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Issue Date:  October 29, 2004

We have family in Iraq in danger

The following is a letter from members of the Iraq Coordinating Committee, a collaborative effort of the North American Justice Promoters of the Dominican Order and the Dominican Leadership Conference, the networking body of Dominican religious leaders in the United States.

We have family in Iraq. Our family members are not in the military and are not contractors. Our family members are native Iraqi citizens who are also Catholic Dominican priests, sisters and lay persons. There are at least 200 Catholic Iraqi sisters in the country who run several hospitals -- a miracle in itself. They are part of the small minority of 750,000 Christians in Iraq. They are members of the Dominicans (Order of Preachers), a worldwide organization of priests, brothers, sisters, laity and nuns. There are thousands of us in the United States. We are in close contact with Iraqi Dominicans who describe a very different reality in their country from what the American media typically report.

Contrary to what the Bush administration would have us believe, the infrastructure of Iraq is not functioning. According to our family, the water system has not been repaired, the electricity is at best occasional and basic human security is absent. People are not safe. Schools have been closed for months and only reopened Oct. 1. Even with the schools open, children are often too afraid to go. Even when people have jobs, they are often afraid to go to work.

A recent letter from one of our sisters told a common story. Criminals stole her cousin’s car. He was told he could have the car back for $2,000. Another cousin was kidnapped. He was not a journalist or a contractor but a common driver. It cost his family 60 million Iraqi dinars to get him back. These crimes go unreported in the American press. Many relatives of our sisters who work with Americans have been killed or hurt because they work with Americans. The Dominicans there are vulnerable to both the American soldiers and their own countrymen who despise the American presence so much that Iraqis with any connections to Westerners are in danger. Christians are targets every day. This makes any relief effort from their family here in the United States impossible. What do we tell our Iraqi brothers and sisters? We cannot help you?

The present administration will not admit that life in Iraq is getting worse, not better. There is little confidence among Iraqis in the interim government because it was handpicked by the United States. The Iraqis were not asked what kind of government they wanted. The Bush administration assumes democracy will solve Iraq’s problems. This assumption is close to the heart of why the United States is mistrusted around the world. Keep in mind that democracy as we know it is not known in Iraq. They have lived under tyranny for decades and now live in a new tyranny of violence and chaos. The U.S. presence will only continue to polarize Iraq. Christian-Muslim relationships continue to deteriorate. Here at home, Americans will remain ambivalent about why we are in Iraq if there is no real goal of the occupation or if U.S. interests are overwhelmed by the violence and chaos that reign.

We ask: What is the course that will end this loss of life and lead to peace?

Security in Iraq is the primary cry of her people. Our sisters and brothers say this all the time. Americans should insist that whoever is president in January define our long-term goals in Iraq and develop a plan for authentic Iraqi self-determination, not one based on American advantage or business interests.

The Iraqi people themselves must have a direct role in reconstruction. This means jobs. When a family can depend on a paycheck, they can live a dignified life. This is not the American dream; it is the dream of all humanity. Our sources, relief workers who spend considerable time in Iraq, observe that reconstruction projects do not empower the Iraqi people with employment or financial development. This is also reported by the Education for Peace Center, which notes that the Pentagon has focused on big-ticket construction. Local Iraqi businesses need to be at the heart of reconstructing the country. The World Bank reports 50 percent unemployment in the country.

Should the United States leave? We can’t. Not until the Iraqi government is strong enough and people trust it enough to secure the country. The Iraqi people themselves must determine the kind of government and country they want, whether it is a democracy we would recognize or not. The United Nations needs to secure a direct role in monitoring Iraqi elections next year to give some evidence that the government can stand on its own.

Security and basic human rights are what we hear over and over again from our family who lives in uncertainty every day. By a sheer act of faith, the Dominicans in Iraq live in hope. They hope to rebuild a bombed novitiate. They hope to rebuild a maternity hospital in Baghdad. Several Dominican sisters professed their religious vows this month -- an extraordinary act of faith and hope in the face of the life there.

There must be another way. Listening to Iraqi citizens is part of the way to peace.

Members of the Iraq Coordinating Committee : Sr. Judith Hilbing, North American co-promoter of justice, River Forest, Ill.; Fr. Philippe LeBlanc, NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva; Sr. Eileen Gannon, Dominican Leadership Conference NGO representative to United Nations, New York; Sr. Reg McKillip, justice coordinator, Dominican Sisters, Sinsinawa, Wis.; Sr. Anne Lythgoe, Dominican Leadership Conference, Philadelphia; Sr. Lucianne Siers, Religious Order Partnership, New York; Sr. Ursula McGovern, delegate to Iraq, Dominican Sisters, Blauvelt, N.Y.; Fr. Richard Woods, delegate to Iraq, St. Albert Province, Chicago; Sr. Mary Sean Hodges, justice promoter, Mission San Jose, Calif.; Gloria Escalona, justice promoter, Dominican Laity, San Francisco; Sr. Roberta A. Popara, delegate to Iraq, Dominican Sisters, West Palm Beach, Fla.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2004

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