ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church


One of the earliest centers of civilization, oil-rich Iraq is still a developing country where abject poverty coexists with vast wealth.

Present archeological evidence holds that the original cities or city-states sprung up in the valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the fourth millenium before Christ. In ancient times this area was called Mesopotamia, meaning “the land between the rivers.” We know it as Iraq.

Before 1258, much had happened in the Cradle of Civilization. The Babylonian Empire had twice risen and fallen. The Persian rule of Cyrus had given way to the Greeks and Alexander the Great. The Romans had come and gone – and Christianity had appeared.

By 570 another great religion had taken root – that of Mohammed – and by 641 Mesopotamia was Islamic. The period which followed saw the remarkable rise of the Moslem Caliphate, and the flowering of the Arab Golden Age – a period comparable to the Italian Renaissance. Baghdad became a sumptuous, civilized and cosmopolitan capital every bit as splendid as Babylon had been.

But in 1258 the roof fell in. Led by Hulagu – grandson of Ghenghis Khan – the Mongols invaded and in six days the total destruction of Baghdad was complete. The Golden Age had come to a dead end. An estimated 10,000 people – including most of the artists, scientists, and scholars, were summarily butchered.

There followed an eclipse of some 700 years during which time Iraq was governed by various foreign powers.

Only recently, with oil money, has Iraq emerged from its long sleep and begun to play “catch up ball.” Oil revenues were $6 billion in 1975, and today Iraq is second only to Saudi Arabia in petroleum reserves. Much of this money is being earmarked for a crash program of rapid industrialization and improved social services. Flood control is receiving special attention, as are new educational facilities. Projects currently being implemented include a technical college, the largest public-housing program in the Arab world, a rapid-transit system for Baghdad, as well as railroads, hospitals, and a modem communications system.

Baghdad itself is booming and wealthy. Horse-drawn carts have slowly been replaced by doubledecker buses. The Mercedes Benz is a popular item. Life is animated, consumer products plentiful. The average Baghdad laborer is now paid $3.50 an hour.

This capitol city is also the residence of the Chaldean Patriarch, who heads the largest group of Catholics in Iraq. He shares the same problems as Catholics of all rites in the Middle East: a grave lack of priests, schools and churches. In fact, the Patriarch has had to turn down requests from dissident groups in little mountain villages to be admitted to the Catholic Church, since he has no priests to send to them.

Baghdad’s religious population is representative of all Iraq – about 95% of the population is Moslem, with a few thousand Catholics of various rites, and smaller numbers of Jews, Protestants, and dissident sects.

But the modem hustle and bustle of Baghdad are still in sharp contrast to the wretched poverty found in rural areas. About 70 percent of the Iraqis are fellahins, or farmers, who live on the plain between the two rivers, and eke out an erratic living by raising wheat. Life is no better for the marsh people of the southern delta – the Ma’dan – where life centers around boating and fishing. And throughout Iraq can be found the poorest of the poor, the nomadic Bedouins, ever on the move in quest of fresh grazing land for their sheep.

Of particular interest are the Kurds of the north. Racially the Kurds are of Indo-European extraction which distinguishes them from all other Iraqi peoples. Inhabiting the remote Kurdistan Mountains, they have developed their own unique culture and way of life. And since the Kurdistan mountains cut across the boundaries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and the Soviet Union, the Kurds consider themselves a separate, independent people. Indeed for some fifty years they have been engaged in an on-again, off-again revolt with the Iraqi government.

However, their dreams for an independent Kurdistan underwent a severe blow in 1975 when Iraqi bombardment of their villages, and their own shortage of weapons proved too tough a combination for these fierce and persistent mountain warriors. The leading Kurdish rebels fled into exile, and a treaty was signed with the government to end the long years of fighting.

With the Kurdish revolt apparently ended, the government is now devoting its full energies to internal construction. Some impressive steps have been taken. But as is the case with most of Iraq’s Arab neighbors, the long years of arrested development have taken their toll and pose special problems. Poverty is still rampant, and in certain respects Iraq’s new surge of oil power is drawing the country into its economic adolescence. And adolescence always involves growing pains.

Jim Forsht is a freelance writer who specializes in religious and political subjects.

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