I am a retired American Army officer. Since my retirement, I have been hired by both the private sector and federal government to act as an advisor to friendly foreign governments. I recently spent two years as a State Department civil servant living in Baghdad, where I worked with the Iraqi police, judges, courts, and the Ministries of Interior and Justice.
During that period, I consulted with people from many nations and I also came to know Iraqis who are Assyrians, the descendants of the people we read about in the Old Testament, whose capital city was Nineveh. Among other things, they gave us writing (cuneiforms), the first legal system (Hammurabi's code), and many of the original folk stories and knowledge we credit to the Greeks (Aesop's fables) or the Persians/Ottomans (Tales of the Arabian Nights).
Education and the pursuit of knowledge have been important throughout the whole history of the Assyrian people, traditionally given to start in 4750 B.C. Their education helped them prosper -- but it was also a source of contention even in modern times, including during the time of Saddam Hussein. Since the invasion of 2003, large numbers of doctors, lawyers, bankers, university professors and other educated professionals have been targeted by insurgents and are now refugees.
When I write about the Assyrian people I am talking about the ethnic group who trace their heritage back 6759 years to Ashur in Mesopotamia and includes the entire native, non-Arab peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. They may also be called Chaldeans and Syriacs depending on what part of the region they originated in and confessionally are Eastern Rite Catholics (Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs), Orthodox (Syriac) and members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The Assyrian Church of the East Patriarch resides in Chicago, The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch resides in Baghdad, Iraq and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch is in Damascus, Syria. All these groups share a similar ethnic, cultural and religious background.
Iraqi Women Religious at Work
After I returned to the United States, I remained in contact with many of the friends and colleagues I met while in Iraq. In February of this year, one of the Americans contacted me. He was an advisor with one of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams at the same time I worked with the Iraqi Ministry of Justice. This friend had been asked by the Papal Nuncio for Iraq and Jordan to try to assist a group of Iraqi women religious.
These Sisters--the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq--had operated various institutions in central and northern Iraq for a long period of time. Since the First Gulf War in 1990/1991 and the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations, their capacity to provide healthcare and education had been severely tested. After the invasion of 2003, a number of their institutions were attacked and several Sisters injured.
Despite the dangers and hardships, these Sisters have availed themselves of every reasonable opportunity to serve God through service to neighbor, including healing and teaching in Baghdad, in Mosul, and in the refugee camps of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
The Prioress of this order is a 69-year-old Iraqi, Sister Maria Hanna. She has a deep and abiding faith in a merciful God, a profound love for her neighbors, and extraordinary hope for a better future. Her order is consecrated in the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church and includes women of all the backgrounds which represent Iraq. Their spiritually is Dominican and they are part of the world-wide family of St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena.
Seeing that conditions in Iraq were not going to be normal for some time, she reached out to Dominican communities throughout the world and established many worthwhile partnerships with them. These partnerships allowed a number of her Sisters to enter advanced education programs to study medicine, education, languages and information systems, knowledge they brought back to Iraq as they returned home.
Sister Hanna and the other Dominican Sisters who remained in Iraq also continued to work for Iraq's future. Among other ministries, today they operate a Baghdad maternity hospital considered by many to be the finest medical facility in the country. They serve all Iraqis in their healthcare and education ministries.
Dreams of a New Hospital
The specific reason that the Nuncio asked for assistance is that Sister Hanna has dreamed for more than ten years of a new maternity hospital in the stretch of fertile land near the city of Mosul known as the Nineveh Plain. Violence there is still high but the need for the hospital is even greater. This is the area where most of the remaining religious minorities of Iraq live (north and east of Mosul).
Sadly, very little aid of any kind has gone to this area. The U.S. Congress, noticing this lack, now requires that the State Department account for all money that is spent in Iraq for the religious minorities. Champions of this effort have been Representatives Frank Wolf (R-VA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA). In spite of the reporting requirement clearly identified in law, no specific efforts have been created by the Executive Branch to assist our friends in Iraq.
After our initial contact with the Prioress and the Nuncio, we worked to put together a team of people to assist. One team member, Marty Hudson, was the Acting Health Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. Her contacts in Iraq and in the United States were invaluable.
Once the team was assembled, we engaged in a series of long distance discussions with Sister Hanna. Where exactly would the hospital be located? Who would staff it? How much would it cost? Who would provide security, etc.? Many of these questions require a deeper understanding of Sister Hanna's dream so we requested a meeting with Sister Hanna and the Nuncio.
We were able to secure an invitation for the Nuncio to attend the Annual Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., held in May of each year. The Nuncio deputized the Latin Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad to come in his stead.
