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Friday, May 23, 2008

10 years ago ....

In my web travels I came upon a decade-old letter written by the then head of the Dominican Order, Timothy Radcliffe, while on a visit to Iraq, just before the 1998 bombing. The last line of his letter says it all ... Let us stop this madness..

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Timothy Radcliffe: Letter from Iraq

The visit to the brethren and sisters in Iraq had been planned long before the present crisis. It was providential that it was now that I and fr. Daniel Cadrin, OP could pass a week with them, as they waited for the bombers to arrive. The only way to enter Iraq during the embargo is a fifteen hour drive from Amman to Baghdad across the desert. It is like entering a high security prison, and like most people going to prison we wondered when and if we would get out again. It took four hours to cross the frontier, even with the help of a young Iraqi Dominican who was returning home after finishing his studies in France, and the lavish distribution of cans of Pepsi Cola, which appears to be the local currency. Then as throughout the trip I was astonished by the exquisite courtesy of everyone I met. Never once was I reproached for being British, although our aircraft carrier was waiting in the Gulf to add its bombs to those of the Americans. What would it have been like for an Iraqi coming to Britain if there had been one of their aircraft carriers waiting in the English channel?

When we arrived at Baghdad there were few signs of preparation for war. The Iraqis discovered during the Gulf war that there is little that one can do against American bombs. The city waited, vulnerable and apparently unprotected. Even more surprising was to find the brethren building a new priory, to accommodate the postulants for the Order. It was a sign of hope to see the workmen completing a building that might easily be destroyed within a week. The young architect explained that the building was intentionally a symbol of what the people were suffering. It look as if it were cracked open, fractured, and yet strong. He explained that it represented a people who are crucified and yet hoped for healing.

Before we arrived in Iraq, I had shared in the general obsession with news of the latest development. In Istanbul we had listened to every bulletin of the BBC World Service, wondering when the denouement would come. Yet we found the people we met in Iraq were less concerned by this question. Long years of suffering, the war with Iran, the Gulf War, the seven long years of the embargo, had pushed people to deeper questions. A Dominican sister told us "We are ground down, exhausted, by years of death. 600,000 children had died of malnutrition and a lack of medicine since the Gulf War. We live with death." Somehow these years of deprivation and isolation have eroded such minor questions as to whether one might die next week because of a bomb from the air, or in ten year's time from another cause. The question was whether after death there is life, and whether there is a God who hears them. It was as if the embargo had sometimes seemed to shut out even God. The Nuncio, Mgr Lazzarotto Giuseppe, told me that when he asks for support for projects form international Aid agencies, he is refused unless it is for food or medicine. But, as our sisters told us, "We are not animals such that it would be enough to have a full stomach. What this people hunger for more than anything else is a word of hope."

Every Monday over a 1000 young people come to the theology classes offered by the Dominican brethren in Baghdad. Almost as many come to the priory at Mosul. Christians of every denomination come to study the scriptures, to argue about Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity, while the world waits for the bombs to fall. In the north of the country we found a flourishing movement of Dominican laity, in the villages populated by Chaldean and Syrian Christians. They gather in each other's homes to study the word of God every week. They told us that faced the life or death, they can no longer be satisfied with superficial answers. What does God have to say to us?

I was reminded of a Dominican friar, Riccoldo da Monte Croce, who lived in Baghdad seven hundred years ago. The Dominican community had enjoyed a wonderful relationship with the Muslim community for years. But after the fall of Acre in 1291, the Christians found themselves unwelcome. Some friars died, others went to Iran, others returned to Italy and Riccoldo found himself alone. His habit was taken from him and he was forced to become a camel driver. He was plunged into despair, fearful for his life. In the market place he found among the sale of the booty from Acre the blood-stained habit of one of his brethren. He wrote letters to the brethren in Italy but no one answered, not even the Master of the Order. "What can have happened to the Master General, that he does not answer my most sad letters?", a common complaint in the Order, I am sure. He wrote to St. Dominic, Our Lady and even the Heavenly Court, expressing his desolation and despair and received no reply. "Having received no response, I will act like someone who, in a public street, has received an intolerable injury. I will shout 'someone help me!' Is there anyone who can reply?" That is the silence which afflicts some Christians in Iraq.

