National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  February 13, 2004

Journey to IRAQ


When I was in Iraq during these past days, I read this Gospel (Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21). I was overwhelmed with an awareness that everything Jesus said in this Gospel is not happening in Iraq.

I’ll give you a few examples: Proclaim good news to the poor!

A week ago yesterday I was in Baghdad just outside the compound housing the headquarters of the military occupation forces in Iraq. The morning after I was there, a bomb went off that killed 25 people.

A child stands in the rubble outside his "home" in the Al Huda squatter camp. More than 3,000 people live in the bombed wreckage of a former training center for Saddam Hussein's security forces.
-- Photos by Linda Panetta

I was with thousands of people, among the poorest people in the city of Baghdad. These are homeless people -- squatters. They had taken over a government ministry building that had been severely bombed during the recent war. It was empty. All the windows were shattered and there was no electricity or heat. But between 2,000 and 3,000 people had taken over this building and were living in it, trying to find some place of shelter.

Just the day before those people had received a letter from the government, the Ministry of Interior, telling them they had to leave that building the next day. They were saying: “Where will we go? We have no place to go!” They were being pushed out -- these poor, homeless people. They protested and we heard on Monday that they had been given another month, but by the end of this month they have to be gone. Where they will go, they do not know. It is hardly good news for the poor.

There are worse places, if you can believe it. The city of Baghdad has areas where tens of thousands of people live in shacks. They have no heat, no plumbing and no electricity. The people are desperately poor, and they are not hearing a message of good news. There is no good news in the near future for them that I can see and that they can see. The agenda of Jesus is not being carried out for the poor of Iraq.

The majority of the Iraqi people are becoming increasingly, desperately poor. Sixty to 70 percent of the people are unemployed. They have no incomes. When their current resources run out, they will be desperate simply to find food to survive.

We visited hospitals where the administrators told us that they have a little bit more medicine now than they used to have, but they still don’t have the equipment they need. They don’t have what it takes to provide healing.

Mothers and children greet visitors to the camp.

I was overwhelmed, really, by what I experienced in Iraq this time. As you know, I have been there seven times prior to this trip. The first time was before the first war. At that time Baghdad was a marvelous, beautiful, active city. Now it is in shambles. Five million people living in a terrible situation. It is always ready to erupt into violence.

As I experienced this, I recalled the words of Pope John Paul II: “War destroys the lives of innocent people.”

That’s what has happened! The lives of innocent people in Iraq, now in the millions literally, have been destroyed. What is left is hatred and resentment that make it all the more difficult to resolve the problems that provoked the war. Clearly that is what is happening in Iraq right now. We’re not coming to peaceful solutions. The whole situation is becoming more volatile. …

Right now we spend a billion dollars a week to support an army of occupation in Iraq. What if we were to use that billion dollars a week for rebuilding? We could reconnect with the people in a loving, peaceful and just way. We could bring peace. We could end the violence. We could give true freedom to the people of Iraq and enable ourselves to live in a greater spirit of freedom, freedom from fear at any moment of an attack.

It is possible! The agenda of Jesus is what can make it happen. We’ve heard that agenda this morning: “Proclaim Good News to the poor. Heal the broken-hearted. Give the blind new sight. Set the captives free. Lift up the downtrodden. Proclaim God’s year of favor.” That’s the agenda of Jesus.

Each of us must ask ourselves: Am I ready to say “amen” to that agenda? Am I ready to follow it? Am I ready to urge the leaders of my country to give up violence and to use our resources in a loving way for the people of Iraq and people in other places who are desperately in need of being lifted up, of being given their freedom and of being healed?

Bishop Gumbleton's entire homily regarding his Jan. 12-22 trip to Iraq can be found at in his column "The Peace Pulpit" of Jan. 25.

National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004

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