American bishop urges prayers and aid for Iraqi Christians
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 Christians.
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.
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
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 idea…an 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 they…you could hardly call them enthusiastic
ENS: Is Saddam someone to fear?
WHALON: Saddam really is somebody who's a menace. The stories
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
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
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, yeah…maybe 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
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
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 as…as 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
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
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.