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Iraqi Government Gives Christians VIP Status
Irene Voysey
Australian delegate to the Fifth Christian Conference, Iraq

Prior to the Fifth Christian Conference held in Baghdad from 15 20 May, 500 invitations were sent by the Iraqi church to Christians worldwide. About 230 men and women from many parts of the world responded and came at their own expense to show their support for the suffering Iraqi church.  The conference was organized by the church in Iraq in coordination with the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.

Unable to fly to and from Baghdad, delegates traveled from Amman, Jordan, across the Syrian Desert on five buses and several cars, the last bus arriving in Baghdad 16 hours after its departure. Much of the work involved in obtaining visas for Iraq and transporting members of the delegation was done by the Bible Society in Jordan.

The delegation discovered it had been given VIP status at the Iraqi border when members were ushered into the VIP lounge.  In Baghdad, we were accommodated in the comfortable Al-Mansour Hotel beside the Tigris River.  Throughout the conference, the convoy of several modern air-conditioned buses and cars was accompanied by two motorcycle policemen who stopped traffic and kept the convoy moving efficiently. At other times we were individually free to wander wherever we wished. The Iraqi people were at all times warm and welcoming - especially so to several Americans and British nationals among us.

About 800 people attended the opening session of the Conference.   Its theme was "The church in the service of peace and humanity".  Every speaker, including two American church leaders (Presbyterian and Adventist) emphasized the Christian's role in doing what we could towards urging our governments to pressure the U.N. to lift the embargo which is bringing so much suffering to the people of  Iraq. A leading Muslim Imam, Dr Rad Al-Gailaini, gave what many thought was the clearest Gospel message of all - referring to God's forgiveness and love in sending the Lord Jesus.

The program began with Bible readings focused on walking in the light (John 8:24,47; John 12:35-36).  Among the speakers were the Minister of Religious Affairs, Dr. Abdul Munim Ahmed Saleh; the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, Rafael 1st Bidawid on behalf of the Christian churches in Iraq; the Patriarch Mar Addi II of the Old Eastern Church; the Papal Nuncio in Iraq; a representative of the Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church; His grace Mar Nersi de Baz of the Assyrian Eastern Church; Dr Riad Jarjour, of the Middle East Council of Churches; Dr. James Jennings, President of Conscience International; and Marilyn Borst, Executive Director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding based in Houston, Texas.

In her speech, Marilyn Borst quoted Dr. Ali Janobi, a Muslim and the Deputy Minster of Health who said, "In spite of the suffering...the Iraqi people hold a warm spot in their hearts for the American people.  The reason for this...is that we have learned that we have a common longing for God...What has brought you to Iraq is the logic of faith."

Ms. Borst, who had previously visited Iraq with a Presbyterian delegation, said, "The alleged purpose of the sanctions is to check the power of Iraq's government and effect its downfall, but the devastating and cataclysmic reality of such has been to systematically dismantle the infrastructure of an entire country and promote unrelenting disease, malnutrition and death, which the combined efforts of many well-intentioned humanitarian organizations have been largely powerless to alleviate.  We have created this injustice.  We have sustained this injustice.

"Tell your communities of faith something they may not know: that the church in Iraq - be it Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant - is faithful and vital; that just like our churches, they worship regularly, preach the Word reverently, instruct their children diligently, praise God enthusiastically, and serve the community around them selflessly.  We in the West have much to learn from these churches: from their perseverance under difficulty, from their faithfulness of witness, from their joy in adversity, from their work of reconciliation in the midst of brokenness.  The apostle Paul's words, describing the state of the church in the first century, is an apt description of the church in Iraq at this moment of the 21st century: ...hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair...struck down, but not destroyed. (1Corinthians 4:8-9).

Psychologically, Christians in Iraq have had to live with the knowledge that so-called Christian countries dropped the bombs which took so many lives and continue to participate in sanctions which take the lives of children.  Evidence was given of the destruction of a Syrian Orthodox church in the area of New Mosul (Nineveh) where some families had taken shelter, hoping to escape the bombing of Baghdad.  Four, including a two year-old child, were killed by a rocket. The survivors, including the priest, continue to suffer permanent disabilities and burns.

Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz was scheduled to attend the conference, but sent his apologies at the last moment.  In a meeting with a Caritas delegation in January Mr. Aziz said, "If the main objective of policy over the last ten years has been to change the leadership, this is not going to happen.  If the objective was to break the will of the people, this is not going to happen.  Therefore, if a policy does not work, it would be quite intelligent for politicians to change it.  The current policy is a failure which is quickly becoming a tragic force...How ironic it is that the same policy that was supposed to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction had, itself, become a weapon of mass destruction, through the deaths of innocent children. In the name of the international community, United Nations sanctions are incapacitating an entire society.   They are cruel because they punish exclusively the Iraqi people, and the weakest among them.  They are ineffective because they do not touch the regime, which is not encouraged to cooperate, and they are dangerous because they...accentuate the disintegration of society."

The Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon said, "Killing a man in a forest is an unpardonable crime by law.  Killing a nation, it would seem, is a matter of debate and perspective.  The standards applied to the issue of Human Rights have become a travesty of justice in view of the sanctions and such is the case with the Iraqi people. The killing of over 5,000 infants and children every month, the malformation of new-born infants, causing various kinds of cancer, especially leukemia, is not, it seems, subject to international Human Rights Law."

A paper was presented by Caritas Europa in which former US Attorney General Ramsey Clarke is quoted as saying that some 900 tons of radioactive waste was spread over the whole of Iraq at the time of the Gulf War.  He catalogued the damage which left no communication links, the destruction of transportation links (including 139 bridges over Iraq's two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates), heavy damage to Iraq's eight multi-purpose dams. The targeting of water and sewage facilities led to sewage spilling into the Tigris and out into the streets of Baghdad. Grain silos, factories, hospitals (28), community health centers (52), schools (676) and government office buildings were all targeted and severely damaged or destroyed.

Missiles supposedly aimed at "hard" targets included the destruction of the Amariyah bomb shelter in a suburb of Baghdad, killing about 400 people, mostly women, children and the elderly - Christians and Muslims.  The delegation was taken to the remains of the bomb shelter, where photographs of some victims are on display.  On one wall the image of a woman holding her child has been fused into the cement by the intense heat.

The international members of the delegation were also taken to a hospital where many more children than usual are dying of leukemia the result of depleted uranium used for the first time in U.S. armor-piercing munitions. There has been a six-fold increase in cancer, and premature births have increased in Iraq from 4.5% to 32%, according to a UNICEF report.

At the first church service attended by the delegation, we were each given an olive branch tied with yellow ribbon.  Following the solemn Chaldean service of prayer and Bible readings, two doves were released.  The packed church watched in awed silence as one dove flew straight to the cross and settled on the right hand of the crucified Christ.  The other flew to a central picture of the boy Jesus with his parents, and settled precisely over the painting of the Holy Spirit shaped like a dove. Iraqi television cameras captured the moment.  Both doves remained in place during a final impassioned request for international compassion by a young Muslim woman who survived the destruction of the Amariyah bomb shelter.

The delegation traveled extensively on Iraq's excellent highways, firstly south to Ur, Abraham's home town (pronounced ooo-rr).  In a high-ceilinged, traditional reed house, there was coffee and a warm welcome by the mayor and several sheiks.  Later, mountains of yellow rice topped with large hunks of lamb were served to the large delegation.  It was hospitality which, a member of the delegation said in his thank you speech, was like the generous hospitality given in this same town by their forefather, Abraham, to the three strangers (Genesis 18).

However, as we arrived at the remains of an ancient ziggurat rising out of a vast plain in Ur, delegates had to make their way through a large banner-carrying crowd chanting, "America down,down," and "Saddam, we give our blood for you."  Members of the delegation noted that the smiles on the faces of the people belied the hostile words.  Soon after, members of the chanting crowd were loaded onto waiting buses and driven off.

The delegation also visited the restored ruins of Babylon, went north to the ancient and impressive capital of the Assyrian empire, Calah, now called Nimroud  (Genesis 10:8-12), and stayed overnight at beautiful Nineveh, where a "Mosque of the Prophet Jonah" stands on a mound said to contain Jonah's body.

Two American archaeologists who were members of the delegation both noted that while the Iraqi Department of Antiquities is doing excellent work in restoring the ruins, "a great deal of excavation is waiting to be done."

There was opportunity to worship freely with several thriving churches - unusual in a region where the severe persecution of Christians and other minority religions is commonplace.

While the conference could be seen as a PR exercise by the government of Iraq, there is no doubt that without it international individuals would not have had the opportunity, both at the podium and in television interviews, to tell the largely Muslim people of Iraq that not everyone in the west supports the sanctions which are bringing so much grief to helpless  people and causing the deaths of so many innocent children.  Nor would there have been such an outstanding opportunity to greatly encourage Iraqi Christians across the country.

The message to Christians visiting Iraq was clear.  For this country, where mankind first built and dwelt in cities and which is described as being "the cradle of civilization", there is a desperate need for that most ancient of solutions to civilization's problems:  prayer to the One who sees man's inhumanity to man and is alone able to change the self-centered hearts of "civilized' mankind.

Concerned Christians should also write concerning the sanctions to:
Secretary General Kofi Annan,
United Nations HQ, NY NY 10017, USA
or fax:  1 - 212 - 963 2155