Fortunately, Sister Hanna was already planning to visit the U.S. at that time. We developed an itinerary for Archbishop Sleiman and Sister Hanna so they would have the opportunity to tell their story themselves.
Since the Dominican Sisters already operate a maternity hospital in Baghdad, they know what is required to duplicate that effort in another part of Iraq. The floor plans and cost estimates they provided us captured the current hospital's resource requirements.
If we were to accomplish this effort in another country (e.g., the U.S., the Philippines or Nigeria), it would be a fairly straightforward effort. We would develop plans for building construction, equipment, personnel, ongoing operations, and recurring maintenance. But this is Iraq (and specifically the Nineveh Plain) so we needed a detailed political-military security plan as well.
We included current and former members of the Iraqi government in our efforts, along with the larger private sector or Iraqi civil society. We are developing with them something like a "Medical Green Zone"--a safe and secure location for healing and teaching in the north of Iraq. But the term "Green Zone" has very negative connotations with Iraqi people since they consider Iraqis who live or work there corrupt and uninterested in what is best for the nation as a whole. We settled on using the term "health security" instead.
A Model for the Future
This Iraq Health Security (IHS) complex will form the backbone for any public or private effort. We a envision this as a partnership between the private sector, the Governorate of Mosul, and one or more Iraqi federal executive branch ministries (e.g., the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research).
The mission of the IHS is to develop and secure the environment so that individuals, entities and communities like the Dominican Sisters are freed to do what they do best without being burdened by activities for which they are not trained or equipped. Specifically, the IHS will provide security, negotiate among the various ethnic and religious groups, and develop regional and, if necessary, national and international protocols (the area borders both Syria and Turkey).
With the establishment of the IHS, the Dominican Sisters will be relieved of the burdens concerning security, utilities and transportation.
Specific to the question of constructing a hospital, a typical "brick & mortar" facility is very time and material-intensive. One option that we are exploring with Sister Hanna is the idea of acquiring a prefabricated, modularly constructed facility. The obvious benefit is a significant decrease in time to complete the facility once the first shovel of dirt is moved.
Additionally, the political and military situations in the Nineveh Plain are still very tenuous so the IHS will need some time to establish a charter, work out relationships, and build a peaceful (or at least more secure) environment. Should the IHS effort fail, any monies expended for a Dominican Sisters' operated maternity hospital are not at risk. The final location of the hospital can easily be moved to a more secure location inside Iraq or the modular sections can be stored in a secure place until the Nineveh Plain region is ready for them.
One of the first commitments we made to Sister Hanna was that any monies acquired for her hospital would go to her directly through a preexisting mechanism--and not be filtered through new charities or offices. We have included in all of our discussions the Papal Mission to the Middle East (the Catholic Near East Welfare Association or CNEWA) as well as Caritas Iraq, the Catholic Relief Services and, domestically, U.S. Catholic Charities. CNEWA already assists the Dominican Sisters' current hospital and other projects through online donations (http://www.cnewa.org).
We have received the full cooperation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB graciously sponsored lunches for both Archbishop Sleiman and Sister Hanna during their respective stays in Washington.
Why? The Biblical Context We are often asked why we should do this. Why should we not just assist the religious minorities' efforts to leave Iraq and go someplace safer?
Archbishop Sleiman provided part of the answer during his short speech at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. He emphasized that we worship a God of Justice but also one of Mercy. He reminded us that Mosul is the ancient city of Nineveh, which was the capital of the Assyrian Empire--an ancient enemy of the Hebrew people. After the nation of David and Solomon was split into two (Israel and Judah), there was still hope that it could be reunited until the Assyrian Empire conquered Israel and dispersed its people. Nineveh killed the dream.
This is the background for the story of the prophet Jonah. Jonah's antipathy to all things Assyrian was on a level with most Americans' attitudes toward Osama bin Ladin and al Qaida. Jonah was directed by God to preach to his sworn enemies. He was so upset about this task that he decided that he would rather go into exile than head east to preach to the Ninevites.
But God had other plans since, as Archbishop Sleiman's reminded his listeners, God is more interested in saving people than punishment. Sister Hanna and the Dominican Sisters are clearly listening to that call.
Why? The Historical Context
What raises the Sisters' witness from humanly sufficient to theologically heroic is this: the Christian heritage of Iraq is one of the oldest in the world. Christians in Iraq claim the Apostle Thomas as their patron as he reportedly traveled through the region on his way to India and martyrdom.
The1900-year history of Christianity has been anything but peaceful. The Christian population of the late 7th century was virtually wiped out by an Arab Muslim invasion. One Assyrian news service has chronicled a litany of assaults against the Christian population in the region and has identified a major event with significant casualties and damage inflicted against one or more of the Christian communities on an average of once every 50 years since the early eighth century.
