Sunni, Shia, and Me: Marie Dennis on Traveling in Iraq

Karen's 49th Birthday at Mayorga 006My friend – and hero in the faith – Marie Dennis recently returned from a trip to Iraq. She was a member of a religious peace delegation meeting with Iraqi leaders to hear first-hand “facts on the ground” for civilians in the war-shattered country.

If, as people of faith, we want to be about “the things that make for peace” then we need to spend time with the voices and perspectives of those in situations of violence. This often involves personal risk – but what else are these lives for unless for living them joyfully and laying them down in the service of others. Marie is someone who lives this in a daily way. Whether she’s meeting with world leaders, sitting with women in a village in Sudan, making bread for her Christian community, or “mothering” her 6 grown children, Marie Dennis is “my kinda Christian.”

Here’s a portion of her story:

Thanks to repeated kidnappings and numerous killings, fear palpably gripped many communities we met in Iraq. Msgr. Louis Sako, Catholic archbishop of Kirkuk, who welcomed our small Pax Christi International delegation in mid-September 2009 with warm and generous hospitality, moved deliberately into the fear: “Christians are a target of violence,” he said publicly, following the recent kidnapping of a Christian nurse. “Everybody knows that Christians are citizens of this country and this city and no one has any doubts about their devotion to their country or their sincerity.” He spoke of “a culture of humiliation that we reject with force” and called on “government authorities, the decent people of Iraq and Kirkuk, to do everything to protect all citizens, whoever they are.”

A prophetic figure who has exemplified his own call for “dialogue and sincere cooperation,” Msgr. Sako insists that the cooperation he regularly facilitates with both Sunni and Shiite religious leaders in Kirkuk is an essential element of peace-building in Iraq. Like many other Iraqis, he asserts that there is no military solution to the present violent chaos in Iraq, but that the United States, having started a dreadfully destructive war there, has to be held accountable for healing and reconstruction.

The challenge to overcome fear and plant seeds of peace in Iraq is a huge one; fear is pervasive – and with good reason. We did not see many U.S. troops while we were there, but one Iraqi priest described to us a typical encounter with the U.S. military, which previously happened frequently. Iraqis were required to stay at least one kilometer from any U.S. vehicle. If they wandered any closer than that, they could be shot. He told us about one family he knew that apparently crossed the invisible one kilometer line; mother, father and children were all killed. He described his own fright when he realized, as he was driving along, that he was “marked” on his forehead with an infrared beam and could be killed if he didn’t immediately stop or when he suddenly came upon U.S. soldiers with weapons pointed at
his heart. He was terrified; so were the U.S. soldiers on the other end of the gun.

Fear, fear of the “other.” Anyone could be a suicide bomber intent on attacking foreign troops. Anyone could be a kidnapper intent on abducting a well-known Christian. Anyone could be an assassin. Fear in all directions. Yet, Msgr. Sako, like so many others we met as we travelled across the north of Iraq from Kirkuk to Erbil to Mosul and Dohuk, was fully engaged in creating a new Iraq in spite of deep and tragic damage from the most recent U.S. war there. Cooperation and friendship among religious leaders in Kirkuk; coeducational, interreligious schools and an open university that bring together Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, Yezidie and Turkmen to provide a base of human values and an introduction to human rights; the commitment of the Dominican sisters of Mosul to peace education at a primary level; dedicated health care professionals in Kirkuk who serve Muslims and Christians alike; and LaOnf, the Iraqi nonviolence network, left a lasting impression on our delegation.

Fear always sees “the other” as a potential enemy. Fear demands control and often turns us into enemies ourselves. Fear, even well grounded fear, can be paralyzing. Excessive fear can keep whole societies from avoiding or moving beyond violent conflict. War itself always deepens fear, yet war too often finds its roots and rationale in fear. Instead of calming fears about potential terrorist attacks, U.S. political leaders orchestrated fear to garner support for war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What I saw in the early days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and what I saw in Iraq a few weeks ago was fear exacerbating fear. Genuine security cannot be built on a foundation of fear. Many wise Iraqis, including Bishop Sako and his Muslim friends in Kirkuk, know that well. They are witnesses to the power of cooperation, even across vast cultural, religious, political and social differences. The Obama administration claims to understand that international cooperation and dialogue toward inclusive global security would be a more fruitful route to peace than unilateralism and war. We will continue to pray and work to ensure that the administration will demonstrate that belief in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.— Marie Dennis

Marie Dennis is director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and co-president of Pax Christi International.

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