World -- Iraq
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Issue Date:  August 27, 2004

-- Pat Morrison

Archbishop Jean Sleiman
Rebuilding amid chaos

Bush underestimated the dangers of war, says Iraqi archbishop


Even though the suite in Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton Hotel was 17 stories above street level, the shrill wail of fire engine and ambulance sirens sliced through the air. As a seemingly endless stream of emergency vehicles sped by, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Baghdad smiled and shrugged. “In Iraq we are very used to it,” he said, gesturing toward the source of the noise.

Jean Benjamin Sleiman, the spiritual leader of one of Iraq’s tiny Christian communities since 2001, is no stranger to emergencies, violence and war-bred chaos. Sleiman, 58, was born and raised in Lebanon. He speaks five languages. And he knows the Middle East like the back of his hand.

A member of the Discalced Carmelites, an international religious order with roots in Palestine, Sleiman was in Chicago July 21-25 for a conference sponsored by the order’s two branches to address the multiple levels of crisis on the world scene. An expert on Muslim-Christian relations, with doctorates in theology and social and cultural anthropology -- plus years of on-the-ground experience -- he is well versed on the situation of the Christian churches in the Middle East, as well as the current situation in Iraq.

In a July 24 interview with NCR, he described violence of the kind that erupted against Iraq’s minority religion Aug. 1 as the sad but logical development of the unrest that is rampant in Iraq since the war. He said the current level of tension makes Christian coexistence in this Muslim nation precarious.

The war, with the U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein, has brought some positive changes to Iraq, he acknowledged. But it also has opened a Pandora’s box, creating some problems worse than those it solved. And Sleiman lays part of the blame on President George W. Bush’s worldview and foreign policy.

The archbishop also believes Saddam was losing his grasp on the country before the war and that the end of the regime was just a matter of time. “I think in a [short time] we would have seen the end of Saddam Hussein, even without the war,” he said.

He acknowledges that Saddam was a ruthless dictator who perpetrated horrendous atrocities against his own people. And overthrowing Saddam was one positive outcome of the coalition military intervention. But was it worth it? Sleiman worried before, and worries still, that war in Iraq has opened a door to realities perhaps worse than Saddam.

‘A terrible evil’

“I wasn’t being the prophet -- we were against the war because, morally, war is really a terrible evil, even if you have some reasons [to support it]. But war in Iraq is very, very dangerous,” Sleiman said. And he thinks Bush seriously underestimated that danger.

“Really, I tried to understand George Bush. … I am sure he is a good man, morally. I’ve read that he is a converted [born-again] Christian. But,” he said, “that is not enough to understand the realities in other societies, in other cultures, [nor] international politics.

“Maybe war is simple for him,” Sleiman said, his passion for the topic growing more evident in his voice and gestures. “But really, war is not simple. If you achieve something by war you are creating a very, very new situation. And you cannot control it as you want, as you desire.”

The frightening lawlessness and the rage feeding it is what accounts for the current violence -- as well as the attacks on the Christian churches, Sleiman said.

-- CNS/Reuters

Iraqis run through the streets of Baghdad after bombs exploded in five Catholic churches Aug. 1. At least 11 people died and more than 50 were injured when terrorists made coordinated attacks in Baghdad and Mosul.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism among segments of the Iraqi population (as well as Islamist insurgents entering Iraq from other nations) fuels the unrest in part. But according to Sleiman, it’s too simplistic to blame the escalation of violence solely on a jihadist mentality.

“You also have a people humiliated by the [U.S.] invasion. Many soldiers are fighting against Americans because [the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer] with one signature dissolved the army, sent home all the soldiers.”

As a result, Sleiman said, “you have now about a half-million families who are in serious difficulties, cannot buy food, have no salaries, nothing.”

Before the U.S. invasion, a dozen-plus years of U.S.-led sanctions destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure, water treatment facilities and medical services. More than 4,500 Iraqi children died every month from preventable diseases because the sanctions cut off their ability to have clean water and common medicines. Iraq, once one of the most advanced nations in the Middle East, was dragged back to Stone-Age squalor. Couple that with the war, Sleiman said, and Iraq now seethes with pent-up anger at its supposed “liberators.”

