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Journey Through Iraq

The editor’s interview with Msgr. Robert L. Stern.

On 1 May 1993, Msgr. Robert L. Stern traveled to Iraq as a member of a Vatican delegation headed by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini. The purpose of this visit was pastoral: to meet with members of the Christian hierarchy, Catholic and non-Catholic, and to assure them of the Holy See’s support for their struggling communities.

I spoke with him in his office after he returned from a grueling month and a half of travel. Iraq was not the only stop; Jordan, Israel, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Rome were also on his itinerary.

Although he should have been exhausted, I found him refreshed and, as he recounted his experiences, invigorated.

“The only way into Iraq,” the monsignor began, “is to drive from Jordan. We left early on Saturday morning [1 May] after Mass and breakfast at the Latin Vicariate in Amman.

“After a three-and a-half-hour drive from Amman we arrived at the Jordanian-Iraqi frontier. We were met there by representatives of the Iraqi religious affairs office and foreign ministry. We had originally intended to travel as guests of the Chaldean Catholic patriarch, Raphael I Bidawid. However the Iraqi government intervened and determined to host us as its guests.

The Holy Father is concerned with the plight of the people of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf war and the emigration of the Christian communities. Cardinal Silvestrini was sent to assure them of the pope’s love and support.

“After a few hours at the border we proceeded to Baghdad, which is another five hours by car. The highway was a beautifully designed six-lane highway that resembled an interstate in the United States. Although it was rather empty, I saw no signs of damage from the extensive Allied bombing [the Allies targeted this highway; it was assumed to be a supply route]. Most of the trip was through an arid wasteland and a dense sandstorm. The first sign of greenery was when we reached the banks of the Tigris River. Some claim that it was along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, ancient Mesopotamia, that civilization began. We arrived in Baghdad in the early evening.

“We were housed in the Al Rasheed Hotel, which was damaged by an Allied missile during the war. It had just been repaired. In the entrance a mosaic image of former president George Bush paved the way. ‘Bush is liar [sic]’ is inscribed in both English and Arabic. It is difficult to enter the hotel without treading on the image,” he continued.

“Once in Baghdad we visited representatives of every Eastern Christian community with a presence in Iraq. We met with the Chaldean Catholic hierarchy, who lead Iraq’s largest and most influential Christian community; we visited the Armenian, Latin and Syrian Catholic bishops and we met with the Armenian Apostolic, Assyrian, Greek and Syrian Orthodox leaders. With each community the cardinal delivered an address from the pope, which again reiterated the pontiffs fraternal love and support.”

While listening to Msgr. Stern list the names of these bishops, archbishops and patriarchs, I remembered seeing a few slides that were taken while the delegation was in Iraq. Among the photos were a few that depicted a group of men in white robes and flowing beards. I can usually identify the costume for each community, but this time I was bewildered.

“They are the Mandaeans,” Msgr. Stern said with interest. “The Mandaeans claim to be descendants of the followers of John the Baptist and, later, of the Gnostics. This isolated sect has declined from the second and third centuries when it was at its height. Today the Mandaeans are led by a sheik, a hereditary position that passes from father to son.

“The Mandaeans were received by the Holy Father in Rome. They responded to Cardinal Silvestrini’s visit to Iraq with great enthusiasm, arranging a reception, meal and speeches. Unfortunately, our schedule was packed and we could not stay as long as we desired.” Iraq’s roots run deep.

The delegation also visited the northern city of Mosul, near the site of the biblical city of Nineveh and traditional center of Iraqi Christianity.

The Vatican delegation met with Iraq’s political leaders as well. Cardinal Silvestrini had a private meeting with President Saddam Hussein, which lasted for more than two hours.

“The cardinal spoke with courage when he said to the president, you showed great boldness in war and in reconstruction, now you must show boldness in making peace,” Monsignor continued. “The cardinal also made it clear that the church wants to be of assistance to the people of Iraq. The entire delegation then met with Tariq Aziz, the Christian deputy prime minister, and other government leaders.

“Within Iraq the visit was covered extensively by the media and in a positive light. But,” he continued, “to the outside world, the Iraqis were critical of the visit, as if to say: ‘Iraq will not be told what to do.’”

Like most Americans, I had watched the television daily for the networks’ coverage of the Gulf war. I remembered the heavy bombing of Baghdad and I asked Msgr. Stern if he had noticed any damage while he toured the city.

“One of the remarkable things is that there is no sign whatsoever of the severe Allied bombardment. Everywhere there are signs of reconstruction, not destruction. Near the Vatican embassy, a destroyed communications center, which was an important Allied target, has been rebuilt. The ruined bridges spanning the Tigris and connecting the various quarters of this city have all been restored.

“However,” the monsignor continued, “the pre-war economy has not been restored. Gas is cheap, but food is very high. Families do not eat properly and meat is scarce. Inflation has skyrocketed and the Iraqi dinar is almost worthless. There are accounts of price gouging as well.

“Medicines are just not available. Food and medicines are exempt from the U.N.’s embargo, but the Iraqi government declines to sell its oil to purchase them because of the indemnities imposed by the United Nations.

“Ironically the Iraqi middle class, who were potential opponents to Saddam Hussein, have been destroyed. Many families have been impoverished, others have fled to the West. There is no question that Saddam Hussein has consolidated his power – he is more powerful now than before the war.

“There is freedom to practice religion,” Msgr. Stern said, “but the church leadership must walk delicately. This freedom could be taken away at any time.

“Church leaders must cooperate to some extent with the government. The dilemma is: do you protect the freedom and existence of the church, but sacrifice its prophetic witness? Or do you publicly defend human rights and perhaps jeopardize the church’s freedom?”

I suggested the Orthodox experience in the Soviet Union as an example and he agreed. “It is easy for an outsider to criticize a church or a community for subservience,” he added.

While the delegation was in Iraq, the government announced that the borders would be closed for five days; the dinar was to be reevaluated. The delegation was exempted, but their Jordanian driver and car had to be left behind. Baghdad had not specified the car or the driver on its exit authorization.

“We were delayed at the Iraqi border, appealing the decision. The Iraqi officials feared to question this apparently simple oversight by Baghdad.

“This is a society living in constant fear. To question any authority is to question the center.”

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

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