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A priest defends his church.

Friday, Hay 27

Today, I met with Fr. Douglass, a priest of a Chaldean church in West Baghdad. He is a jovial character with excellent English, a great sense of humor and an exuberant spirit. He helps guard his church against attacks.

Dressed in all black with the traditional white collar, Fr. Douglass modeled his flak jacket and showed us his automatic AK-47 and handgun. He was well aware that it was strange for us to see an armed priest, and he said it is odd even for other Iraqis. "But when it comes time to defend my church from terrorists," he said, "I cannot ask others to do something I'm not willing to do."

He lives in a small room that is part of the church complex, and he said that on many occasions he's joined the guards in gunfights. The church is surrounded by concrete barricades, razor wire and guard stations. These were added after the car bombings at Christian churches in April 2004. Fortunately, no attacker has harmed his church, but there have been multiple attempts. "Sometimes at night after the curfew," he said, "a car would try to drive through the barricades and we have to fire on them." One night, he said, he heard the guards start firing, so he rushed out and began shooting at a car, only to realize that the guards were shooting at a different car. He said he felt very silly, and was thankful that both cars sped away unharmed.

The church is in a mixed neighborhood of Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, but most of his closest neighbors are Muslims. "They also protect the church," he said. "Whenever our guards start shooting, our Muslim neighbors run out with their machine guns to defend the church." He believes attacks have been thwarted because of his neighbors' protection.

Since we were a delegation of Christian peacemakers, we were interested in understanding how he justified using violence. "It is a very difficult decision," he said, "and there are many reasons I feel that it is justified." First, he pointed out that this is God's house, and he lives there as well, and anyone has the right to defend his home. He does not see that he has much of a choice in the matter, as he cannot just sit back and allow the destruction of his church, congregation and neighborhood. He quoted a saying: "When your hand is in the fire, it is different from when your hand is in the snow." I take that to mean that different situations require different responses, and that this one merits armed protection.

He originally supported the U.S. invasion because he hated Saddam, but now he says the United States has its own interests at heart and not those of the Iraqi people. He would like his country to be free of U.S. occupation, but he's afraid that United States has to stay right now.

"Things are at about 98 percent bad," he said, "but civil war would be 100 percent bad." He believes that the United States created this situation and intends to benefit from it: "They will stay as long as things are bad, but if things get better they will fred a different reason to stay."

He observed: "Sometimes, I'm jealous of the Palestinians. They have one enemy, the Israelis.... The Israelis are stealing Palestinian land and the Palestinians are resisting it and so they fight. It's a bad situation but at least things are clearer. Here, our enemies are everywhere and it's hard to tell who is benefiting and who is losing, or what the fight is even about."

Christians are about 3 percent of the Iraqi population. Fr. Douglass said his congregation was 300 in 1991, but is now only 100. "During the embargo, anyone who could move out of the country did," he said. Many Christians had family members in other countries who helped them emigrate. It was such a problem, he said they adopted an 11th Commandment: "Thou shall not leave thy country." He talked about the misery of the 10 years of U.S. sanctions: "It wasn't only food and medicine that we couldn't get, but we lost our education because people could only think about finding basic necessities. Now we've woken up, but we've lost our minds."

We asked him, "why do they attack Christians?" He questioned, "Who haven't they attacked?" He explained that foreign terrorists have been attacking Iraqis everywhere, including at mosques, restaurants, gas stations and schools in order to further chaos and vie for power. "We have a lot of oil," he said, "which has been a big problem for us." He believes that both the United States and the terrorists want to control the oil wealth.

The oil isn't going anywhere, and neither is the U.S. occupation or the terrorists for the time being, but Fr. Douglass is not backing down. He will continue to maintain his ministry and defend his church. May our prayers be with him.

[Joe Carr recently left Iraq, where he was with the Christian Peacemakers Team in Baghdad. This is the third of several reports he wrote for friends and family.]
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Title Annotation:IRAQ NOTEBOOK
Author:Carr, Joe
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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