Orbiting Dicta


Lessons from Iraq: Dominicans, Christians, and the Future of the Country

The Third Lund-Gill Lecture for 2009

7:00 p.m.  April 15

Dominican University

Parmer Hall 108

Christianity is an Asian religion, born in the Middle East, developed in the Middle East, and present in what the world knows as Syria, Turkey, and Iraq two decades before St. Paul launched his mission to the European continent.  We in the West are apt to forget that.

Ancient Iraq

Iraq, which comprises most of what was once called Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, also known as the Cradle of Civilization and the Fertile Crescent, has within its borders over 10,000 primary archeological sites, many of which have yet to be excavated and have been exposed to extensive looting after the 2003 war.  Some of these date back over 7,000 years, although strangely enough only three have been designated as World Heritage sites.  Nine more are awaiting UNESCO approval, including the ancient city of Babylon, where the Hanging Gardens were considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The art of writing, the first cultivation of wheat and rice, the birth of the biblical monotheism in Chaldea, near the city of Babylon – all began in Iraq.  From archeological, historical, political, and theological perspectives Iraq is not only significant but profoundly important.

Early Aramaic texts affirm that the Apostles Thomas and Bartholomew first evangelized southern Iraq on their way to India.  The existence of Christian communities there by the end of the first century support the claims of a very early foundation.

There has been a Dominican presence in the Near East since the middle of the 13th century.  Italian friars were the first to reach Mesopotamia.  The Dominican mission was authorized in 1245 by Pope Innocent IV.  But there had been previous missions, even before the Franciscan and Dominican orders had been established and launched their efforts to win the East for Christ.  At the end of the thirteenth century Marco Polo and his brothers would also journey there on their way to China.  What all found is that there were already thriving Christian communities in Mesopotamia despite occasional and sometimes severe persecutions by the Persians, Parthians, Mongols, and occasionally Muslims.

When the Dominican friars arrived in Mosul and Baghdad in the mid-thirteenth century, there had been a Christian community there for over a thousand years.  Or, I should say, communities. Not that they had always been thriving – intermittent persecutions on the part of Persians, Parthians, Muslims, and Mongols periodically decimated the Christian population, but it endured.  And sometimes it also increased and multiplied.

The ancient Christian communities were distinguished by language and tradition.  Almost all spoke Aramaic, as many do today, although it is usually referred to as “Syriac,” and communities were distinguished by dialects – West Syriac and East Syriac, sometimes referred to as Assyrian and Chaldean.  The largest body of Christians were referred to as Nestorian, although this has proved to be incorrect.  And in fact, since the sixteenth century, several of these ancient churches have been in full communion with Rome.  But there are also other Christian churches in Iraq and other parts of the Near East which while having good relations with the Western or Latin Church remain distinct, principally the Syrian Orthodox Church.

The simplified map of the Christian presence looks like this:  [map here]

If it is not easy to keep the differences and similarities of the Christian communities clear in our minds, that is hardly surprising, as Westerners generally and perhaps Americans in particular have very conflicting feelings about Arabs and Arab culture in general, and share both misinformation and ignorance about Arab Christianity and, of course, Islam.

Tonight, not least because of time constraints, it isn’t possible to touch even briefly on all these areas, or even a few of them.  So I will limit my remarks to three areas of concern and interest – my own, and hopefully, yours.





I will begin with a brief overview of the Dominican Mission in what we now call Iraq, but was usually referred to by the ancient title, Mesopotamia – the Land between the Rivers.

Western missionaries including Franciscans, Carmelites, and eventually Jesuits, all came to Mesopotamia and all began missions which lasted sometimes until the present.  Other orders and congregations also came, as did Anglican and Protestant missionaries.  The Dominicans are still there, although for several centuries our presence was greatly reduced.

In 1291, when the last priory in Palestine was overtaken in the fall of Acre, the thirty friars there were massacred.  Their bloody habits were brought to the bazaar in Baghdad by travelers where they were seen by Friar Ricoldo of Montecroce who learned of the massacre from a monk or in some accounts a nun who may have been brought to Baghdad as a captive or a slave.  But this is to get ahead of our story.  A close contemporary of the great German Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, Ricoldo belonged to the third generation of early Dominicans.  But as early as 1221, even before the death of St. Dominic, friars had turned their evangelical attention to the lands of the near and far East.

