November 16, 2007

Iraqis To Christians: Come Home

Last week, we heard Michael Yon talk about his iconic photograph of Muslims and Christians restoring the cross to the dome of St. John's Church in Baghdad. Now the church has opened, and Muslims flocked to the church to send a message to their Christian countrymen -- please come home:

Most Reverend Shlemon Warduni, Auxiliary Bishop of the St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Diocese for Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iraq officiated standing directly beneath the dome under the Chaldean cross. Speaking in both Arabic and English, Bishop Warduni thanked those American soldiers sitting in the pews for their sacrifices. Again and again, throughout the service, he thanked the Americans.

LTC Stephen Michael at St John’s. LTC Michael told me today that when al Qaeda came to Dora, they began harassing Christians first, charging them “rent.” It was the local Muslims, according to LTC Michael, who first came to him for help to protect the Christians in his area. That’s right. LTC Michael told me more than once that the Muslims reached out to him to protect the Christians from al Qaeda. Real Muslims here are quick to say that al Qaeda members are not true Muslims. From charging “rent,” al Qaeda’s harassment escalated to killing Christians, and also Muslims. Untold thousands of Christians and Muslims fled Baghdad in the wake of the darkness of civil war. Most of the Christians are gone now; having fled to Syria, Jordan or Northern Iraq. ....

Today, Muslims mostly filled the front pews of St John’s. Muslims who want their Christian friends and neighbors to come home. The Christians who might see these photos likely will recognize their friends here. The Muslims in this neighborhood worry that other people will take the homes of their Christian neighbors, and that the Christians will never come back. And so they came to St John’s today in force, and they showed their faces, and they said, “Come back to Iraq. Come home.” They wanted the cameras to catch it. They wanted to spread the word: Come home. Muslims keep telling me to get it on the news. “Tell the Christians to come home to their country Iraq.”

Last week, Michael and I talked about the desire of Iraqis to have their Christian neighbors back, as well as the Muslims who also fled. With the instability of the past few years, Michael explained, the loss of neighbors creates a lack of cohesiveness that existed prior to the sectarian warfare. Iraqi society does not have the same mobility of that in the West, and neighbors know each other for decades. Iraqis want that stability back, and they want to make sure that they can rely on the people who live in their neighborhoods.

There is also a canary-in-the-coal-mine aspect to this. If Christians can live unmolested in Baghdad, it gives Sunnis and Shi'ites alike more confidence that the sectarian wars have ended. The Christians would be the first to feel the wrath in a breakdown of Muslim comity, which the Christians have already experienced as part of this war. A return to normalcy at St Johns gives hope to the Muslims in Baghdad.

This, however, goes beyond just heightened self-interest. One gets the sense that Iraqis want a unity of nationalism rather than divisions of sectarianism. They want to show the world that Arabs can live in a cosmopolitan atmosphere with tolerance and acceptance. The violence of the past two years has undermined that, and the Iraqis seem to understand that they need to explicitly and actively demonstrate their respect for each other as Iraqis rather than their divisions elsewhere.

In that sense, where better for moderate Muslims to send that message than at a Christian church they rebuilt for their brothers?


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