The worst most recent event occurred during the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was besieged on all sides; by Russia in the North and East, Britain and France in the South and West and by the Greeks and Serbs as well. All her enemies were Christians.
Inside her borders were significant populations of various--mostly Christian--ethnic minorities that were at best restive if not in outright rebellion. In what probably started as a defensive measure, the Ottoman leadership developed a plan to deal with these minorities that morphed into the 20th Centuries 1st significant example of ethnic. Strong security measures degenerated. Over the course of the war, the Armenian, Pontic Greek, and Assyrian communities were systematically terrorized by professional Ottoman military units as well as hired militias. Hundreds of thousands died.
At that time, the Assyrian population was spread in a wide arc from what is now Syria across northern Iraq / southern Turkey, and across northern Iran. Kurds were commingled with the Assyrian Christian populations, and the Ottoman Empire encouraged the Kurds to ethnically cleanse their region of Assyrians.
Direct acts of violence, starvation, disease and exposure resulted in the deaths of up to three-quarters of the Christian populations in Iraq and Iran. Sister Hanna is a child of this murdered generation. She has responded to the violence by dedicating her life to healing and teaching, as have the other Sisters. This is true peacemaking.
After the assaults committed against the Christians in the Ottoman Empire ended with the Armistice of 1918, the various communities of Catholics, Orthodox and Assyrians were scattered throughout the Middle East and the world. The League of Nations recognized the injustices inflicted on them and worked to provide them a homeland. However, nothing was accomplished. The ones who continued to live in Iraq were an important element of the security forces which guarded this English protectorate. A unit called the "Assyrian Levy" was instrumental in preventing the success of a Nazi inspired Arab-Iraqi uprising against the British in the spring of 1941.
The Assyrians were significant contributors to the economic, health and cultural fabric of Iraq since its establishment as an independent country following the 1st World War. This continued through the wars with Iran and Kuwait. It was only during the period of the U.N. sanctions that conditions took a precipitous decline as this was the time that Saddam Hussein "found religion" and shut down industries which he considered contrary to his interpretation of Islam. The invasion of 2003 exacerbated an already difficult situation for Iraq's religious minorities. They had no tribe or clan structure, no militias and no guns.
During my time in Iraq I attempted to take advantage of the experience and wisdom accrued by my predecessors and the Iraqi people I worked with. Upon reflection, it appeared to me that it was the Iraqi Christians who were most interested in the best outcome for "IRAQ" and not just their own personal interest or that of their tribe or family. The unfortunate thing I also noticed was that because they did not have guns, militias or use car-bombs, road-side bombs or suicide bombers to get our attention, they were usually ignored. I do not know of any programs which we created that specifically supported the religious minority groups. Very few programs spent any money in Christian (or other religious minority) areas.
On the other hand, the militias certainly knew the Christians were vulnerable and specifically targeted them. Their churches were attacked, individuals were kidnapped and killed: one teenage boy was literally crucified rather than convert to Islam.
I found this situation at best professionally embarrassing. The religious minority communities deserved our support every bit as much as the people and groups which we were already helping. In fact, a case can be made that if we had supported their local leadership we would have been able to get a better return on our investment. It never happened while I was in Iraq. Subsequent to my return, I continue the contacts I made in Iraq and work with individuals and groups to continue the progress we started. Helping Sister Hanna and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena is a pleasure. These are Iraqis who are doing following through on the promises that we Americans made to the Iraqi people for their health and security.
Making the Dream a Reality Our goal in this project is to assist Sister Hanna. There are specific dollar amounts that we hope to achieve in order to support her new hospital.
Secondarily, we hope to bring about the IHS and the public-private partnership needed to develop a sound social, economic, political and secure environment.
A third goal is to try to look at ways to help individuals who have been victims of the violence, their family members, and perpetrators. This goal is similar to those in South Africa after the Apartheid regime ended as well as in post-conflict Balkans and the Sub-Sahara Africa. We are addressing the possibility of having the Ministry of Higher Education sponsor a facility we are tentatively calling the Iraqi National Reconciliation Institute (INRI). Sister Hanna's faith is clearly the source of her ability to not only forgive but to live out in her own life Christ's vision that all of us are His brothers and sisters and must be treated with dignity and respect.
This is a remarkable project because of the remarkable people who will make it work. Frail and broken humans are offering their lives in service to God and we can witness God's grace on earth through them. Secularists will just see this as an act of medical diplomacy.
Please continue to pray for peace -- and especially for those who are trying to live out that vocation in a place that has not seen peace in recorded history.
John Stinson is a West Point graduate and retired Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel who served in Iraq for almost 2 years.
By John Stinson