New Internationalist

Hail Mary, full of grace

Issue 432

Iraqi Christians, once a million strong, face persecution in a post-secular society.

Hadani Ditmars
Maria, a Christian woman in Baghdad, has faced post-invasion harassment and is desperate to leave the country. Hadani Ditmars

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
  2. The ancient tongue close to Aramaic.

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  1. #1 H.Carlton 04 Jan 11

    Hail Mary, full of grace...

    This story is so sad and I really hope Maria is able to get out of there safely. I work at a refugee resettlement agency in Idaho and we receive refugees rom Burma, Africa, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We have received both Muslim and Christian Iraqi refugees. Has Maria left Iraq again? Has she reapplied for refugee status? Since she is alone, older and has no one she may be considered a priority case by the UNHCR. Usually they try to resettle refugees where their family is. I hope and pray all goes well for her and the other women.


    P>S> I am also looking forward to hearing you speak at our annual Idaho Refugee Conference In Feb this year.

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This article was originally published in issue 432

New Internationalist Magazine issue 432
Issue 432

More articles from this issue

  • Iraq in pieces

    May 1, 2010

    Hadani Ditmars returns to a country where ongoing conflict underscores a humanitarian disaster.

  • Murderers, you are welcome!

    May 1, 2010

    Jean Baptiste Kayigamba, who lost most of his family in the Rwandan genocide, wonders why Britain and France are harbouring the major perpetrators and whether recent legal changes will make a difference.

  • Empire of the senses

    May 1, 2010

    In an Egypt where sexual feelings are kept buttoned up by religiosity, Yahia Lababidi observes an all-pervading sensuality that will not be denied.

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