A Christmas visit to Iraq
By Gabe Huck
Despite sanctions, teams of Americans associated with the Chicago-based
group Voices in the Wilderness have visited Iraq over the past
several years bringing medical supplies. This is the very personal
story of one such visit. It is against U.S. law to be in Iraq on Christmas. Or any other
day of the year. It is especially against the law to be there
with gifts of crayons, pencils, aspirin and medical books. U.S.
law says anyone who violates the sanctions and travels to Iraq
is liable to 12 years in jail and huge fines.
Nevertheless, my wife and I and six other Catholics (including
three Jesuit priests) kept Christmas in the southern Iraq city
of Basrah. On Christmas Eve we met the Chaldean Catholic bishop
of Basrah, Gabriel Kassab, himself an Iraqi. The bishop took us
to the old cathedral compound which he and his tiny staff have
turned into housing for the poor. And there are many, many poor
among the Christian minority and the Muslim majority. That night
Chaldean, Assyrian, Greek and Armenian Christians gathered to
celebrate Christmas liturgy and begin the jubilee year. They packed
the church and overflowed into the street. Their choirs sang,
Bishop Kassab preached, our three American priests concelebrated
the liturgy with the bishop.
How we were welcomed by these people who have suffered so much
at American hands: they embraced us, said Merry Christmas over
and over, and included us in their singing.
We went to Iraq knowing that this country, which until 1990 was
able to do much for the education, health and the general welfare
of its people, has, since the Gulf War, been isolated and humiliated
by sanctions. We went knowing that by United Nations count 5,000
children under age five die a month. In large part this is due
to bad water and no way to fix the bombed water system, no chemicals
to purify the water and no medicines to heal the resultant diseases.
How would you or I get along without the parts to fix anything
from the refrigerator to the refinery, from the car to the computer?
How would any of us get along if there were no more books or journals,
medicines or working machines for doctors or dentists?
For ten days we visited the hospitals and saw bare wards where
angry and desperate staff recycle the paper they write on for
each patient, where curable diseases are killing children, where
the bedsheets and blankets come from home.
More than a million Iraqi children and adults have died in these
ten years. In other places, that might have been called genocide.
Here, its called sanctions. We visited the schools with sewage
in the yards because sanitation systems dont work. There were
beautiful children sharing broken benches and spirited teachers
without a second piece of chalk.
We asked a six-year-old girl what she would say to the children
in America. She didnt hesitate: Tell them we are friends.
We visited with Muslim and Christian religious leaders who said
we must work to end senseless sanctions. United Nations Humanitarian
Coordinator for Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, said he sees no attempt
by the Iraqi government to make life miserable for the people:
There is no doubt that the overwhelming impact on the population
and the life of the people is because of the sanctions.
Pope John Paul II, who has repeatedly denounced the sanctions
had been expected to visit Iraq on a Jubilee year pilgrimage to
Ur, the place where God found Abraham and Sarah. The papal nuncio
in Baghdad told us that the sanctions and the no-fly zone make
the visit impossible.
Plans for the papal visit, while not dead, have been serious derailed.
Despite the sanctions and the damage, the Iraqi people seemed
unwilling to make us Americans into demons. Again and again we
were surprised by undeserved kindness from children and adults.
A mother whose little boy, playing in the street by their home,
was killed last January when a bomb fell in the neighborhood,
invited us into her tiny apartment to hear the story.
The director of the Baghdad art museum talked about the art community
being cut off for ten years from the outside world. A leader in
one of Baghdads large mosques took us to the kitchen where immense
cauldrons of soup were being prepared for the poor they feed every
This is not a plea for aid. It is a plea for Catholics to heed
the pope and the bishops and seek release of the economic sanctions.
Huck, director of Liturgy Training Publications in the Archdiocese
of Chicago, also is vice president of the North American Academy
of Liturgy. For more information, see the web site of Voices in
the Wilderness, www.nonviolence.org/vitw, or call 847-733-7141.