What’s next for Iraq Christians?
Dominican Sisters in Iraq are hopeful and persistent in challenging circumstances
Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State, or Daesh, in early December. Shortly after that, two western Dominican Friars arrived in the country to visit the Iraqi Dominican sisters, brothers and priests with whom the Dominicans of Springfield have built relationships since 2001.
Springfield Dominican Sisters Beth Murphy and Marcelline Koch, both of whom have visited Iraq and serve on the U.S. Dominican Iraq Coordinating Committee, received a written update from the sisters before Christmas and recently spoke with the friars about their visit. The visitors to Iraq were friars Brian Pierce and Timothy Radcliffe. Father Brian is a member of the Dominican Province of St. Martin DePorres, based in Dallas. Father Timothy, a British national who lives in Oxford, was the Master of the Order 1992-2001.
“The sisters are clearly exhausted,” Father Brian said. “They are tired; they’ve been through a lot of stuff.”
At the same time, they are unceasing in their efforts to serve the community and rebuild. Four groups of sisters have returned to two of the larger communities on the Plains of Nineveh and are involved in pastoral and educational ministry, according to the sisters’ Christmas communication. “Two kindergartens and one school have been open in the Plain of Nineveh,” they wrote. “We trust that our presence among our people is meaningful for us and for them, as well. Our unity at this time of our history is needed more than any other time.”
The sisters continue to run the schools and clinics for Iraqis who were displaced to Erbil in August of 2014, though the number of people needing their services in the Kurdish capital is diminished, for several reasons. Either families have returned to their villages, are squatting in countries of first asylum with the hope of being resettled, or with luck, have already found a durable solution to their displacement in a third country, most likely in Europe, Australia, Canada or – with decreasing likelihood – the U.S.
The sisters attribute their perseverance to the grace of God and the support of others who are equally committed to the restoration of peaceful civil society in Iraq. Despite a lack of regional leadership and the many churches and homes in need of rebuilding, the sisters wrote, “There are so many people of good will who are able to look through destruction and see the signs of God’s presence. So, they encourage, they give a hand, they inspire, they dare to hope, and by that they prepare the way of the Lord.”
Father Timothy cites as evidence of hope his encounter with a young resident of Qaraqosh who, though he has attained Swedish citizenship, recently decided to return to his hometown to rebuild.
It is also true that the sisters live under the shadow of neighbors who frequently express their aspiration that by 2050 Christians will be gone and Islam will rule the world, says Father Timothy.
Father Brian called the situation paradoxical. People in the villages clearly value the sisters’ presence and appreciate the work they do. Having a Dominican sister in your vehicle fast-tracks you through the multiple checkpoints that must be navigated throughout the territory of Nineveh Plain, he says. But at the same time, “There is that little current that’s behind it all which is, ‘When are you going to be moving on?’”
For example, it is still dangerous for Christians to return to the Nineveh Governorate capital of Mosul, but there are sisters who make the 20-mile round trip bus ride every day to teach at Mosul University. “They are seen as prey,” Father Timothy says, “particularly by young Muslims from south of Iraq who have never seen a woman not wearing a hijab. Their assumption is that the sisters are immoral.” (The sisters wear a traditional Dominican habit that includes a veil.)
Nevertheless, says Father Brian, the sisters who make the trip are positive about their experience. “They are happy to have that Christian presence just to say, ‘We are here, and we’re not going away.’”
It is a similar situation for the sisters who work in Baghdad, where they run a maternity hospital and a Catholic girls high school where most of their patients and students are Muslim.
Timothy says it’s important to keep our eyes on the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, because they will control the geopolitics of Iraq – what he calls “the bigger game.”
Iraq is being drawn more and more into the Shia world of Iran, he said, and cited as evidence that the patchwork of security checkpoints through the region includes those guarded by Iranian military.
“I don’t know how they hold all that together,” Father Brian said. “It’s so complicated.”
Father Brian says despite the challenges facing the sisters, he wants to be hopeful for and with them and continue to support their efforts. “The work they are doing is beautiful and creative; the faith and hope they have to have to keep going on is incredible. And the odds are against them.”
Sister Beth Murphy is the communication director for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.