• August 14, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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The Chaldean Catholic Church concluded a weeklong synod in Baghdad offering thanks to God for the return of numerous displaced Christians to their hometowns in the Ninevah Plain and for pastoral achievements in their dioceses. 

The synod, held Aug. 7-13 at the invitation of Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic patriarch, brought together church leaders and participants from Iraq, the United States, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Canada, Australia and Europe to discuss issues vital for the church’s future both in Iraq and among its diaspora. 

Patriarchs and other leaders proposed potential candidates for election as new bishops because several Iraqi clergy are nearing retirement age. Chaldean Archbishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis of Kirkuk, Iraq, told Catholic News Service that no names would be made public until approved by the Holy See. 

The final statement said a key discussion point focused on the need for “a larger number of well-qualified priests, monks and nuns” to work in Chaldean Catholic churches to “preserve the Eastern identity and culture of each country and its traditions.” 

Synod participants decried the suffering experienced by Christians and other Iraqis over the past four years following the Islamic State takeover of Mosul and towns in the Ninevah Plain as well as the deterioration of Iraq’s political, economic and social institutions. 

They also praised the humanitarian efforts by the churches and Christian organizations to help those displaced to return home and re-establish their lives. The synod expressed “sincere thanks to all the ecclesiastical institutions and international civil organizations that supported them during their long ordeal.” 

Church officials and the international community have expressed growing concern that unless Iraq’s ancient religious minorities are supported in their rebuilding, many will seek a new life elsewhere. Observers believe that 400,000 to 500,000 Christians now live in Iraq, compared to 1.5 million before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. 

Chaldeans are the indigenous people of Iraq, whose roots trace back thousands of years. The synod said that Iraqi Christians still aspire to see the government establish “a strong national civil state that provides them and other citizens equality and a decent living, as well as preserves them in an atmosphere of freedom, democracy and respect for pluralism.” 

The religious leaders also expressed support for Cardinal Sako’s multiple efforts to encourage and build national unity in Iraq. In addition, they urged Iraqi government officials to help the displaced to “rebuild their homes, rehabilitate the infrastructure of their towns and maintain their property” as most of the reconstruction efforts have been at the initiation of the church, international donors and foreign governments. 

They appealed to the international community to assist them in “a dignified and safe return.” The synod called for an end to the war in Syria and in other Middle East countries. It also called on the U.S. and Iran to engage in diplomacy to resolve their differences and to avoid punitive measures, saying that “wars and sanctions only result in negative consequences.” 

The church leaders offered Muslims warm wishes for the upcoming Eid al-Adha holiday, Aug. 21-25, and expressed a sincere desire for them both to seek a “common life in peace, stability and love.” 

by Dale Gavlak

  • August 14, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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In a ceremony in London on Friday, August 10, the British Museum restituted several artefacts that had been looted from Iraq more than fifteen years earlier. Palko Karasz of the New York Times reports that the authorities seized the works from a local dealer, who has since gone out of business, in 2003 and only passed them on to the British Museum for analysis earlier this year. 

The eight works, some of which date back to five thousand years ago, are from the archaeological site of Girsu, a Sumerian city in Tello in southern Iraq. They include three fired-clay cones that featured cuneiform inscriptions, which aided archaeologist Sebastien Rey from the British Museum in the process of identifying them; a fragment of a white ceremonial weapon made of gypsum; a white marble pendant depicting a four-legged animal; and a quartz seal with an engraving of a sphinx. “The objects may be small,” Rey told the New York Times, “but they have important symbolic value.”

Commenting on the museum’s decision to return the artefacts, Salih Husain Ali, Iraq’s ambassador to Britain, said, “Such collaboration between Iraq and the United Kingdom is vital for the preservation and the protection of the Iraqi heritage. In Iraq we aspire to the global cooperation to protect the heritage of Iraq and to restore its looted objects.” The objects will soon be displayed at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

  • August 13, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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As Sunday 12th August marked International Youth Day, the Iraq Solidarity Campaign are proud to re-affirm our commitment to the children and young people of Iraq, by supporting the efforts of the Iraqi Children Foundation. 

The Iraqi Children Foundation intervene in the lives of young people, who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. An estimated 800,000 Iraqi children, were orphaned by the end of the Iraq War. 

Through their Street Lawyers, the ICF provides legal protection to children; who are picked up for begging, are victims of under-age labour or who have been targeted for trafficking, and then charged with a crime. 

