Christmas in Iraq

Author: Michael J. Baxter, CSC, '83M.Div

Editor's Note: This piece is part of "12 Days of Classics," a holiday series drawn from the magazine's archives and published at from Saturday, December 22, 2018, to Wednesday, January 2, 2019. Merry Christmas!

I went to Iraq over Christmas a couple of months before the bombing started. The idea to go came from Tom Cornell, a longtime peace activist I had met 20 years ago. In July 2002, he sent an e-mail that read simply, “Christmas in Iraq? Could happen.”

After kicking the idea around for a few months, we arranged to go as part of a delegation that would obtain visas at the Iraqi embassy in Amman, Jordan, and drive as a group into Iraq on December 17. The plans came off without a hitch, a remarkable achievement for an organization operating on the anarchist principles that mark so much of the Catholic peace movement.

The organization is Voices in the Wilderness, taking its name from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark: “A voice cries in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3). Voices was founded in the mid-1990s to draw attention to the suffering of the Iraqi people under the economic embargo that had been imposed by the United Nations since August 1990. Speakers from Voices had visited Notre Dame twice in recent years and had described in graphic detail the damage done by the first Gulf War on the country’s hospitals, power plants and water treatment facilities. Both speakers told of the lethal effects the sanctions were having on the people they had met there. And both generated the intended goal: They left many of us with a desire to do something. As one student later wrote: “This is going to be one of those things where people look back in 20 years and wonder why no one said anything, why no one did anything.”

That pretty much summed up my reason for going. Of course, I didn’t put it like that when explaining the trip to my students and colleagues, friends and family. It’s a way of “showing solidarity with the people of Iraq,” I declared, of “embodying our unity with Iraqi Catholics and other Christians there.” In a more practical vein, I added, we would bring embargoed medical supplies ($30,000 worth of antibiotics) to people desperately in need of them. This “work of mercy” is also an act of civil disobedience that could result in 12 years in jail and $1 million in fines. But basically the trip was a way of saying and doing something about the sanctions and, by the time of my departure in December 2002, about the all-but-inevitable U.S. invasion of Iraq. Saying and doing something. Anything.

What I did, when all was said and done, was meet and come to know some Iraqi people. The first Iraqi I came to know were Satar, who drove our delegation from Amman to Baghdad, a 14-hour trip through some of the most treacherous traffic and magnificent desert landscape any of us had ever seen. He had had a professional job, but in the paralyzed economy driving turned out to be the only way to feed his family.

At our hotels, the al Fanar and the Andaloosa, I met several bellhops, all dressed in well-pressed black pants and white shirts, black ties, all sporting closely trimmed moustaches. All of them greeted us, as they would unfailingly throughout our stay, with a resounding “welcome!” The next morning I met the waiter who always had a towel over his forearm. He brought us rolls and jelly, eggs and juice, and coffee and cream, and gave a brief bow as he left our table. Then I met the night clerk, a Kurd who spoke English with a British accent, taught at the university during the day and took this second job because he could read into the night. The next day I met the tailor down the street who mended my passport pouch.

Then there was Hassan, a 10-year-old shoeshine Kurdish boy who accosted us every time we entered or left the hotel. “Mister” (Mee-stah), he would insist, “polish shoes?” He would unpack his brushes and polish before you could answer and start in. The taxi drivers hanging around the hotel warned us not to pay him too much. He’s an “Ali Baba,” they told us, a thief. Before long, Hassan and I were playing soccer most afternoons in the dusty park between the boulevard and the Tigris River. The next week I bought him a soccer ball. Whenever he scored, he would lift up his arms and shout “Allah!”

Parts of our three-week tour were planned for us courtesy of the Iraqi government, complete with “minders,” as they were called, to keep an eye on us. We went to local hospitals, to the University of Baghdad and to the al Amariyah Bomb Shelter, where a “smart” bomb had been dropped on the night of February 13, 1991. It had incinerated more than 100 families who had taken refuge there, leaving images of sleeping children burned into the concrete walls. But the most fruitful encounters with Iraqis came when we met them without official chaperons.

