From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Episcopalians: American bishop urges prayers and aid for Iraqi Christians

Date Thu, 27 Feb 2003 14:31:34 -0500

February 27, 2003


Episcopalians: American bishop urges prayers and aid for Iraqi 

by Jan Nunley

The Rt. Rev. Pierre W. Whalon, bishop of the Convocation of 
American Churches in Europe, received an invitation to Iraq 
February 19-23 to pray with, meet and talk with the leaders of 
major Christian groups in that country. Traveling with him were 
Jean-Michel Cadiot, Iraq specialist for Agence France-Presse, 
and Yako Elish, a Chaldean Christian businessman who served as 
guide and translator. 

Whalon met with bishops of the Chaldean, Syrian Catholic, 
Armenian Catholic, and Assyrian churches; the Latin Archbishop 
(Roman Catholic); a Protestant church council; the mullah of the 
Mosque of al-Kadham; and the Shaik of the Mandaeans (disciples 
of John the Baptist). He declined an invitation to meet with 
Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz and the Mufti of Baghdad as 
both are officials of the Saddam Hussein regime. He also led an 
ecumenical prayer service at the National Protestant Church in 
Baghdad and inspected the closed Anglican church in the city, 
St. George's. On his return, Whalon spoke with Jan Nunley of 
Episcopal News Service.

ENS:  What motivated you to go to Iraq at this time?

WHALON: It wasn't my idea. I got an invitation, along with the 
president of the French Catholic Episcopal Conference, the 
president of the Orthodox bishops, and the president of the 
French Protestant Federation, and me, being the Anglican bishop 
living in France, from the Patriarchate of Babylon, which is the 
Chaldean Church--they're uniate Catholics.

ENS:  And represent a considerable percentage of Iraqi 

WHALON: The Chaldeans are 85 percent of the Christian 
population, yes. You have a very small percentage of Roman 
Catholics and Protestants there, Presbyterians--very small 
numbers on those. Then the rest, you have the Assyrian Catholic 
Church; the Nestorian Church, which is a result of a split in 
the 19th century; the Armenian Catholic Church; the Syrian 
Catholic Church; and also then you have the Armenian Orthodox 
and the Assyrians also have an Orthodox church.

ENS:  Any Anglicans?

WHALON: I was told there was only one in Baghdad when I was 

There is a church, St. George's, in Baghdad. It's been closed 
since the Gulf War. In terms of permanent chaplain presence they 
do come by every once in a while to see if the building is still 
standing. I asked to have it reopened so I could look at it and 
take some pictures so I could report back to Clive Handford, the 
bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf. 

The Protestant church where I led the ecumenical service [on 
February 21] was once an Anglican church, and when it became 
clear that they were going to be under the Diocese of Jerusalem 
in those days and Jerusalem was going to become the capital of a 
new Israeli state, they decided they really didn't want to be 
Anglicans any more. But they asked me to start talking about 
'can we come back,' because they've had a lot of trouble going 
it alone.

I was going to decline this invitation, because I thought, who 
am I? The Convocation of American Churches in Europe is my 
mandate. But when I talked it over with the presiding bishop and 
John Peterson [of the Anglican Communion Office in London] they 
were very encouraging, and so my mind changed as a result of 
that. The other invitees did not go.

It was strange being the only American bishop who's been to Iraq 
since the crisis began--of any stripe. So it took on an 
importance that I had no ideaan amazing experience. 

ENS:  What was your sense of the mood of Iraqi Christians?

WHALON: They have a very significant problem. Like all Iraqis, 
of course, the prospect of another war is very scary. But on the 
other hand they're all resigned to wars--they've had a lot of 
them. But for the Christians, what they're really afraid of is 
after the war, the reason being that the government that Hussein 
essentially completely co-opted is based on the Ba'athist 
principles--like Syria is. In other words, the state should be 
secular, it should not be run by the Muslims, and that there 
should be religious tolerance.