ICF also run the "Hope Bus" - a colourful mobile school - that provides children with tutoring in all academic subjects, as well as providing nutritious food and health care, to some of the most vulnerable children across Baghdad. 

We hope that you will join the Iraq Solidarity Campaign and help us mark this and future International Youth Day events, by extending your support to the youth of Iraq. For further information please see www.iraqichildren.org or to make a donation please click here.

  • August 13, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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The Iraq Solidarity Campaign is proud to support the efforts of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which is currently rebuilding the homes of those displaced and Church buildings - that were damaged or destroyed during the ISIS occupation. 

When ISIS invaded, Iraqi Christians were given three choices: leave, convert or die! The homes of Iraqi Christians were daubed with "Noun", to mark them out as Nazarene and those suspected of hiding Iraqi Christians, had their water supplies cut off. 

In response to this, we started working with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, where in Manchester we helped organise ONE NIGHT FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM in 2015, along with the Jesuit community at the Holy Name Church. 

We also helped to organise a second ONE NIGHT event in 2016, at the Holy Name Church in Manchester's city centre, where the proceeds raised from both events, went directly to helping Iraqi families, who had been displaced by ISIS. 

In cooperation with the Church in Iraq, ACN established the NRC in March 2017, "To enable Iraqi Christians who wish to return home to villages in the Nineveh Plains, where they have lived for centuries, and to do so in dignity, safety, as well as security." 

If you live in the UK and would like to get involved, please do not hesitate to get in-touch with the Iraq Solidarity Campaign. If you would like further information on the efforts being made to support Iraqi Christians, please check out: https://www.nrciraq.org/

  • August 13, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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On the 6th August 2018, Father Martin Banni led a mass and vigil in Baghdad, to mark the 4th anniversary of ISIS forcing Christians, to flee their towns in Iraq's Nineveh Plains. 

On the night of the 6/7th August 2014, Father Martin Banni got the Blessed Sacrament to safety, as he fled Karemles, as so-called Islamic State were fast approaching. 

Father Martin’s return to Karemles in spring 2017, came amid plans involving Aid to the Church in Need, to enable Iraqi Christians to return home to the Nineveh Plains. 

Upon his return, Father Martin “was the first priest to bless the people in the church in my village in northern Iraq”. Fr Martin is also part of ACN's ongoing relief efforts, for 120,000 displaced Iraqi Christians. 

The Iraq Solidarity Campaign supports Father Martin Banni and Aid to the Church in Need, who in cooperation with the Church in Iraq, established the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee in March 2017. 

We share ACN's aims: "To enable Iraqi Christians who wish to return home to villages in the Nineveh Plains, where they have lived for centuries, and to do so in dignity, safety, as well as security." 

If you wish to support Father Martin Banni and the ongoing relief efforts inside of Iraq, please get involved or make an affordable donation to Aid to the Church in Need's work across Iraq.

  • August 11, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) opened the Baghdad Medical Rehabilitation Centre (BMRC) a year ago to support victims of war in Iraq. The centre provides much needed post-surgical rehabilitation care, including physical and psychological support. 

Mohammed Hussein, 27, can’t carry his newborn baby in his arms yet. Last year, fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group ambushed his car near the border between Iraq and Jordan. Both his legs were fractured and he suffered a severe nerve injury in one of them. “I was lucky, because I still have one good leg left,” he said. Four of his friends died in the attack. Mohammed managed to escape and hide. “They burned our car. I activated my phone’s GPS and recorded a voice message for my family. I thought I was going to die.” 

For more than a year, Mohammed has been going in and out of hospitals across Iraq. Two major surgeries later, he is receiving post-surgical rehabilitation care at MSF’s centre in Baghdad. The BMRC is the only health facility in Baghdad governorate offering comprehensive rehabilitation care, including physical and psychological support, to victims of war injured by bomb blasts and gunshots. There is a huge lack of such services in the country, where healthcare facilities have been severely damaged after years of war. Since it opened in August 2017, more than 150 patients have been treated at the BMRC by a team of 70 doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and psychologists. 

Patients like Mohammed come from different regions across Iraq and are referred to the BMRC by MSF medical liaison officers, who regularly visit Baghdad’s public hospitals looking for potential patients in need of specialised care. At the BMRC, Mohammed receives medical care including physiotherapy, pain management and psychological support. After two months of treatment he is able to stand with a walker, but might need another surgery to repair his damaged nerve. 

