When I was a student in Rome, doing research for my doctorate, I was friendly with an Iraqi Catholic from Mosul, whom I will call Luigi. This was just before the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. I was in favour of the invasion, because like so many others, I was convinced that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man, and that the moral case for his overthrow was overwhelming.
Luigi was more cautious. He told me that he had no doubt that the US and their allies could easily overthrow Saddam (He did not seem to share the idea that the Republican Guard were a serious fighting force). But, he said, he was equally sure that if Saddam were overthrown, there would be a civil war in Iraq. I found this quite impossible to believe. We had several conversations on this topic, and he was adamant that this is what would happen. Moreover, he was sure that if Saddam fell, and civil war ensued, this would be utterly disastrous for the country’s Christian minority.
We spoke about these things before the US-led invasion in March 2003. Since that time some 12 years have passed, and everything Luigi has said has come to pass. Absolutely everything. The British and US governments back in 2003 employed numerous experts and special advisers; they also had their intelligence agencies; but if they had sent someone down to the corridors of the Gregorian University in Rome and had a word with Luigi, and, most importantly listened to him, all this could have been avoided.
Come to think of it, they could have listened to the millions who marched through the streets on London shouting “Not in my name” and “Don’t attack Iraq”.
Luigi, I should mention, was a member of the Ba’ath party, something he was understandably shy about. To go to university in Iraq you had to be a member of the Ba’ath party. He was never an active member of the party, which had millions of members; only on one occasion did he see Saddam in person, when, as a conscript soldier, he had to march past the president as he reviewed his troops. Luigi liked to point out to me that the Ba’ath Party was founded by Michel Aflaq, who was a Christian.
However, when Aflaq died, Saddam had him buried in a mosque and claimed, falsely, that he had converted to Islam. Ba’athism is secular in outlook, but at this time Saddam was trying to win over his Muslim subjects, even incorporating a quote from the Koran in the national flag.
The truth is that all the Christians in Syria and Iraq were Ba’athists. Perhaps a few were enthusiasts, like Tariq Aziz, but the overwhelming majority were passively complaint.
Some time ago I wrote that the Syrian Christians I know in Aleppo were bewildered by the fact that Christian governments in the West were supporting the rebels who were doing their best to bomb the Christian quarters in their city to smithereens. (Yes, I know, there are no Christian governments in the West, but they do not see it that way.) In their view, the Western governments should be supporting President Assad in his struggle against the jihadi terrorists financed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and fighting a proxy war in their country.
But what is this? Now that Isis is sweeping into large swathes of Iraq, perhaps, just perhaps, America and Britain will come round to their way of thinking. In other words we might be seeing a realignment: the western powers siding with Iran and its clients – the governments in Baghdad and Damascus – against Isis, which would certainly call into question our alliance with the Saudis, Qataris and other Gulf monarchies.
Meanwhile, let us remember Mosul and its region, once home to a community of Chaldaean Catholics that spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Writing in 1997 in his acclaimed book From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple spoke of the clock being at five minutes to midnight for the Christians of the Middle East. In Mosul, midnight has now struck. It is game over for a Christian community in its ancient homeland. Luigi now lives in Rome; I don’t know where his family are, but I hope they are safe. For Christians everywhere, as we contemplate the fate of Catholics in Mosul, this should be a time of mourning.
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