So they have official tolerance. There are about 50 church 
buildings in Baghdad. Nobody bothers them, they don't bother 
other people, and the bishops walk around town in their clerical 
garb. I walked around, nobody gave me a hostile glance or 
gesture. And they think that after Hussein is gone and after the 
Americans are gone, it's going to be a hard-line Muslim 
government who's going to expel them, massacre them, persecute 

They're between a rock and a hard place because they end up 
looking like supporters of Hussein--Tariq Aziz is probably the 
greatest example of that; certainly he is a collaborator. So 
they're afraid if there's an American military government 
they'll be seen as a million collaborators with Hussein. Whereas 
privately theyyou could hardly call them enthusiastic 

ENS:  Is Saddam someone to fear?

WHALON: Saddam really is somebody who's a menace. The stories I 
got told would curl your hair. He and his sons have profited 
enormously from the embargo. They do not want the embargo to be 
lifted. We're always talking about how we're killing these kids 
with medicine that we're not giving them and all this other 
stuff. But on the other hand, they were very clear with me--in 
private, of course--that the last person in the world who wants 
the embargo lifted is Saddam Hussein, because he's made more 
money off this, because he controls the black market, than 
anyone else.

Meanwhile, his people go without all kinds of things. If you can 
imagine everybody test-driving the worst used cars you'd ever 
seen at once, that's what Baghdad's streets look like. We were 
driving in the car of the brother of the Chaldean who came with 
us from Paris, and he had a new car, a Peugeot. I said, 'You 
like your new car?' and he said, 'Yeah. It took me 20 years to 
get it. In 1983 I put a down payment on this car and about three 
months ago it arrived. Sometimes they lift the embargo to let 
some cars in.' 

ENS:  Do you think Saddam can be fairly compared to Hitler, as 
he often is?

WHALON: If you think about Hitler you also have to think about 
the entire philosophy of the Nazi party, the racial component, 
the weird mysticism of it. And in that sense, no, Saddam is not 
like Adolf Hitler. He certainly is as ruthless as Hitler or 
Himmler or Goebbels--or Stalin, for that matter.

But on the other hand, unlike Hitler, Hussein has no knowledge 
of the outside world. He's never really been educated outside of 
Iraq. He really sees everything mostly on his own personal 
canvas: 'what it means to me.' And whatever you think of Hitler, 
Hitler at least thought in big terms; Saddam doesn't. He thinks 
in terms of 'me,' I was told.

And he mostly lives underground now. He's got about 20 palaces 
and each one of them has a very deep subterranean living space 
and he moves from each one unpredictably. Each palace has to 
have a meal and a woman waiting for him, should he happen to 
show up, and if they don't then they just throw out the food and 
tell the lady to come back or something. So he is really cut off 
from anything now. 

I also was told that his grip seems to be loosening. The Muslims 
have gotten him to accept portions of sharia law, which are now 
applied to the Christians--intermarriage, for instance; if there 
are any intermarriages, the Muslim always wins and always gets 
the kids to become Muslims. We were hit up for baksheesh 
[bribes] by the border guards, and my friend who went with me, a 
French Iraqi specialist, said that didn't happen before. We were 
also asked for money by beggars, and he said there were never 
beggars 20 years ago or street crime. So in that sense, Saddam 
isn't totally in control, as he once was.

ENS:  Did anyone give private indications that Saddam does have 
weapons of mass destruction?

WHALON: When I went to visit the mullah at the al-Kadham mosque, 
he launched into this diatribe about 'we have no weapons of mass 
destruction, they'll never find any because there aren't any, 
all Bush wants to do is kill us,' on and on. Of course, French 
TV was filming him, and there was a guy from the ministry of 
religion sitting there.

Whenever I talked to Christians more informally, they always 
started out by saying, 'What are these weapons?' and I would 
say, 'they're the ones Iraq declared after the '91 war.' 'Oh.' 
And either the discussion would end there or they would say, 
'Well, yeahmaybe he had some stuff' One person said to me, 
'Well, of course he has these things, and when your troops come 
he's going to set them off on you. But they're going to blow 
back to our people and all our civilians are going to get 
killed, and it will be your fault.'