Open war wounds 

In December 2017, Iraq declared the end of the war against the IS group. But the destruction of public infrastructure after decades of war has left many injured people without adequate post-surgical rehabilitation services. War injuries often result in long-term impairments and disabilities. Insufficient nursing care, untreated pain and lack of psychological support can lead to medical complications and add to people’s suffering. 

“Early physiotherapy is the key to fully heal and recover after multiple surgeries. It has an impact on the early stages of rehabilitation, strengthens the patient’s weakened and wounded limbs, prevents possible contractures and eventually restores mobility,” explains Renata Beserra Xavier, MSF’s physiotherapy manager at the BMRC. 

Healing bodies and minds 

Psychological care goes hand in hand with physiotherapy: it is vital to help patients recover from the traumas most of them experienced during the latest conflict. Since activities started at the BMRC, 163 patients have joined individual or group psychological support therapy sessions, and MSF teams have conducted 1,617 follow-up sessions. They also run occupational and art therapy services. 

“Mental health teams are supporting patients during their follow-up at the BMRC. They address issues related both to the traumatic events our patients have been through, and to their daily medical care and rehabilitation that can last for months,” described Saima Zai, a mental health manager at the BMRC. “I remember an 11-year-old girl coming in for physiotherapy and being terrified about a new surgery she was going to face. The mental health team helped her and her mum handle the situation and they were both relieved at the end of the first session.” 

A psychologist from Pakistan, Saima Zai, previously worked for MSF in Mosul, Iraq, and in Amman, Jordan: “In the Middle East, it is difficult to access mental health support in public hospitals. There is still a lot of stigma about it.”

  • August 09, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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For some Christians in Iraq, the future is just a few weeks old. Baby Timotheus was born in mid-May. “It is my heartfelt wish that my son will be able to grow up in Iraq. God will find a way,” his father Samir hopes. 

He and his wife Siba are proud parents – and devout Christians. Their baby will be baptized in just a few weeks. The young people – he is 30, she 25 – live in Bartella, a Christian town on the Nineveh plains near Mosul. The majority of its inhabitants are Syriac Orthodox. 

Their small son lies quietly in the arms of his mother. His parents will later tell him about the difficult times the family went through in the years leading up to his birth. The Islamic State arrived in Bartella in August of 2014. 

All of the Christians living in the town fled in panic from the Islamic extremists. Their churches and houses were destroyed, damaged, and almost all of them were looted. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is making it possible for Christians to return to the places they call home. 

A large project has been called into being to restore the houses made uninhabitable by IS. This has paved the way for more than 45 percent of families displaced in 2014 to return to their homes, a total of more than 8,700 families as of June 2018. 

The house Timotheus is spending the first year of his life in is not owned by his family. “The house does not belong to us. The owner lives in Sweden. However, thanks to ACN, we are living in this house for one year for free,” Samir explains. 

This has been a big help to the young family. 

“May God bless the benefactors and support them in every stage of their lives. They live by the words of Jesus: I was homeless and you welcomed me.” 

This is possible because the reconstruction committee, which is sponsored by ACN, has stipulated that assistance will only be granted for the renovation of houses destroyed or damaged by IS if owners who do not live in their houses themselves allow a needy family to live in them for one year for free. 

Samir and his family are the beneficiaries of this requirement. However, in November it will have been a year since Timotheus’ parents returned to Bartella and they will have to start paying rent as of then. But Samir is still looking towards the future optimistically. 

“I live from day to day, just as Jesus taught us. May God give us our daily bread.” Samir earns his family’s daily bread as an English teacher. 

“I prepare students for university.” 

He primarily teaches non-Christian children of the Shabak peoples, an ethnic group that follows Shia Islam. Muslims are a growing part of the population of Bartella because many Christians are selling their land to them before leaving for other countries. 

Samir also earned his living as an English teacher when he lived in Iraqi Kurdistan as a refugee. Most of the Christians had fled to safety there. “The years as a refugee were of course difficult. We hardly had any money. We would not have made it without the support of the Church.” 

Despite everything, though, leaving Iraq has never been an option for Samir. “Without a doubt: we live in an unstable country. However, it is still our homeland. As long as nothing absolutely terrible happens, I want to remain here.” 

His wife Siba agrees with him. “I love my homeland. The support of my Lord and my husband give me the strength to endure all hardships.” 

Samir is happy that things are improving again in the town. 