One encounter that stands out was arranged by Cathy Breen, an old friend from the New York Catholic Worker House who had been in Iraq with Voices since October 2002. Resolved to stay through the war, she took it as her main task to help families in the neighborhood by collecting bottled water, food and medicine, and most importantly by just being with them. One afternoon Cathy took me to see Kareema, a 30-something mother of six who wore a black head scarf. The place was tiny: two rooms connected to the back of an abandoned garage, a couch, a few chairs and a TV in one room, kitchen table and stove in the other. I sat on a rug as we talked for a couple of hours about the loss of her husband in a car accident, her experience during the last war, and her apprehensions about the war that was on the way. Her main concerns were having food and water and about her oldest son, Ali, who had been inducted into the army. I asked about a religious picture of Mary on the wall. With the help of a friend’s translation, she said she is devoted to the mother of Jesus because she was obedient to God’s word.

Many traditional Muslims harbor a deep appreciation for Christians who, as it was often explained to us, have a crucial part to play in the Qu’ran and are thus people of the book. This explains, in part, the surprisingly felicitous relations we observed between Muslims, who constitute 95 percent of Iraq’s population of 26 million, and Christians, who constitute about 3 percent, somewhere under a million people. The other part of the explanation has to do with the government’s policy of squelching any form of Muslim fanaticism, which is why Saddam Hussein was hated and feared by many Shiites. Under Saddam, Christians fared relatively well in Iraq compared to such countries in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia. Baghdad, we were told, has 57 Christian church buildings.

We entered our first church the day after we arrived to attend a prayer service for peace led by Catholics of the Chaldean Rite. The event brought together Dominican nuns, Missionaries of Charity, Redemptorist priests, dozens of seminarians and about 100 lay people. The archbishop of Baghdad presided. They all spoke Arabic, but the prayer itself was in Aramaic, the native language of most Iraqi Christians and, as they noted with soft-spoken pride, “the language of Jesus.” These were descendents of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, founded by Thomas the Apostle, as the tradition has it, on his way to India.

The next Friday, the primary day of worship in Iraq for Christians as well as Muslims, we attended an Armenian Orthodox church not far from our hotel. The priest then invited two of us to his house for tea that evening. A big, burly, bearded man with a deep, stentorian voice, he told us the story of the Armenian Christians in Iraq. Then we asked him about the war. He assured us that Bush was bluffing, that he wanted oil but didn’t have the guts to take it. If Bush tries, the priest told us, the Iraqis will win. “I fought in the Iranian war,” he said. “I know what war is like! Iraqi soldiers don’t have the technology, but they know how to fight!” His wife shook her head as she brought us anisette and cookies.

The next day a Dominican convent hosted a citywide veneration of the relics of Saint Therese de Lisieux. All day long people came to the little chapel, knelt, made the sign of the cross and prayed to the Little Flower.

My most memorable contact with Christians came on Christmas Eve in Basra. The second-largest city in Iraq, Basra has a population of 2 million and is the center of production of the country’s two largest exports, oil and dates. Earlier that day, four people in our delegation and a government minder named Zaid flew down in a commercial jet (which made us anxious, given that we were passing through the no-fly zone). We ate dinner at a restaurant (chicken and rice, an inexpensive and intestinally safe meal), visited the family of a girl whose arm was severed and another family of a boy who had been killed, both the result of recent U.S. bombing attacks, and then went to see Archbishop Gabriel Kasab, pastor of Saint Therese Parish and pastoral leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church of Basra. Like most Iraqi Christians, Kasab is from the north, a small Christian village near Mosul. And like an increasing number of Iraqi Christians, many members of his family had immigrated to the United States. Seven of his brothers and sisters live in or near Detroit, where he visits them every July. Only a few days before, he had spoken on the phone with his brother, who filled him in on the latest U.S. headlines and pleaded with him to come to Detroit, to which Kasab responded that he would be staying with his flock.

The flock came out in droves that night for Midnight Mass. It began at 8 p.m., when a handful of men in the parish gathered to chant psalms, an ancient custom that Kasab had revived. They stood chanting while hundreds of well-dressed parishioners trickled into the church and its balcony area.

