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19 December 2012

Reconciliation in Iraq

Reconciliation in Iraq

It’s nearly Christmas; a time when we think about the Prince of Peace. A time when we celebrate Christ’s coming among us.

Yet it is a time when most just concentrate on festivities and presents. For us in Baghdad, where we live in the midst of war and violence, the Prince of Peace is not just for Christmas he is for every day. As you enter our church, St George’s in Baghdad, you are faced by the huge church banner in the sanctuary above the altar. It simply reads in both Arabic and English: Prince of Peace. We may not have peace but we do have the Prince of Peace and he stays with us every day. When you come into our compound you leave war, violence and tragedy and come into a place of peace. You see our people have lost everything but we have not lost the Prince of Peace. He is with us every day. He gives us faith, hope, peace and a future.

It is not just a theoretical thing. It is the thing that brings us such joy and happiness. We are not a sad and destitute people. We are indeed the happiest church I have ever known because in the midst of the darkness we have great light because the Prince of Peace is with us every day.

It is now 14 years since I first started to work in Iraq. Initially in 1998 I was mainly working on issues of reconciliation between the various religious and political leaders and their various equivalents in the West. In the early days I remember very clearly taking them to see Billy Graham in the US and the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. At the very heart of my work in Baghdad is the work of reconciliation.

Despite Iraq not being in the news much now it is still a total and utter war zone. Bomb barricades and military checkpoints surround us.

Of particular sadness was the formation of groups such as ‘the Birds of Paradise’ around the northern town of Kirkuk. This was a group of children aged between nine and 13. These young children were trained to be suicide bombers because as children they were less likely to have to undergo intense security checks that would expose their evil intent.

It was on the last day of October in 2010 that everything changed for Christians in Iraq. AQI gunmen broke into the Syrian Catholic Church during a service and killed 59 people. What followed in the two months after the massacre was more killing and torture of Christians.

For me this started an intense engagement with the various religious leaders of Iraq. Of paramount importance was the engagement with the Sunnis. Two weeks after the tragedy Sheik Khalid came and spoke in my church. He expressed his sadness and sorrow about what had happened and assured the people that they were a vital part of Iraq. Intensive negotiations continued to urgently get a meeting together to enable us to move forward condemning all violence towards minorities. In early January we took the various religious leaders to Copenhagen where we were joined by the Sunni and Shia Islamic leaders as well as those from three other minorities: the Christians, Yazidees and Mandians.

Day and night we worked on the Fatwa (Islamic Religious Injunction) and Declaration not to permit violence against minorities. All night the Islamic leaders were on the phone making known to their contacts that there was a historic joint Sunni and Shia Fatwa forbidding the killing of minorities. The effect was immediate and very significant attacks against Christian were stopped immediately.

Sadly a month later an attack killing a Christian family happened in Baghdad. This is what we were informed by the terrorists would indeed happen after a month if we did not continue working with the Islamic leaders. This has just demonstrated how important this work is. The comments have been continuous from the Christians saying how different the situation is now. The vast majority did not know about the one attack in the Jihad area of Baghdad where very few Christians live. Despite the Islamic Fatwa many Christians fled Iraq after these attacks.

While this work has been very successful there is now a very real concern as to what will happen now with increased violence and the establishment of groups such as the 4th Brigade in Hilla.

Iraq today is in a total mess. Politically, economically, socially and educationally. It is a land facing one of the greatest levels of corruption in the world. The streets and infrastructure are more than falling to pieces yet Iraq has one of the largest oil reserves in the world.

The one area of particular concern is the continued large number of Iraqis claiming asylum overseas, particularly among Christians. The position among all the religious leaders on this is clear: they are all against any of their people leaving Iraq. Are they at risk? Yes, everybody is, but this nation will never be restored if all the good people leave.

As Yonadam Kanna, the main Christian political leader in Iraq, says: “If the Christians all leave this land, the root is removed and the tree dies.”

The Rev Canon Dr Andrew White is Anglican chaplain to Iraq and international director of the Iraqi Institute of Peace.

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