Sleiman said Bush’s interpretation of rebuilding Iraq is myopic, “like having blinders on,” he said. The U.S. administration, the coalition and even the interim Iraqi government all give lip service to the “rebuilding of Iraq” but have a limited physical definition of what that means. As a result, there’s the eager influx of foreign corporations wanting to secure their piece of the action as they focus on “rebuilding” Iraq with cellular technology, new construction, and the introduction of Western products.

What is needed, the archbishop said, is much more difficult. “We have to rebuild minds, attitudes” for an entire generation, “rebuilding people” capable of embracing an entirely new way of political and social life -- one, he adds, that Iraqis need to work out and develop for themselves, not simply adopt a carbon copy of U.S. democracy. And he sees rebuilding a new national mindset still a long way off.

Iraq’s power vacuum -- and the numerous groups jockeying to fill it -- is partly responsible for the attacks on the Christian churches, Sleiman said.

Indigenous churches

Christians have been part of the Iraqi landscape for centuries, but they represent a tiny minority, about 3 percent of the population -- an estimated 800,000 people in a nation of more than 25 million. Despite the fact that most of Iraq’s churches are indigenous and not European imports, Islamic fundamentalists see Christianity as allied with the West and the moral turpitude they believe it represents. Christians sell and drink liquor, dress immodestly by Muslim standards, and import Western music, customs and social mores that fundamentalist Muslims view as offensive. But according to Sleiman, perhaps more dangerous for Christianity is the perception that, as a “Western” religion, it represents a form of colonialism.

-- CNS/Reuters

An Iraqi boy stands against the gate of a Baghdad church Aug. 2 while viewing the damage of a car-bomb attack from the previous day.

Sleiman, who is a scholar of Islam, said he sees the rise of fundamentalist Islamism in Iraq as a troubling development, but one that is not unexpected. He pointed to the historic development of the Quran, which Muslims believe was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad only gradually, over a period of time. Similarly, Sleiman said, Muhammad’s own life can be characterized by three distinct periods. In the first, perhaps influenced by his positive contact with Christians when he was a traveling merchant, he was very conciliatory toward Christians and also Jews; those passages in the Quran calling for respect for “the people of the book” and for peaceful relations with them date to this first era, Sleiman said.

In the second period, Muhammad hoped to be accepted as a prophet by the Jews, but they ultimately rejected him. “‘You are goy [a gentile],” Sleiman said the Jews told Muhammad. “You cannot be a prophet of Israel.” Ultimately, some Jewish tribes stoned him and drove him from their region. As a result of this rejection, Muhammad was no longer open to the Jews.

It is a matter of historic record that as Muhammad came into his own as a leader among the Arab tribes he unified through Islam, his military and political conquests multiplied. “This third and most important period,” Sleiman explained, had “plenty of conflict with Jews. Christians also. … In this period there is less revelation and inspiration and more military campaigns, administration, and so on.”

It is in this context that you have Quranic passages calling on Muslims to kill “unbelievers,” now no longer meaning pagans, as originally, but specifically Christians and Jews, he said.

Fundamentalist Muslims “are taking their justification [for attacks on Christians and for jihad] from this period,” Sleiman said, “and they are right. If you apply the principle of abrogation, this last period should have abrogated, done away with, all that came before.” As a result, he said, you don’t find many Iraqi Muslims “who condemn the link between their actions and the Quran.”

If more tolerant Muslims “want to make a new literature, a new reading [of the Quran], they will have to change many things,” Sleiman said. “It will not be very easy,” because presently in Iraq, moderates are outnumbered by Islamists and well-armed insurgents.

Pat Morrison is a former managing editor of NCR.

Facts on Christians in Iraq
  • Christians comprise less than 3 percent of Iraq’s population -- an estimated 800,000 people in a nation of 25 million.
  • In 2003 there were 14 Christian communities officially registered by the Iraqi government, a requirement for non-Muslim institutions. Among the major churches are the Eastern Catholic Chaldeans; the Assyrian (known as the Church of the East); Syrian, both Orthodox and Catholic; Armenian, again with Catholic and Orthodox branches; Greek (Byzantine) Orthodox and Catholic; Coptic, with roots in Egypt; and Latin Catholics.
  • Latin Catholics -- those following the Roman Rite -- are the smallest group, with 3,000 members at most.
  • Iraq’s Latin Catholics worship in three parishes -- one each in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra -- and in several religious order chapels. They are served by 11 religious order priests and Archbishop Jean Sleiman. There are currently no native Iraqi priests, although one young man is in formation for priesthood.

-- Pat Morrison

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2004

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