God and Man in Baghdad

Robert Alt

May 6, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq—Walking down a busy street in Baghdad several weeks ago, I came across it: an oasis. A reservoir of precious fluid in the middle of an arid desert. Vulgar souls might denigrate it as a “liquor store,” but such insults are hurled by those who have never tasted the water of Islay after traversing dry and sun-scorched Iraq. As I stood there surveying my prize, the shopkeeper asked me a common question: “Amerikee?” “Yes, I am American,” I replied. His eyes lit up. “Me Christian! Me Christian,” he exclaimed. A friend of the shopkeeper then entered. A brief Arabic exchange followed, during which I heard the familiar “Amerikee,” preceding the friend’s exclamation, “Me Christian!” In a land of Islam, I had stumbled upon a refuge of Christendom.

I asked where my newly found brethren went to church, but “church” was not an English word they understood. In my struggle to conjure another term to convey this idea, I asked where they prayed—all the while accompanying my words with miserably executed charades. This seemed to register, and I was quickly whisked through the marketplace, then through the back streets, and ultimately to a gated brick building. There I was greeted by a man accompanied by a young boy of around nine. The boy smiled and asked my name, following which I asked him his. “Joseph,” he replied. Not Samir, Ali, or Muhannad as I had expected, but Joseph. There was little doubt left that I had indeed found the Christians.

I was escorted to the sanctuary, a room whose wooden pews, crucifix, and altar easily could have been found in any modestly adorned Catholic parish in the States. My guide—we’ll call him Virgil—spoke very little English. After entering the sanctuary, he handed me a candle to light before a statute of Mary. I was struck at once by two distinct disabilities. First, explaining the Protestant objections to the Marian dogmas would require more skill in Arabic or charades than I possessed; and second, I left the States without the hammer, nail, and parchment necessary for a really good protest. I therefore obligingly lit and placed the candle.

Virgil then led me to meet Father George Hermiz, an Iraqi priest at what I learned was Our Lady of Fatima Church. Father Hermiz is a soft-spoken man, with well-kept beard, round face, and glasses (see photos of the sanctuary and Father Hermiz here). He has been serving in the Church since 1980, and during this time accumulated a wealth of information, not just about his church, but about life in Iraq for his roughly 150 parishioners. The Church is a Carmelite convent founded in 1956, which includes one priest from France, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, and Iraq, respectively. The parish does a number of outreach efforts for the community—including working with an NGO to distribute food to 27,000 families, and running a kindergarten for 150 children. Even though Christianity makes up less than 3% of the population of Iraq, Our Lady of Fatima is hardly alone in serving the Christians of Baghdad: the priest noted that there were 20-25 Chaldean churches in the Baghdad area, and many Protestant churches.

When the conversation turned to life in Iraq, Father Hermiz explained that the majority of Christians in Iraq support America’s effort. Yet he described what he referred to as a contradiction: the Christians are pleased that Saddam is gone, yet they felt safer under Saddam. This is because Saddam did not bother the Christians so long as they kept to themselves. While this meant that Christians could not openly proselytize, it nonetheless allowed them to maintain churches and hold services without fear of government reprisal. Since Saddam’s fall, however, Father Hermiz lamented that one church in Baghdad has been bombed, and the Christians are scared. His parishioners are concerned about the Shias, who they fear will not adhere to Saddam’s “don’t bother us, and we won’t bother you” policy. While Father Hermiz expressed fear about extremists like Muqtada al-Sadr weeks before the Mehdi Army clashed with American forces, he also expressed fear about the seemingly moderate Ayatollah Sistani and his followers. The priest asserted that “[i]f [an] Imam like Sistani says, ’Go and kill yourself,’ they will do it without question.”

Yet despite these fears about Shia violence, he voiced what I have found to be a common sentiment among Iraqis: the belief that Iraqis would not kill other Iraqis. When asked about attacks by Iraqis, Father Hermiz rejected the possibility, stating that “[i]t is not our way of life. It is not our way of thinking.” While this presumption in favor of the innocence of your own kind is undoubtedly shared by most nations and cultures, in Iraq it reaches the level of cognitive dissonance. In one breath the priest professed his fear that that Iraqi Shias would become suicide bombers, and in the next he disavowed the possibility of an Iraqi attacking an Iraqi. This strong cultural sense, which I have witnessed in many Iraqis, provides a partial explanation for why extravagant rumors about attacks are widely and rapidly accepted. Speaking generally, Iraqis are quick to believe that foreign fighters are the cause of attacks, even when empirical evidence points toward other Iraqis. And despite generally favoring the Coalition, Iraqis are still more disposed to believe that the Coalition is behind attacks on civilians than they are to believe that the killings could have been committed by their fellow countrymen. It is for this reason that misleading and erroneous reporting by Arab media outlets like Al Jazeera is so dangerous: Iraqis desperately want to believe that foreigners are deliberately inflicting casualties on women and children, because it keeps them from facing the reality that their own people have recklessly slaughtered innocents, and used women and children as human shields.

While the locals may be quick to shift blame to outsiders, they nonetheless understand the importance of the Coalition to the nation’s future and security. In Father Hermiz’s opinion, Americans should stay as long as they can, because “[f]or Iraqis, it is bad if America leaves.” The priest worried about the presidential race in America—emphasizing his concern that the United States might weaken its commitment to Iraq if President Bush were to lose in November. He therefore questioned me about Senator Kerry, what his Iraq policy would be, and what insights I had regarding the forthcoming election. Of course, Father Hermiz is not the only Iraqi who is following the presidential race. Muqtada al-Sadr has made it clear that he desires a change in leadership in the United States. Given Senator Kerry’s reference to al-Sadr as a “legitimate voice in Iraq,” perhaps we have finally found one of the many foreign leaders whose support Kerry previously touted, but chose not to name.

Father Hermiz is a vivid example of a side of Iraq that Westerners too rarely see. He is a man who is a Christian in a land of Islam; a man who is committing acts of charity rather than acts of violence; and a man who, despite his concerns regarding the uncertain future, is thankful to be freed from his country’s all-too-certain past.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.