without sufficient spare parts. Now the students have copies of articles and exercises.

Our next step is to provide the library with up-to-date theological books; the seminary’s newest book dates back more than 20 years. Meanwhile, we renovated the library with improved lighting, new shelves, a fresh coat of paint and a few pieces of furniture. We also assisted in training the library staff. The seminarians now enjoy entering their library, if only to browse.

Despite these limitations the seminarians seem blessed with a wide array of highly talented teachers. The Auxiliary Bishop of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate, Emmanuel-Karim Delly, and several priests volunteer time to lecture theology and spirituality. This approach to Scripture and Patristics includes reviews of St. Ephrem the Syrian and the work of an 11th-century patriarch, Elia. To broaden the minds of the students, a Muslim woman, a graduate of Al Hikma University (the former Jesuit college), teaches the history of philosophy. Courses in archeology, computers, library science and preaching are also conducted.

There is obvious progress. Yet, Father Shlemun, who conducted his doctoral studies in Education in Rome, is not satisfied. The Rector would like to hire an English-speaking professor to expand the language skills of the seminarians. Theology professors from Europe, India and North America are being pursued to fill six-month or one-year terms. And Father Shlemun would like to purchase audiovisual tapes in Arabic and English.

One bright moment occurred last July in the Christian village of Karakosh. Two graduates of the seminary were ordained priests for the Syrian Catholic Church. Their former Rector beamed with pride as Ameer Iishoe Giaggi and Sa’adi Marzena Khader were anointed by the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Cyrille Emmanuel Benni.

The packed church prayed silently as the former seminarians received the laying on of hands. And again the crowd looked on in silence as the Archbishop fulfilled an ancient Syriac tradition: with the ordinandi kneeling before him, the Archbishop wrapped each man in his great cope, symbolizing the love, protection and concern that a bishop offers his priests.

But the restrained silence of the crowd erupted at the conclusion of the liturgy. As the new priests processed through the middle of the church, the women cried out in the traditional Arabic manner. The people flooded the village’s narrow streets. And once the newly ordained priests stepped outside the church, the tumultuous crowd hoisted the men on their shoulders and carried their heroes to an exciting reception. Even in Iraq there may be reason to celebrate.

Father Corcoran is the former Director of our Amman office.

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