The Dominican Mission to Mesopotamia

From its earliest days, the Dominican Order was dedicated to the evangelization of pagans, Muslims, Jews, and non-Chalcedonian Christians in eastern Europe, central Asia, the Middle East, the Far East, and as far away as India and China.  Language schools were founded by far-sighted Masters of the Order in the thirteenth century such as Raymond of Peñafort and Humbert of Romans.

In 1250 Pope Innocent V saluted “the Friars Preachers, who are missionaries among the Saracens, the Greeks, the Bulgarians, the Cumans and the Syrians, the Garithians, Goths, Lyconians, Ruthenians, Jacobites and Nubians, the Georgians and Armenians, Hindus and Masilitans, the Tartars and Hungarians and pagans of other countries of the East.”

The early Dominican travelers to the Near, Middle, and Far East were not tourists or gentle apostles of inter-faith camaraderie.  Their objective was conversion, not only that of pagans but also of dissident Christians.  Some, like William of Tripoli and Ricoldo of Montecroce were remarkably tolerant of the beliefs and customs of those they hoped to add to the Christian fold.  Others, such as Raymond Etienne and the redoubtable William Adam, wrote more aggressive treatises, such as William’s unfortunately titled On a Method of Exterminating the Saracens.  Even Ricoldo penned a Refutation of the Koran, a popular work at the time and for many years afterward.  The humane and sensitive character of the man is more evident in the five letters he sent from Baghdad in 1291 after learning of the massacre of the friars in Acre.

The names are known to us of a number of friars who labored in Mesopotamia or sojourned there  en route to Persia, India, and China.  Several left accounts of their travels and activities.

There were three main missions of Dominicans to the Near and Far East, especially to engage the Tatars and Mongols, but involved some exposure to Palestine and Mesopotamia.

The first involved Ascelin of Cremona, who left for Persia in 1245 with Alberigo Alexander and Simon of San Quentin.  The second, in 1249, took the brothers André and Guy Longimeau with Jean of Carcassonne on two missions to the Mongol Tatars.  Well-acquainted with the Middle-East, André  spoke both Arabic and Syriac.  On the first mission he carried letters from Pope Innocent IV to the [Güyük ?]Khan and on the second he delivered gifts and letters from King Louis IX of France to Güyük Khan.  André was later sent on a mission to fetch the Crown of Thorns from Constantinople,  where it had been purchased by King Louis IX.

The third main mission was that of William of Tripoli (1220-c. 1280) and Nicholas of Vicenza, who after having succeeded in their work in the Holy Land set out for the court of the Great Khan with Marco Polo in 1271 with letters from Pope Gregory X. Unfortunately, on the way, as Jules Verne later narrated it,  “they were made prisoners by the soldiers of the Mameluke Sultan Bibars, who was then ravaging Armenia. The two preaching friars were so discouraged at this outset of the expedition that they gave up all idea of going to China, and left the two Venetians and Marco Polo to prosecute the journey together as best they could.”

Although he may have forfeited his chance for undying fame, William’s career was hardly over.  He is remembered for a number of works about Islam in particular.  His tolerant and conciliatory approach may account for why he could claim having baptized more than 1,000 Muslims.

Other early Dominican missions followed.  In 1290, John of Pistoia headed for China with the great Franciscan missionary, John of Montecorvino.  He died two years into the journey, however.  Another Friar, Giordano of Catalani traveled to India where he founded a church and became the first bishop of Quilon in 1329.

Ricoldo de Montecroce

One of the most engaging of these early Dominicans was Ricoldo of Montecroce, an Italian friar (c.1243 – 1320) who lived and worked in Mesopotamia and Syria for over twenty years.  His later account simply called the Itinerary provided detailed information about Eastern Christians as well as pagan Tatars, Kurds, and Muslims. He also wrote a Refutation of the Koran.  As Fr. Hinnebusch, the Dominican historian says, “His five letters sent after the fall of Acre in 1291 are a beautiful and unforgettable tribute to Dominican mission idealism.”