I was asked to concelebrate and thus processed in as part of a long line of acolytes, seven deacons, three other priests, and the archbishop. Chaldean liturgies are far more complex than the Roman rite, and it was in Aramaic and Arabic. With the help of the other priests I managed to follow some of the prayers. But for the most part I was lost—until the Gospel, when I recognized exactly five of the words: “Jesus,” “Mary,” “Joseph,” “amen” and “alleluia.”

After the archbishop proclaimed the Gospel, several teenagers enacted it in a Christmas pageant that took place right in the sanctuary. The climax came when an olive-skinned, almond-eyed angel carried in a live baby, all wrapped in swaddling clothes. A wave of oohs and ahhs came forth from the pews. As if this were not enough, a white-bearded figure dressed in red flannel and black boots made his entry from the back of the church while the congregation broke into a resounding chorus of “Jingle Bells,” in Arabic no less.

Santa Claus made his way up to the sanctuary, moving from one group of kids to the next, ringing handheld sanctuary bells all the while. It took a full five minutes for everyone to settle down for the homily. I didn’t understand much but was told that the archbishop preached on what was on everyone’s mind that night: peace on earth. It gave a somber feel to the rest of the liturgy, which was interrupted for me as we approached the part to which I was assigned, introducing the “Our Father” in English. The entire Mass lasted about three hours.

People expressed their gratitude in the parish courtyard afterward for my being there, but our conversation was cut short when Zaid, our officious minder, took my elbow and said firmly, “It is time to go.” In the car on the way to the hotel I told him that Archbishop Kasab had invited me for breakfast the next morning. “It is not permitted,” he said. After my mild protest he relented. But breakfast in the rectory the next morning was brief, only 30 minutes, and it was chaperoned, although Kasab made the minder sit in the next room. We talked about the difficulties created by the war in ’91 and the sanctions, the war that was coming, and of maybe meeting again in Detroit in July.

Later that day we visited one of the largest mosques in the city. Because it was a Wednesday, the mosque was empty. As the staff walked us through its several stories, each designated for men or for women and each equipped with a large-screen TV for watching Friday sermons, we realized that two days from now the people gathered there for prayers would number literally in the thousands.

After our tour the sheik of the mosque invited us to dinner. For two hours we sat cross-legged in our socks eating chicken and comparing notes about Islam and Christianity. He showed a grudging respect for Kasab. Then we asked the standard question: “What do you think is going to happen?” To which he gave the standard answer: “As God wills.”

On our way to the airport we saw jet fighters flying low overhead and heard bombs exploding in the distance—training exercises, we were told, just over the border. Our flight departed as the sun sank. Looking out the window, I counted a dozen oil rigs burning like matchsticks on the orange horizon. Beyond them, to the east, were the hills of Iran, and to the south, barely visible, the deserts of Kuwait.

Leaving Basra was like leaving the outer banks of North Carolina as a hurricane is approaching. Over the next two weeks a similar feeling descended upon me about the country as a whole. On the Feast of the Holy Family I said Mass at Saint Raphael’s Parish in Baghdad and preached about us all being brothers and sisters. Afterward Tom and I had tea and cookies with the Iraqi Dominican sisters who direct a hospital adjacent to the church.

We also spent a day with Archbishop Jacques Isaac, rector of a seminary on the outskirts of Baghdad that trains scores of seminarians and more than 100 laypeople for ministry in parishes of central and northern Iraq. He took us to a local community of Little Sisters of Jesus, the order founded by Charles de Foucald, a monk who lived in the North African desert side by side with Muslims. “What are you doing to prepare for the war?” we asked. “We are waiting,” was the reply.

On our last weekend, a group of us visited two Dominican communities, one of sisters and one of priests, in the northern city of Mosul, site of ancient Nineveh. On our way out of town, we stopped at the huge stone gates of that city and read the Book of Jonah aloud. The story has twists and turns, but it’s basically hopeful: When Jonah finally gets around to preaching the word of the Lord to Nineveh, the entire city, including the animals, immediately repents. But the news on Syrian television that morning indicated that there was little chance of the great cities of our own day repenting any time soon.