Finally, among the books ransacked from the Acre priory he found a copy of Gregory the Great's Moralia, his commentary on the book of Job. And here he discovered the answer for which he had waited. God had spoken, in the scriptures. Here he must search for the reply to all his questions. So too the young Christian of Iraq search the scriptures to understand, hungry for God's word for them. Now fr Yussuf is preparing the publication of the first Kurdish New Testament for the sisters who work among the Kurds on the Turkish border.

So, these years of suffering have worn away any comfortable little beliefs, and exposed starker alternatives, great hope and despair, sometimes the two inhabiting the same heart. Somehow this embargo with all its deprivations has brought many young Christians to a deeper knowledge, hard bought. It is as if the ground has opened under their feet, and the sky above their heads As the French poet Victor Segalen wrote of discovering the divine name of God:

"Only when there is great drought, when frost-bound winter
crackles, when springs, at their lowest ebb, spiral in shells of ice.
When the void gapes underground in the heart's cavern -
where blood itself has ceased to flow - under the vault, now accessible,
the Name can be received.
But let the hard waters melt, let life overflow,
let the devastating torrent surge rather than Knowledge!"

It was a bitter sweet week. We visited the maternity ward of the hospital run by our sisters in Baghdad, and rejoiced for the safe delivery of prematurely born twins. We prayed that they would not prematurely die. All over the country we found that Christian communities were weakened by emigration, especially to America, both paradise and the enemy. Yet we met one young man who having got as far as Morocco, decided to come back. His village is just a few miles from Nineveh. He told us that he was like Jonah. Though he tried to flee, he knew he must return and share with his people their fate and his hope in Christ. One of the faces I will always remember is that of sister Olga, young and strong. She is an Assyrian Christian. They are usually called "Nestorians" by the Catholics, though this is a name they dislike. She felt called to religious life, although there have been no communities of religious in her Church for centuries. Because she trusted that we would not try to "capture" her for the Catholics, she asked one of the brethren to help her in this new venture. When she made her vows to her bishop, this brother preached, the first catholic priest to do so in an Assyrian church after centuries of hostility. She and her little group of novices visit the mental hospitals and prisons of Baghdad as a sign of the God who has not forgotten.

We feasted with our brothers. They had managed to find a few bottles of wine. "All this must be drunk before you leave" said fr. Yussuf. We knew that they had spent more than they could afford, and that when the French provincial came next month there would be nothing left for him. In Mosul, we visited the house of formation of the Dominican sisters, filled with young postulants and novices. Since it was hard to come by the ingredients to make a cake, they performed a dance in which each one represented some element of the cake that they would have like to make, the cream, the almonds, the wheat that they did not have. Then they put on the traditional clothes of their villages and danced and sang until we were exhausted.

It is possible here to discuss their perception of the political situation. I can only say that they share the perplexity which I have found throughout the Arab world, that in the name of civilization we could even contemplate so barbarous an act as to attack these people. How can we, in the name of peace, consider launching a war that will probably bring devastation to the region for years? It seemed as if with the fall of communism we have lost our traditional enemy and needed another. Iraq was chosen. As in an old fashioned western movie, the hero must find the enemy and kill him, again and again.

When we drove back across the desert to Amman I thought of the words of Isaiah to the exiles in Babylon: "In the wilderness prepare a way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." We followed much the same route that those exiles took when they went home, and it was certainly straight and flat. But I did not feel as if I was going home. I felt sad and almost guilty to leave these people, Christian and Muslim, to their fate. Let us stop this madness.

Timothy Radcliffe O.P.

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