After a distinguished career as  a lecturer in Tuscany, Ricoldo made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1288 carrying a Papal bull.  He arrived in Mosul in 1289 and attempted without success to convert the Syrian Christian mayor of the city to Latin Catholicism.

Moving on to Baghdad, Ricoldo engaged the local Assyrian Christians, preaching against them in their own cathedral.  He was allowed to build a church, but prevented from preaching in public. When Ricoldo appealed to the Assyrian patriarch Mar Yaballaha, the old man agreed with him that the doctrine of Nestorius, namely the duality of Christ was heretical. The patriarch was rebuked by his followers, but within a few centuries the breach was healed and the Syrians have been in union with Rome ever since.

Ricoldo returned to Florence sometime before 1302, and after holding several important positions in the Order, died in Florence around 1320.

The Pilgrim Friars

The largely individual efforts of the friars were organized into a branch of the Order around the year 1304 under the title of the Society of Friars Traveling for the Sake of Christ, which was later mercifully shorted to the Congregation of Pilgrim Friars.

As Fr. Hinnebusch described it, the Pilgrim Friars were “governed by a vicar general under statutes given by Master General Berengar of Landorra (-).”  More flexible than a province, they had no fixed territory and recruited their men from the rest of the Order. The Congregation reached the peak of its activities about 1330, when it had missions at Trebizond and Chins, Turkey, Georgia, Turkestan, Persia, and India.

The number of Pilgrim Friars was severely reduced by the Black Death in the middle of the century, although the Congregation continued to exist, it never regained the vigor of its early years.

Not all the friars were evangelists.  The German Dominican Burchard of Mount Zion’s description of the Holy Land, where he stayed between 1274 and 1284 before moving on to Armenia,  remained  the classical manual of Palestinian and Near-Eastern geography for three centuries.  The Itineraries of Felix Fabri, who went as a pilgrim twice to the Near East in the late fifteenth century, describe the Holy Land for “stay-at-homes” rather than missionaries.

The Dominicans in Iraq today

After the expulsion of Latin Christians from the Near East at the end of the Crusades, Dominicans did not return officially until 1750, when Pope Benedict XIV sent Italian friars to reestablish a church in Mosul.  Friars continued to travel to and through Mesopotamia, however, as they pursued the missionary activities of the Order.  The care of the church in Mosul was taken over by French Dominicans a century after its founding.

In order to commemorate its 250th anniversary in 2000, the church underwent extensive renovation.  Ten Iraqi friars now work at parishes in Baghdad and Mosul, as well as the Center of Christian Formation in Baghdad, and publish an Arabic journal, Christian Thought.   Several Dominican students are completing their studies there and in France.  A new novitiate was being planned even as the War got under way.

Two congregations of Dominican sisters were founded in Iraq in the nineteenth century, the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Tours and the Sisters of St Catherine of Siena, whose motherhouse is in Mosul.  Over 120 native Iraqi Sisters belong to the latter congregation.  In addition to those in formation, the sisters engage in catechesis, education, pastoral work, and hospital ministry.  Several sisters are presently studying in the United States.  The Presentation Sisters were located in Mosul, Baghdad, and other areas and are mostly involved in health care.

The Sisters of the Presentation were founded in the seventeenth century by Marie Poussepin, who died in 1744.  In 1897, the congregation was affiliated to the Dominican Order as the Dominican Sisters of Charity of the Presentation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Tours.  Mother Marie was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 20 November 1994.

[Photo: COMMEMORATIVE POSTAGE STAMP: In Colombia the Dominican sisters care for a colony of  lepers in Aqua de Dios.]

The first sisters arrived at the Dominican mission in Mosul in 1873. The sisters opened several schools and eventually attracted a number of young women to the congregation.  These eventually became the nucleus of a new Iraqi religious congregation formed in 1877 who are now known as the  Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena.