Back in the States, people would come up after a talk to commend our “prophetic action,” taking medicine to Iraq and breaking the law. Before going, I thought of my trip primarily as a way of doing something in the face of the war, of protesting and helping out in some concrete way. And I still think that civil disobedience can be important means of Christian witness. But at some point in Iraq I came to see my trip less in terms of prophetic action and more in terms of personal action, or what Peter Maurin called “the art of personal contacts.”

As artistic endeavors go, it is a relatively easy one. All it takes is sitting with people and listening to their stories over little glasses of sugar-saturated tea. And while this art does not stops wars, it does help us to see through the rhetoric politicians use when leading us into war, deploying such phrases as “imminent threat,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “liberation of the Iraqi people,” “stabilization and democratization of the wider Middle East.” This is the kind of rhetoric that draws us into justifying the loss of life to fend off some great fear or to promote some high ideal that appears if you keep your eyes on “the big picture.” The problem is that against the background of this so-called big picture, real people appear expendable, or they fall out of the picture all together.

On the night the bombing started, I was able to reach Cathy Breen from my phone in Moreau Seminary. She said the staff at the al Fanar had stockpiled water and kerosene in the basement and were bringing their families to live at the hotel, figuring it would be safer than their homes. Before hanging up we prayed. Then I went to play noontime basketball at Rolfs. Coming out of the locker room, the television caught my eye. There on the TV screen, half a world away, were the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air over the night skyline of Baghdad. The newscaster said the target was the presidential palace on the west bank of the Tigris, right across from the al Fanar.

For the rest of that day I heard nothing about Cathy. Neither did Tom. A couple of days later, an e-mail from the Voices office in Chicago reported that the 13 people still in Iraq were okay. Then e-mails came on an almost daily basis, informing us of what was happening in Baghdad: the Shock and Awe bombing campaign, the destruction of the homes of some families near the hotel, the tension of waiting for the “Siege of Baghdad,” the staged toppling of the statue of Saddam (only a block from the al Fanar), the chronic power outages, the upsurge in crime, the looting.

Cathy remained in Baghdad until May 2003. In July, at a gathering of Catholic peace activists in New York, she recounted the toll the war had taken on the people she knew in Iraq, and not only Iraqis but also U.S. soldiers, some of whom confided in her as they patrolled the street corner outside the al Fanar. “I’ve seen terrible things,” one of them said, “terrible things.” In September Cathy returned to Iraq for two months and came back saying things were bad and getting worse. Now she is making plans to go again.

When Cathy Breen talks about her time in Iraq, she talks about the people with whom she has lived on and off for more than a year now, people she actually knows. She recounts the concrete experiences they have been through, from their fear at the sound of a bunker buster bomb to their daily search for water to their struggle to come to terms with losing their homes and livelihoods and family members. She speaks with the kind of detail that comes from taking the war personally.

Looking back, I think this is what drew me into going to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness: the prospect of taking the war personally. In the days and weeks after last year’s bombing started, I thought of Satar, who drove us in and out of the country; of the hotel staff and their families; of the taxi drivers on the corner and the tailor down the street; of the parishioners of Saint Therese in Basra, the Dominicans in Mosul, and the nuns running Saint Raphael’s hospital in Baghdad.

When reports came out on the supposedly low number of civilian casualties, I thought of the young soldiers—kids really—on the roads outside of Baghdad. I wondered how many of _them _ had been killed. The Red Cross couldn’t keep up the count because the fighting was too fast and furious. And I thought of the students I’d known at Notre Dame who were now deployed in Iraq and wondered if any of them had seen terrible things. Soldiers on the road from Basra to Baghdad reported walking into some cities and finding the streets knee-deep in body parts.

And I wondered about Hassan, the Kurdish 10-year-old kid I played soccer with in the park along the Tigris. I learned he survived the bombing in an e-mail from Cathy last April, and she said he was hanging around outside the hotel when she was back last fall. But Tom Cornell was back in Baghdad this past February, and he said there had been no sign of him. His family, we heard, went up north where it was safe.

Father Baxter is an assistant professor of theology and a fellow of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.