Feb. 1-7, 2001
VOL 120 NO. 4
Journey of Insight
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
There were two Catholics among the six men who left Syracuse for Iraq on Jan. 10. They returned home the weekend of Jan. 20 after spending less than one week in Baghdad. They went carrying questions in their hearts about sanctions and U.S. policy. Now, they’ve come home with even more questions, not many answers, and a renewed sense of the need to forge relationships with brothers and sisters that make up one human family.
There was a history-making aspect to this trip which brought $150,000 worth of humanitarian aid in the form of medicine, school supplies and eye glasses to Iraq. Twenty-seven U.S. citizens were part of this delegation led by an Atlanta-based group, Conscience International. The group represented the first U.S. citizens to fly into Iraq challenging the U.S. ban on air travel into Iraq. It was this issue that led to the heavier media coverage for this Syracuse group. Humanitarian and religious organizations have been traveling to Iraq to witness the effects of the 10-year-old U.S./U.N. economic sanctions for several years now.
For the past few years, interest has grown locally concerning the sanctions. Information has spread across the diocese. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly asked for an end to the economic sanctions and Bishop James Moynihan has spoken out about the effectiveness of a policy that has reportedly resulted in the deaths of Iraqi civilians, many of them children.
One of the leaders of the local movement against the Iraqi sanctions is Dick Keough. A couple of years ago Keough stood on the steps of the chancery one Friday a month in hopes of drawing attention to the issue. Keough was ordained a priest in 1968 but left the ministry and married his wife, Mary, in 1973. The couple has two daughters, and have been involved in Pax Christi, a Catholic peace organization, and many other local peace groups for years. Keough said he has read and researched the sanctions and his main goal during the trip was to express his sympathy to the Iraqi people and to ask for forgiveness. Rick Hatem is a member of the l’Arche community in Syracuse. That organization is made up of communities around the world where non-disabled individuals live with others with mental and developmental disabilities. They live together in homes very much like a family, supporting and sharing life together. L’Arche was founded decades ago and is rooted in Catholic principles. Hatem also works in the bail office of Jail Ministry and ministers as a spiritual director.
Before he left for Iraq, Hatem, who has lived in the Middle East in l’Arche communities, said he wanted to see the results of the sanctions “first-hand.” Hatem wrote then, “Based on all that I have read, I believe that the sanctions are not and have not achieved their intended purpose.” He is back home and he still believes his initial thoughts hold true. On a few occasions during their trip, Keough and Hatem were able to leave the group they had traveled with to Baghdad. They took taxis on their own utilizing Hatem’s knowledge of Arabic. The two men visited a Catholic Eastern Rite seminary and a home for disabled children that is facilitated by sisters of Mother Teresa’s order.
Keough said the rector at the seminary, Father Louis Sako, said there is an increase in vocations in Iraq, but that one has to wonder if the reason has to do with the economy as well as more men receiving a call from God. Hatem said the Chaldean priest explained a little bit about how the West is perceived in the Middle East. “My understanding was that the countries of the West are perceived as Christian countries and this results in extremist Muslims labeling this as a crusade against Islam,” Hatem said.
There is a Christian population in Iraq, Hatem explained. Division has occurred due to this perception of Christians being identified with the West. Keough and Hatem came back from the delegation feeling very strongly that the Muslim/Christian divisions are a sizable part of the problem between the U.S. and Iraq. “Both people are affected,” Hatem said. “Christians can suffer prejudice because they are seen as being identified with the West which has perpetrated these acts against all of them.” And this perception plays directly into Saddam Hussein’s hands, Hatem said. “He is a tyrant and he is blaming the sacrifice they all make on the imperial West. He uses this and then he doesn’t take credit for his responsibility,” he said. For Keough, the trip was more about a new discovery that the religious differences between East and West are at the core of the conflict.
“There is a lot of blaming going on — blaming Saddam Hussein for not doing more for his people, blaming the U.N. for the sanctions, blaming the U.S. for the bombing that takes place almost daily, blaming the forces of the Gulf War that demolished the infrastructure … there is a lot of blame to go around,” Keough said. During his lifetime, Keough said, there have been other genocides — Rowanda, the Sudan, but the genocide of World War II with the Jews and the Christians and today, the Muslims and the Christians, he said, is an “underlying factor that isn’t brought out in the media.” “People remember since the time of the Crusades, this runs deep in the hearts of people. They did not express it verbally, but it is again Christians coming into an Islamic country and killing. The reality of what happens to Christians there, they are a minority. They say there is religious freedom, but there is a deep-seated resentment towards Christians because Christian countries are doing this,” Keough said.
The Iraqi society is very oppressed, Keough said. Satellite dishes are illegal and the only people with access to the Internet are government officials and the U.N. The oppression is not seen overtly, but he sensed a fear on the part of the people because they do not speak out. Before the Gulf War, Iraq was one of the strongest, wealthiest Middle Eastern countries. The civilians credit Hussein with bringing prosperity to their country over his 20-plus years of ruling Iraq. They remember the old days which have now been replaced with economic ruin, Hatem explained. The effects of the sanctions mean that cars go without replacement parts, children with leukemia get only part of the series of treatment they need, and one Iraqi dinar used to equal three U.S. dollars, now it equals about 10 or 12 cents, Hatem said.
Whole groups of Iraqi society have left the economically devastated country, Hatem said. “Christians have left, the more educated have left, families are broken and scattered, women have no chance of marriage because they have no dowry,” he said. “This leaves people with few options and creates a climate of fanaticism and extremists and the U.S. becomes a target of hatred,” Hatem said. “This hatred becomes seeds future generations of the U.S. will reap. This happens because there is no hope.” Hatem also said that his perception was that the people in Iraq believe that there is a better chance of dialogue between Iraq and the U.S. now that President George W. Bush is in office. This came as a surprise considering the fact that the Gulf War took place during the new president’s father’s administration. But, Hatem said, the people feel that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have more of a connection with the oil industry. Both Hatem and Keough said they had no real fears about making their trip.
“See my hair?” Keough asked pointing out the gray color. “I have lived my life. I have no fear of death.” Hatem’s past experience in the Middle East gave him a different perspective. “I think the Muslim people as a whole are more astute at distinguishing between people and government.” “We are so hard-line on people who want to go over there. We don’t want the Iraqis to become ‘people’ to us,” Hatem said. There are still questions for both men. Every time there was a meeting with Iraqi officials, Hatem said, they were greeted with a lecture. “They see the U.S. as the perpetrator of the sanctions and Great Britain as endorsing the policy because the U.S. does,” Hatem said. The two travelers said they knew they would see the sick children and the poverty of the people of Iraq. Their Christianity drove them to look at the suffering, and to see beyond it into the eyes of a misunderstanding that is centuries old.