“Most people have gone back to their normal lives. Things have returned to the way they used to be.” In fact, the sound of hammering and renovations can be heard all over town, as people repair the damage left behind by IS. 

However, in the Syriac Orthodox parish church in Bartella, not all traces have been removed. Father Jacob, the priest, leads the way through the church. It has been renovated using monies granted by ACN. The walls are radiantly white. The painted wooden altar gleams in vibrant colours. 

The anti-Christian graffiti and the Islamic creed that the IS terrorists wrote on the walls have been whitewashed. Only a charred chapel has been left as a reminder of IS. 

“We left the chapel like this on purpose. It is supposed to act as a reminder of the awful things that happened to us. However, thanks to God’s help and the generosity of the benefactors of ACN, we have come back.”

  • August 09, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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When you think of cultural heritage التراث الثقافي, what comes to mind? For many, cultural heritage denotes material artefacts and archaeological riches, intellectually valued relics worthy of preservation. It is also the things we cannot necessarily see or touch, defined by UNESCO as the ‘intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations’. 

These ‘intangibles’ can include societal values, communal bonds, traditions, rituals, oral expression and language. But heritage is subject to filtering in a ‘selection process: a process of memory and oblivion that characterizes every human society constantly engaged in choosing…what is worthy of being preserved for future generations and what is not’. This process provides us with a ‘version of history’. In a land of diversity and time of change, is it yours? 

Heritage kept and heritage lost are often the results of decisions steered by institutions and elites, in any country. Qahtan Al-Abeed, supervisor of world cultural heritage sites in Iraq with UNESCO, experienced this directly. Born in Basra in 1980 before moving to Kirkuk in 1986, Qahtan ‘always liked old things’. However, at school he wondered why there was ‘limited information of our history, limited information of our civilisation’. An Archaeology degree was then a specialist opportunity only afforded to 15 students a year at Baghdad University. 

Dictatorship, conflict and instability in Iraq have enabled attacks and control over legacies, buildings and human identities. Iraqi history has been characterised by the ‘systematic dismantling’ of heritage, suggests Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History at University College London, Eleanor Robson, ‘from the time of the British Mandate, post-World War I, to during the past 15 years…the Coalition Provisional Authority and others deprioritised understanding of communities and civil society. Think about the ways museums have told a nationalist history – this set the scene for Saddam through to ISIS.’ So why is heritage of particular interest and investment now? 

Partly because the country is on the cusp of change and also because cultural heritage has been a tool in war. Over recent years ISIS destroyed swathes of North-Western Iraq including the walled city of Hatra, the monuments of Nimrud, libraries, and a number of religious sites. Furthermore, ISIS’ intolerance to pluralism and the group’s crimes, such as rape and the demolition of shrines, is an ‘ideological removal of identity’ says Professor Robson, ‘and there’s a failure to understand its importance’. 

ISIS also destroyed the Mosul museum. When this happened, Qahtan Al-Abeed, as Director of Basrah Museum, opened its first gallery in September 2016. It was a show of solidarity ‘to counteract it [war with ISIS], a message of peace.’ 

In an attempt to assist with the reconstruction of Mosul, Qahtan hopes to use his position to train others. He laments how the city is ‘in zero condition, it needs a long time’. Rather, heritage rehabilitation can also be about ‘giving and creating. Young people, engineers, doctors…they are interested, but they want someone to teach them how to do it.’ 

Prior to ISIS, events involving the United States were also manipulated for political and ideological ends. ‘Stuff happens… freedom’s untidy’ said Donald Rumsfeld of the rioting and looting of museums and libraries unprotected in the United States invasion in 2003, citing the burning and destruction of heritage as ‘collateral damage’. 

In the instability of American occupation Qahtan Al-Abeed moved back to Basra to work for the directorate of antiquities. But squatters had looted and taken over the premises. Qahtan indicates the difficulties Iraqis faced post-2003 – ‘If we couldn’t even protect our office, how to protect a heritage site? We had to create from zero’. 

So, cultural heritage has been weaponised for decades to further agendas, ideologies and notional superiorities. After ISIS and current post-election uncertainty, how do Iraqis want to move forward? 

Venturing inquiry is the Nahrein Network. Headed up by Professor Robson, Nahrein’s aims are to support the sustainable development of antiquity, cultural heritage and the humanities in Iraq and its neighbours. Cultural heritage can contribute to ‘sustainable development and social cohesion’, she explains, if it is ‘inclusive, accessible and democratic’. When rehabilitation allows ‘for individuals with collective identities’, heritage can be a mechanism for recovery in diverse societies. 

