[Marxism] Iraq's Christians: another victim of US war, occupation
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Dec 24 17:36:29 MST 2004
Tolerated by Saddam; Targets Under Occupation
Iraq's Christian Minority Loses Its Innocence
By BORZOU DARAGAHI
The school year in Baghdad always began the same way for Sister Beninia
Hermes Shoukwana. The Christian nun and headteacher of the Hebtikar
School near Palestine Street would be peppered with innocent questions
from her mostly Muslim charges.
"Madame headmistress, why don't you dress like mummy?" they would ask.
"Why do you always wear the same white dress?"
This year, the age of innocence has ended and the remarks from parents
and students have become more cutting than curious. "I've been accused
of trying to convert little Muslims to Christianity," says the
64-year-old nun, with deep worry lines on her forehead. "Leaflets have
been distributed asking the parents to withdraw their children."
This is not a happy Christmas for the country's troubled Christians.
Many of the churches have cancelled midnight mass for fear of drawing
the attention of terrorists.
After decades of living in relative harmony with the Muslim majority,
Iraq's ancient Christian minority ? who include Chaldeans, with
allegiance to the Pope, as well as Orthodox Assyrians and Armenians ? is
threatened as never before.
A spate of bombings directed at churches, apparently the work of Muslim
extremists, has led many to the painful conclusion that Christians are
now equated with the US-led occupation regardless of their actual views.
They insist that they are Arab nationalists who oppose the American
presence just as much as resistance fighters in Fallujah or Mosul. One
in 10 Iraqi Christians has fled Iraq.
Five Baghdad churches were attacked in October. In August, similar
attacks killed at least 10 and wounded nearly 50 Iraqi Christians.
Father Saad Hanna's small church was recently attacked. His parish is
now one-third of its pre-war size. "The people are terrified about what
is happening," he says. "The people no longer come to church. The truth
is, we are in trouble, and we don't know how to overcome this."
Many Iraqi Christians say they are terrified of attending Christmas
services this year. "I'm afraid of car bombs," says Dinkha al-Dawoudi, a
48-year-old hotel receptionist who has two children. "The spirit of
Christmas has really been affected by the security conditions."
Gone are the days when Christians' Muslim friends would join them carol
singing, and Christmas trees are definitely out. In fact, few Iraqis are
buying the traditional trees. Mohammad Noori sold 35 last year. With two
days to go this year he had sold only one.
In Sister Beninia's three decades as head of the 3,000-student school,
she has witnessed wars, bombings and the rise and fall of Saddam
Hussein. But these, she says, are the worst of times, and she is unable
to hide her distress over the fate of her country and fellow-Christians,
mostly Chaldeans, members of the Nestorian sect who converted to
Catholicism in the 16th century.
First came the pamphlets distributed in her hometown of Mosul during
Ramadan, ordering Christian women to wear the headscarf. There were the
August and October attacks on Baghdad churches. Among the victims was a
young, newly engaged couple close to Sister Beninia. "For years,
Christians and Muslims lived like brothers and sisters," she says.
"Today the extremists are trying to separate us." But she has no plans
to leave Iraq, vowing to continue her efforts to educate Iraqi children
and build bridges between the different faiths.
She has stubbornly refused to bow to the extremists, putting up
Christmas trees at her school and getting her students to sing carols.
She will attend Christmas mass at her convent. "I will pray for peace in
the country," she says.
Sister Beninia had plenty of experience facing down troubles, beginning
with the Baath Party's 1974 decision to nationalise all schools
including Hebtikar, which was originally run by her convent. "They
wanted to force me to join the Baath party, but I always refused," she
Despite her refusal to sign up to Saddam Hussein's political machinery,
she kept her job because of her organisational skills and popularity
with students and parents. Another challenge came during the 1980s war
After the breakdown in order following the fall of the Saddam regime
last year, she spent spring and summer at Hebtikar, protecting it from
would-be looters. "I wasn't armed and I was vulnerable," she says. "But
I confronted the thieves and they went away."
Despite increasing prejudice against her faith and threats against her
school, the numbers of parents trying to get their children enrolled
continues to grow. An annex is being built.
Khaled Hamed Rachid, whose three daughters attend Hebtikar, says: "Of
course I'm afraid the fanatics will consider this school a target. Even
so, I will never take my daughters out of the school, because its level
of discipline is unique."
Sister Beninia, born in 1940 in a village just north of Mosul, joined
the Convent of Chaldean Sisters at 11. But she also felt drawn to the
world of classrooms and books, and pursued a career in education. She
has run schools in Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan and Basra in the Shia
south. She took jobs at schools in Kuwait and Dubai before returning to
Iraq in 1971 and becoming headteacher at Hebtikar.
Every morning at 7.30, she leaves her residence at the Convent of
Immaculate Conception, a humble four-storey building, boards a minibus
and, without escorts or bodyguards, she heads to work. There she deals
with the myriad daily details of running a big school, substitute
teachers, tardy students and worried parents. During break-time, her
voice can be heard through a megaphone, demanding order from the crowd
of uniformed, chattering children pouring into the yard.
"Stay in line," Sister Beninia Hermes Shoukwana commands. "Don't run
around." The children obey. If classes end abruptly because of an
outbreak of fighting or a nearby explosion, she often stays in the
school until dawn, making sure everyone gets home safely.
Sixteen of her students, mostly Christians, have left the country. Every
day, desperate parents visit her, saying they are frightened and
thinking of leaving Iraq. She urges them to stay. "I try to explain to
them that wherever they go they'll always be immigrants," she says.
"Iraq is like our house. And it's our duty to try to clean up our
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