Among the first sisters of the new Congregation, there were martyrs. It was the time of Christian persecution in the Ottoman empire and several sisters witnessed heroically to Christ by undergoing harsh torture and, in 1915, some suffered martyrdom.

From the end of the first World War, the Congregation through the witness of its martyrs and the fidelity of the sisters who remained, grew rapidly (much to the great joy of their supporters) opening schools, orphanages and responding to parish needs.

In 1928, the Pope recognized the Congregation and, in 1936, the first Iraqi Superior General to take responsibility for the new Dominican sisters was Mother Marie Mossa Hendow.

Sr. Marie Therese Hanna, former prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine in Mosul, Iraq, recently described the toll of war on Iraqi sisters over the last 90 years.  In World War I, 22 sisters were killed — seven were killed by Turks and another 15 simply “disappeared.”  In World War II, many sisters perished because of a lack of food and medicine.  One elderly sister died of a heart attack during the rocket attacks on Baghdad leading up to the Second Gulf War.

At the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, the order had 30 members in Baghdad, 55 in Mosul. Today about 20 of the Iraqi nuns live in Italy, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Sweden. Others are scattered in rural villages outside Mosul and the capital, where their lives are now endangered by extreme Muslim terrorists.


There isn’t time here to give much than a brief synopsis of the Second Gulf War.  I can recommend several books on the subject, the most recent of which that I have read is the disturbing account by Larry Diamond, Squandered Victory.  A vast library on the subject is building up, however.  For my purposes here, it is sufficient to note that, according to contemporary chroniclers, the war was unnecessary, unjust, and launched preemptively on the basis of faulty intelligence, erroneous assumptions, and what now appear to be outright lies developed to further a partisan political agenda.  In the end, if that is not too polite a word, it cost the United States alone  nearly 5,000 lives, and as much as twenty times that number of Iraqi civilians.  It has absorbed three-quarters of a trillion dollars of our national treasure, which added to the cost of the war in Afghanistan, will exceed a trillion dollars within a year or two.  In that respect, the Gulf War can be fairly said to have wrecked not only the U.S. economy, but a huge portion of the world economy as well.

Just as the Second World War was effectively a continuation of the First World War, the Second Gulf War took up where the First Gulf War halted.

Following a disastrous eight-year war with Iran, during which the United States actively supported Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 after negotiations failed over what Iraq claimed was illegal oil drilling into Iraqi fields.  Without waiting for a negotiated withdrawal, the western Allies led by the United States and Great Britain launched the First Gulf War [Desert Storm] on 17 January 1991.  It lasted until 28 February 1991.

Severe economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq from 6 August 1990 to 22 May 2003[1] which crippled the country and resulted in the death of many thousands of children from malnutrition, in addition to wrecking the educational system, the health care system, and social services.  Saddam Hussein was also required to dismantle any weapons of mass destruction, which United Nations weapons inspectors were able to verify, contrary to U.S. claims.

After a build-up to war in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, during which erroneous claims were made involving Al Qaeda, supposed efforts to purchase African uranium, and the hidden presence of  weapons of mass destruction, the Second Gulf War was launched on 19 March 2003.  It lasted until 1 May 2003, killing thousands of civilians and further destroying Iraq’s infrastructure.

“Mission Accomplished”

[“Mission Accomplished” refers to a banner titled “Mission Accomplished” that was displayed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during a televised address by United States President George W. Bush on May 1, 2003 and the controversy that followed.]

In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, further extensive damage was perpetrated on Iraq’s social, cultural, and political structures.  Retired General Jay Garner was placed in command of the occupational forces, but was prevented from entering Baghdad for two weeks, during which an upsurge of looting and a rampage of destruction ensured, including the (American) shelling and looting of the Museum of Antiquities and the burning of the National Library on 14 April 2003.

