At the same time as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has organized a mass rally for his State of Law coalition, where bands of men carrying Shi’a religious flags chant his name in a stadium, I go to mass at the Virgin Mary Chaldean Church in Karradah, East Baghdad.
The last time I was here, in the wake of the invasion, there were more people at mass. But a few months later, extremist groups began fire-bombing churches. The priest tells me that he has since lost half his congregation to emigration. He is very concerned about the recent killings of Christians in Mosul.1 He grew up and attended seminary there. ‘I remember it well,’ he says. ‘There was no problem between Christians and Muslims then. We lived together in peace.’ But that was before post-invasion violence, mainly perpetrated by newly empowered extremist Muslim militias, drove out most of Iraq’s Christian community, many of whom can trace their ancestry back to Babylon.
When I mention that Bush and Blair both consider themselves to be men of faith, he displays an Old Testament wrath. ‘They cannot dare to call themselves Christians,’ he scoffs.
A group of women approach me after mass and are eager to speak. But the priest is wary. He lets us sit together in a room across from his office. ‘You have only 15 minutes,’ he pronounces. No-one likes to stay long after mass these days.
Two sisters in their thirties and a woman in her sixties tell me their tales in a torrent of tears and broken English. They start talking before I’ve asked any questions.
One of the sisters says that just a year and a half ago, the supermarket where she worked was robbed by a Shi’a militia. ‘I was working at the checkout when these men came in with beards and guns. They came this close,’ she says, moving within inches of my face. She chokes back tears now, remembering. ‘But thank God they didn’t hurt us, because the police came by – there had been an explosion somewhere else in the neighbourhood – and the gang got scared and left.’
I realize this is the only positive story I’ve heard about Iraqi police.
The older woman, Maria (above), wears a headscarf. ‘You see this?’ she says. ‘I only wear it now because my neighbours harass me and say I will go to hell if I don’t.’
But Maria already seems to be in hell. ‘I am all alone here,’ she relates, beginning to cry. ‘I have no-one. My family have all left the country.’ Maria tells me that her husband deserted her and simply disappeared sometime in the mid-1990s. She fled to Syria in the midst of the sectarian violence of 2007 but could not maintain herself on the small stipend she received from the UN as a refugee. When her neighbours told her that her Baghdad apartment was being broken into by displaced people, she returned home to claim it, as well as her pension from the Government ministry where she had worked for 25 years. But now she is desperate to leave Iraq again. Her neighbours call her a ‘bad woman’ and she stays inside her apartment most days. The church is her only refuge.
‘Can you help me get out of here?’ she pleads. ‘Please, help me.’
The priest interrupts us, saying it is time to leave. But the women insist that we pose for a quick photo in the courtyard in front of the shrine to the Madonna, before the priest locks the heavy iron gate.
‘Shlama ilalkh Maryam mletha na,’ says Maria in Chaldean.2 Hail Mary, full of grace.
Maria still emails me regularly from Baghdad. She is still trying to get out.Hadani Ditmars
- The ancient tongue close to Aramaic.
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