Funded by the U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Global Challenges Research Fund, the project runs until 2021. During this time, Nahrein is cooperating with museums, universities and cultural heritage sites in the Middle East to develop interdisciplinary humanities research and education, thus also driving social and economic development. Many institutions have a stake in the network, and collaborations are already in place with the University of Baghdad and Basrah Museum, amongst many others. 

Nahrein then is also a vehicle, ‘a funding body, trying to hook up Iraqi ideas with money and infrastructure,’ explains Professor Robson. Soon Nahrein will fund Iraqi research projects exploring ‘the synergies between history, the humanities and heritage’. Professor Robson has worked in the country for several years. ‘We want to bring intellectual ownership back to Iraq,’ she adds. ‘I hope that the isolation of the past 28 years starts to dissolve and in the next few years, others work with Iraqis. It’s normal.’ 

In a move to realising this ambition, Nahrein is equipping Iraqi academics such as Dr. Rozhen Kamal Mohammed-Amin with scholarships to visit the U.K. Dr. Rozhen, architect, founder and head of the Digital Cultural Heritage Research Group at the Sulaimani Polytechnic University, says: ‘Through the network’s joint visiting Iraqi scholarship, I am awarded a unique opportunity to modernize cultural heritage storytelling and experience at a local museum as a model, a plan that I had to put on hold due to lack of local funds’. 

Ultimately, Nahrein is trying to ‘re-establish local pasts for local people, where culture is part of a rich and fulfilling life’. Recently the project has been engaged in fact-finding missions, listening to a wide range of Iraqis, and asking, how would a good future look? Nahrein hosted a session at The Station in Baghdad with around 25 young professionals. At that focus group, “Someone said ‘old minds decide what happens.’ We want to get outside these institutional cultures.” 

Most participants, it transpired, were ‘bored at school’, instead finding a ‘love of culture and heritage through family…through being at their grandparents’ house, through songs, car trips, picnics…’ Notably, ‘They were emotional responses. Whether home or a place,’ says Professor Robson, ‘It’s about feelings’. Possibly, the emotional aspects of heritage are the glue. Eleanor elaborates how cultural spaces ‘can also be an opportunity to forget, and have fun. An escape mechanism, to not think of difficult presents. Museums, the marshes…these are calm spaces for contemplation, for people to be themselves.’ 

Qahtan Al-Abeed echoes the sensory powers of heritage. ‘We want to change the sad memories of Basrawi people’ he says. He plans to fully open the remaining galleries in the Basrah Museum in March next year. The museum uncovers 1800 years of history and excavations in the region, showcasing artefacts, pottery, glass, coins, toys and coffins. Yet, it is the less tangible dimensions that make the museum more significant than the sum of its contents. 

Paradoxically, it is housed in Saddam’s old palace complex, in a tourist location. Qahtan rationalises why: ‘It is huge, with a secure gated area and big rooms for galleries.’ It is also of course a ghostly and emblematic acquisition. ‘People hated it!’ states Qahtan, ‘As a symbol of the totalitarian regime’. 

In 1991, during the Shaaban Intifada, Saddam’s army carried out massacres in the palace. It was physically ruined again in 2005. In the allegorical ashes are messages. For regimes around the world, the Basrah museum aims to represent ‘humanity and civilisation…we are not for dictatorship, for doing bad things to people’. And, affirms Qahtan firmly, ‘We are not removing Saddam’s names from the walls. We will tell people in future the story. That is the only testimony we have.’ 

Meanwhile, also in Basra, Qahtan is trying to reactivate Khashaba خشابة, a local traditional form of music and dance. He is supporting the development of tourism amongst the marshes, a UNESCO listed site since 2016. But the water shortage, the result of climate, geography and regional politics, has created drought and now civil unrest. ‘Life continues,’ Qahtan observes, with stoical resilience, ‘We have to live. We have to do something important. Humanity has to help earth.’ And it is this relationship ‘between people and things’, says Professor Robson, that heritage personifies; ‘It’s who you are.’ 

Fran Sutherland is a PhD candidate at The School of Education, University of Sheffield. She has worked with Iraqi students with teaching qualifications of PGCE, MEd and CertTesol. This article first appeared on 1001 Iraqi Thoughts and has been republished with kind permission.

(Students visit Basrah Museum. Photo: Persian Dutch Network/ CC-BY-SA-4.0)

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