On 11 May Garner was removed from his position and replaced by L. Paul (“Jerry”) Bremer, a career diplomat without Middle Eastern field experience and no knowledge of Arabic.  Bremer proceeded in one stroke to dismantle the political, juridical, and military structure of Iraq, throwing the country into a period of chaos from which it has not yet emerged.  It was during this period that “insurgents” poured into the country across unguarded borders and began a sustained effort to disrupt the occupation and seize control of power.  Even Al Qaeda successful infiltrated Iraq at this time.

I arrived back in Iraq on the 16th of May, 2003, and was an eye-witness to the first stages of the insurgency.  I returned in January 2004 with several other Dominicans to attend the ordination of one of our young friars.  By then, the insurgency has gained sufficient momentum so as to be virtually unstoppable.  In any event, it was not stopped.

In his book Squandered Victory the situation in post-war Iraq was aptly epitomized by Larry Diamond, who had been a senior advisor to L. Paul Bremer in 2004 to assist in Iraq’s political transition to democracy:

Iraq’s economy and society had been devastated by forty-five years of authoritarian rule and, in par­ticular, by the last twenty-four years of murder, plunder, and terror un­der Saddam Hussein. The dictator had plunged his country into two devastating, needless wars (with Iran in 1980-88, and with the United States in 1991), which had left some 150,000 Iraqis dead, a similar number captured, and more than a quarter of a million wounded. Dic­tatorship, war, international sanctions, and steady economic decline had driven millions of Iraqis into exile and had devastated the middle class; annual per capita income had fallen by well over half to about $1,000; educational and health levels had declined sharply; child mor­tality rates had increased several times over; infrastructure had deterio­rated; and the country had piled up a staggering foreign debt, estimated at $200 billion. More than 40 percent of Iraqi adults were illiterate, and the population was very young (40 percent were under age fifteen) and growing rapidly. A young, burgeoning, increasingly urban population, in the context of pervasive joblessness and disruption of services, meant that postwar governance would confront a boiling cauldron of expecta­tions that would be difficult to fulfill. [pp. 20-21]

Convinced that the project was marred and headed for disaster, Diamond resigned his post in April, 2004.  His account is a thoroughly documented study of how in “Jerry” Bremer and his team, guided from Washington, effectively destroyed the possibility of a peaceful transition to democracy and in fact created the insurgency.  For those who might prefer a faster and more visual less in nation destruction, let me recommend Charles Ferguson’s award-winning documentary No End in Sight.

Despite the “success” of the U.S. surge in 2008, the seemingly endless and bloody civil discord in Iraq has destabilized the Middle East, particularly by prolonging tensions with Iran, and embedded the image of the United States as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim in the minds of millions of people from Morocco to Pakistan and beyond.  The death toll continues to rise, especially among civilians.  Refugees fleeing from Iraq to Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Jordan, as well as the United States, Canada, and Australia, has further eroded the Christian population in particular, as persecution on the part of extremist groups has escalated over the past five years.

In his report, “Iraqi Christians under Fire,” Roger Stourton notes that

“About 200,000 Iraqi Christians have already fled the country; they once made up three per cent of its population, and they now account for half of its refugees.

“Erbil, in northern Iraq, has become a magnet for Christian refugees who are too poor to leave Iraq or do not want to abandon their country. It is the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government, which treats the Christians well; it is safe; and there is an established Christian community to welcome them. Many of them gravitate towards the traditionally Christian suburb of Ainkawa.”

According to the Catholic News Service of April 13, 2010,

Approximately 150,000 Iraqi Christian refugees live in Syria. Their circumstances are a microcosm of the approximately 250,000 Iraqi Christians who have fled their homes, settling also in Jordan and Lebanon. Nearly every family has experienced the terror of violence that has ensued since the 2003 U.S.-led military invasion.

Based on the experiences of their fellow Iraqi refugees, many displaced Iraqis realize that only a small number are likely to be resettled to other countries by the United Nations, and the wait for such a move can take years. In the meantime, with no legal status, they remain in limbo.

Just two days ago, a delegation of North American bishops representing the Catholic Near East Welfare Association gathered in Damascus at a center set up by the Melkite Archbishop Isidore Battikha to observe efforts being made to care for the tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees.

One of the refugees asked the church leaders, “What can be done for Christians who are being uprooted from Iraq?”