The other thing they said is that, while nobody's really willing 
to die for Saddam, they are willing to die for their homes. And 
it occurred to me that, while Arab soldiers in pitched battles 
are apt to drop their guns and run if they think things aren't 
turning their way, in front of their wives they'll fight to the 
death. I remember when the Israelis used to have women in 
combat. As soon as the Arabs found out they were going to 
surrender to women, they became the best fighters in the world.

So if we think we're going to waltz into Baghdad and everyone is 
going to say 'thank you for liberating us,' after a bloody 
street battle, it's not going to work. Baghdad's five million 
people, and it's a very spread-out city, about 50 kilometers in 
diameter or 30 miles. That's a lot of miles--about twice the 
size of Paris. So to have that kind of fighting is just a 

And the worst part for me is now that I went and met these 
people and started to become friends and was extremely warmly 
greeted, now I have a personal problem when we start to shoot. 
I'm going to be dying to find out what's happened to all these 
really nice, fine, hardworking people. They have the best 
hospitals, they have the orphanages, the nursing homes--Muslims 
don't do those things, or they do them minimally. 

[Christians] are the elite of the country. I met the wife of the 
president of the Protestant Council. I asked her what she did. 
She said, 'I teach medicine. Let me introduce my sister, the 
pediatrician, and my other sister, the dentist.' If the Muslims 
take over, they're not going to be exercising any more.

ENS:  Can they leave the country?

WHALON: I think the last thing they want to do is leave. They've 
been there for two thousand years. The official language is 
Aramean--like Jesus'. One person said to me, 'We used to be 100 
percent Christian in Iraq. Then the Muslims came. Now we're five 
[percent].' They've seen people continue to leave, and they 
think they're going to have a warm welcome from people overseas 
and they don't. So I don't know about evacuation.

They took me to their seminary--all the churches have one big 
seminary and it's packed. A number of women students, by the 
way, even though at this point none of the churches ordain 
women. Nevertheless, they were there, studying theology along 
with the men, and they asked me questions just like the men did. 
They want to build a library, and I knew right away one thing 
they need is some technical help in how to build a modern 
theological library. We really need to support the hospital 
efforts with medicine, if we could gather up medication. And of 
course if the churches get damaged in the bombing, help rebuild 
them--maybe a diocese could take on a church to rebuild. 

The most important thing is to get to know these folks, because 
we don't have any contacts with them. We don't know them, they 
don't know us, and I just scratched the surface there. There 
need to be a lot more people besides me that go. 

ENS:  Is the church in Iraq a 'persecuted church'?

WHALON: In the sense that they're not perfectly free. They have 
to deal with encroaching sharia provisions. The problem with 
'selling' that right now is that some people will say the 
Christians are involved in the government, because you have 
Tariq Aziz, so they're not really persecuted. By the time they 
become candidates for being in that list of persecuted churches, 
there's not going to be anybody left.

ENS:  How do they feel about American Christians supporting a 
war with Iraq?

WHALON: I was asked about that, and the way the question was 
framed was, 'isn't it true that the non-Catholic Christians are 
strongly influenced by the Jews?' The person who asked this was 
a very serious and well-educated person, and I burst out 
laughing. And I said, 'Why do you say that?' And he said, 'Well, 
among other things, don't they really control all the support 
for Israel, and fundamentalist Christians are also interested in 
the survival and prosperity of Israel for their own reasons?' 

And I said, 'You know, whether there were fundamentalist 
Christians or not, the Jewish people in America who support 
Israel would give a quart of blood a day if they felt it was 
necessary for the survival of Israel. You've got to understand, 
these people are very, very serious in the United States about 
Israel. They see themselves as temporary residents of the 
States, when their hearts are in Jerusalem."