“I think the most important thing we can do, first of all, is to be here and to see you and to let you know that you are in our hearts,” said Msgr. Robert Stern, secretary-general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He emphasized that although the visitors represented the Catholic Church and the Vatican, “We are not politicians.”

“Even though we live in Western countries, we cannot control the policies of the countries or the United Nations,” he added.[2]

Given the failure of western politicians to achieve significant relief for refugees, that may not be as damning a statement as it first appears.  But surely more can and hopefully will be done by the Church’s official Near-Eastern program.


I will begin the concluding portion of my talk with three points:

First, the elections of 2005 produced a huge and surprising turnout of Iraqis both within the country and throughout the diaspora, including the Chicago area – a 75% turnout, the likes of which has not been seen in a western democracy for generations.  The percentage this last March 7 was lower, 62%, and that in  the face of threats of violence and hundreds of killings aimed at discouraging participation.  But the percentage of eligible voters who turned out in the 2008 U.S. presidential election was only 56.8%.[3]

Second, President Obama has announced a major troop withdrawal beginning in August of this year and ending with a virtually complete evacuation of military personnel by August of 2012 – if all goes well.

In the meantime, third, the elections of 2010 are still being contested more than a month after the voting ceased and the toll of the dead and injured in sectarian and political violence continues to escalate.

The road ahead for the country of Iraq will not be the smooth transition to democracy that was the dream of the architects of the Second Gulf War and which provided the map for reconstructing what they had destroyed.  Not least worrisome is the fact, as Larry Diamond has pointed out, that “The sixteen Arab states  of the Middle East that surround Iraq constitute “the only major cultural and regional group in the world that [does] not have a single democratic government.”[4]

There are at least three major possibilities for a reconfiguration of Iraq in the future:

1. A unified Republic composed of provinces – much like the present situation

2. A federal Republic of 3 or 4 semi-independent states, as under Ottoman Empire

3. Three or four countries divided accord to religion, ethnicity, and culture

How any of  these will ultimately come to fruition is anyone’s guess.  For the time being, Iraq will remain as is, a country struggling to be reborn.

The Future of the Church in Iraq

At the beginning of the first Gulf War, Iraqi Christians numbered about a million.  The Catholic population was mainly concentrated in the northern area around Mosul, but many lived in Baghdad and Basra.  After sanctions were imposed Christians were allowed to migrate, leaving about 750,000 at the time of the Second Gulf War.  Subsequent emigration has reduced that number to approximately 500,000.

What of the Christian Churches?

As the insurgency grew and became more radical and violent after 2004, the situation of minorities grew increasingly desperate.  Christian communities that had survived for almost two millennia were targeted for terror and eviction.  Churches were bombed, priests were murdered, even little girls were brutally killed on their way home from school.  Archbishop Georges Casmoussa, whom I had met in 2001 and again in 2004, when he ordained Hani Daniel, was kidnapped in January 2005 but mercifully released. Archbishop Faraj Rahho was less fortunate, and died in March 2008 as a result of mistreatment or even murder after he was kidnapped at the end of February.

In January 2005 a number of the Sisters of the Presentation left their house in Mosul and relocated to Syria and Jordan, although the community in Baghdad, where the novitiate and St. Raphael’s Hospital are located as well as a rehabilitation center for young people, has remained and the sisters plan to return to Mosul.  I would be surprised if Sister Maryanne Pierre, the hospital administrator who never left her post during the War, would tolerate the thought of leaving Baghdad.

The Dominican congregation has seven communities in Iraq, with 40 sisters who work in education, in health care at St. Raphael’s Hospital in Baghdad, and in a rehabilitation center for young people.

The novitiate of the Dominican sisters of St. Catherine in Mosul was struck by rocket fire and car bombs.  The Dominican priory was attacked several times.  Attacks against Christian targets are often planned to coincide with religious holidays such as the Feast of the Assumption and Christmas.  On Nov. 1, 2006, the Feast of All Saints, a large bomb explosion at 7 pm destroyed the exterior iron doors of the Dominican Church and flattened two sets of wood doors. The discharge shattered the beautiful windows of the chapel where the friars were holding evening prayer, but no one was harmed in the blast.

Miraculously, none of the Dominican sisters or friars were injured.  Then situation in Baghdad was less threatening, but no less serious.  Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled the country.

In the face of sustained persecution,  it has been suggested that the ancient Christian Church in Iraq is in danger of disappearing in one generation.  Although this would please the most extreme Islamists, I doubt that it will turn out that way, although the road ahead will be dark and perilous.  According to Roger Stourton, Louis Sako,  the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, “has been instrumental in persuading Pope Benedict to convene a special synod on the plight of Christians in the Middle East this October.”

I think I can say that the commitment of the Church to Iraq is solid after 1900 years.  Yet I think three things can be predicted in this most unpredictable world:

1. The Christian presence in Iraq will undoubtedly be reduced.

2. Christians will one day be able to return to their homes as they desire.

3. In the future, the Christian community will again contribute constructively to both the rebuilding of Iraq as it always has.

What of the Future of the Dominicans in Iraq?

Where Catholics are found, Dominicans are found.  And as Iraq is a young nation in terms of the population — almost half are under the age of 16 — Dominicans are also young and vital.  Their presence will undoubtedly assist the Christian community and the country as a whole to recover from the years of political oppression, the suffering of the people under twelve years of sanctions, and the devastation of the recent war.

After 765 years, I suspect that the Dominican commitment to Iraq is still firm.

Let me conclude.  Recently I came across something I wrote just before the beginning of the Second Gulf War:

After twelve years of crippling economic sanctions and constant bombardment, the people of Iraq will confront a host of challenges over the next twenty years at least as daunting as the disintegration of their society during and after the Gulf War.   A UN or US-UK occupation following a successful military campaign against the Hussein regime will have to oversee the rebuilding of the already damaged material, social, economic, and political structures requisite for a minimally satisfactory life in the 21st century for 22.5 million people.

Imposing successful solutions on a society divided by long-standing religious, ethnic, and tribal conflicts is highly unlikely. But eliciting cooperation from competing factions is also prone to grave if not insurmountable difficulties.  Will Iraq become a dependency of the US-UK alliance in exchange for access to oil?  Can the international community devise a plan of reconstruction that will enable the people of Iraq to participate fully in the redevelopment of their country as partners in peace, sustainable technological progress, inclusive health care, educational opportunity, equitable trade, and cultural enrichment?

Seven years later, I find myself asking, Will Iraq survive?  Yes, as it has survived for over seven millennia.  But it will be a long, hard, bitter struggle, especially for the reduced Christian communities of Iraq.

Was it worth it?  The wars, the bloodshed, the destruction of heritage – the looting of the Museum of Antiquities, the burning of the National Library, the continual terrorist attacks on civilians, the constant threat of civil war, the merciless ravaging of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world?

That is to ask, could the problem posed by an increasingly thwarted and still belligerent regime have been confronted in a way less destructive and problematic for the stability of the Near and Middle East?  We now know, without doubt, that the answer is Yes.

It is far too late, however, to do much more than identify the mistakes and blunders that led the Coalition of the Willing into such a morass – the loss of human lives on all sides, the loss of international prestige, and the loss of national treasure, not least to the United States.  Far from the few weeks and 75 billion dollars anticipated by those who launched the war, the 8 years’ war and the 700 billion dollar price tag surely played a large part in bringing the American economy to its knees.  War is waste, as Isaac Asimov said so many years ago, the last recourse of incompetence.  And, as the continuing tally of lost dollars is showing us month by month, the seedbed of vast corporate corruption.

We cannot undo the past, but it is not too late to learn from our mistakes.  As Iraq struggles to become a nation once again, we in the United States also face a challenge: to assess and benefit from what we have learned.  But, and I will leave you with this thought, what have we learned?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_sanctions

[2] See http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1001553.htm.

[3] Source of 2008 election results: http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2008G.html.

[4] Diamond, Squandered Victory, p. 21.