I don't think that has anything to do with fundamentalists. Yes, 
there certainly is some connection there and some of the people 
around [President] George Bush are in that camp. But to see it 
as some kind of plot or conspiracy or some kind of big joining 
of forces is really unrealistic.

ENS:  There is a perception, though, that this conflict 
represents 'the clash of civilizations,' Christian versus 

WHALON: What I'm trying to get across to people in France, and I 
also said to al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi and the other Arab 
networks that interviewed me--I said I don't think people really 
understand that what's driving general American support for this 
war is fear. Specifically, having been attacked twice in a 
couple of months in spectacular ways--the 9/11 attacks and then 
the anthrax in the envelopes attacks. Americans are reacting in 
fear, saying 'We are going to make sure and we are going to use 
all our power to take out anybody who can threaten us in this 
way again.' And that has broad support across the board and it 
has nothing to do with religion. 

And you know, people don't understand that. They're just not 
used to thinking of American foreign policy or anything being 
driven by fear. They don't see us asas the French say to me, 
'We always see the Americans as sort of a cut above, and we 
don't understand that they would be afraid.' Well, of 
course--think about your own history!

ENS:  How do the French react to increasing criticism of France? 
Does this surprise them, dismay them?

WHALON: I think both. The viciousness of it is rarely seen 
before, and they're bemused by it more than anything else. 
Personally, being somebody who's a citizen of both countries and 
raised in both cultures, it's been extremely difficult for me to 
deal with. But I also think that one thing is for sure: in 
France, if you want to sell papers, say something against 
America; if you want to sell papers in America, say something 
against France. It's a formula that both media are very good at 
exploiting whenever their income's down.

I think the other thing that Americans aren't aware of is that 
the French are very quietly marshalling their forces. French 
troops are on maneuvers right now in Qatar, and the De Gaulle, 
the new nuclear aircraft carrier, has just finished maneuvers 
with the [USS Harry] Truman, and has gone home but it's not 
giving anybody leave; they're filling up again and turning right 
around and going somewhere, they're not saying where. I can't 
see the French wanting to be sidelined if it comes down to it, 
it's just not their style.

ENS:  What, if anything, can Christian communities do to support 
Christians in Iraq?

WHALON: I think there's several things we can do.

The first is that we can start to publicly pray for them, so 
that, among other things, besides God hearing about them from 
us, we will begin to tell ourselves, 'Hey, there are a million 
Christians in Iraq'--because I don't think most people know 

Secondly, I think we need to start thinking right now about what 
kind of aid we can give them post-war. It's possible that there 
won't be a war. War's not inevitable till the first bomb is 
dropped, and nobody knows how this endgame is going to play out 
now. But in the event of a war, and probably then an ensuing 
American military occupation, I think we need to make it very 
clear to the general staff that we expect that the Christians of 
Iraq will be protected, and they will not be accused generally 
of collaborating with Saddam any more than anyone else in Iraq.

We took a flight on this Boeing 707, must be 50 years old, in an 
airport with exactly one flight leaving--huge airport; of course 
it's called 'Saddam International Airport.' I went in the 
duty-free shop, where there was a young woman cashier who asked 
my guide in Arabic, 'Is that the bishop who was on TV last 
night?' He said yes, and she asked him to have me come over, and 
when I came closer she grabbed my hand with my ring on it, 
kissed it, pressed it to her forehead and said in English, 
'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' and started to cry. She was 
wearing this little cross around her neck. She was a Christian.

She asked for my blessing, she asked for my autograph, and she 
explained that an American bishop coming to Iraq to pray for 
peace really strengthened her faith, and that maybe this war 
could be avoided. Then she grabbed my hand again and kissed my 
ring again. I had to sit down, I was so overwhelmed. 

If we can scream loudly that there are a million Christians in 
Iraq and they're really in a tough spot, if we start doing that, 
start praying for them publicly and get that word out, I think 
that's the most important thing we can do for them. And the 
second part is to plan how we might be able to help them.


--The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of Episcopal News 

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