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Christian Orphans Are Stuck in Limbo in Iraq.

Julia Duin, religion correspondent at The Washington Times, has also worked as a reporter and editor at The Enterprise Courier in Oregon, the Hollywood Sun-Tattler in Florida, and the Houston Chronicle in Texas. She's written three books, the most recent of which is Knights, Maidens, and Dragons, a collection of Victorian fairytales.

Compared with the ferocity of war in much of Iraq, the isolated Monastery of the Virgin Mary--twenty-five miles north of Mosul--exists in tranquillity. Surrounded by desert, this cool shelter--complete with olive trees, honeybees, and a Chaldean church--houses six monks and thirty-six orphaned boys, ages five to fourteen. Twenty-two girls live at a convent in nearby Mosul.

Over the years, the Rev. Mofid Toma Marcus, thirty-seven, an Assyrian Christian monk in charge of the monastery and orphanage, has kept the wolves away. During dictator Saddam Hussein's reign, he passed off his orphanage as a seminary for students preparing for the priesthood, because the government was not anxious to let the outside world know the actual number of orphans in the country.

Even today, when the boys, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, line up after their naps and are asked how many want to become priests, six raise their hands. They will go to a Catholic seminary in Baghdad. The fate of the other boys is uncertain, because Marcus will not give them up for adoption to Muslim families. "In an Iraqi orphanage, they make you change your religion," the monk said, "and I don't want our Christian kids to be Muslims."

Bound by law

He wishes he could send them to places like Detroit, which has many Iraqi Chaldean families who belong to the same ancient stream of Christianity and are willing to raise an orphaned child. Although the U.S. State Department says it has received many inquiries from American citizens asking about adoption, its Web site says adoption is not possible under Iraqi law.

One reason: Adoption is prohibited under Islamic law, which informs Iraqi civil law. Unlike in the West, orphaned Muslim children do not take the name and family relationships of their new parents. Instead, Islam allows kefala, a type of guardianship in which children retain their original family identities.

But U.S. immigration law considers kefala insufficient for immigration purposes. Moreover, anyone raising a child under the kefala system must promise to raise the child as a Muslim. "The chances of adopting a Muslim child is nil," said Roni Anderson, a former Southern Baptist missionary who worked with Marcus for twelve years--until last year. "They'd prefer the child be stranded than be adopted by a Christian."

However, Marcus' charges are Christians and not subject to Islamic law. To date, Iraqi law has not permitted foreigners to obtain legal guardianship of Iraqi children. But Iraqis living abroad might be allowed to do so.

Much depends on whether human rights issues for women and children are addressed in the new Iraqi Constitution and whether adoption is part of subsequent international treaties or agreements between Iraq and the United States. So, Father Marcus' charges continue to live in limbo.

Making do

A Chaldean Christian businessman in Michigan has collected twelve hundred pairs of shoes and fifty IBM computers, but the priest cannot afford to have them shipped. It is also difficult to get large amounts of freight across the Turkish-Iraqi border without spending a lot of money and finding trustworthy shipping agents.

But the boys' sleeping quarters are clean and spacious, a doctor visits once a week, and during the summer, some of the children are sent to live with families. U.S. troops based at Camp Freedom in Mosul have brought in toys supplied by Army chaplains from around the world.

Off-duty soldiers also built a playground, complete with paintings of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and put in air conditioners. In the entrance hall of the boys' dorm is a painting of a scale with a child in one bucket outweighing another bucket with the word "money."

"A child is the best investment in life," the caption reads.

Although all the children can sing, in English, Jesus Loves Me and This Little Light of Mine, all conversation at the orphanage is in Aramaic. "We think Kurdish is a Muslim language," the monk said, "and so is Arabic. Jesus spoke in Aramaic."

Iraq has been called "a nation of orphans, widows, and the handicapped" because of its recent, frequent wars, including an eight-year conflict in the 1980s with Iran that left two million dead.

The orphans poke about in dumps, sleep outdoors, and hang around hotels, busy intersections, mosques, and U.S. military installations. They are used as sex slaves and prostitutes, drug runners and spies. Estimates of their true numbers range from 1.5 million to five million, but there is no national policy on what to do with them.

In Baghdad, some mosques have taken over state orphanages. The status of the children in them is complicated by the fact that some might have living parents who sent their children outside of a war zone to live with relatives or got separated during an evacuation.

Help from abroad

Robert Anderson and his wife, Roni, spent twelve years as Southern Baptist missionaries in Mosul and in Adana, Turkey. He estimates that one in four children in northern Iraq is orphaned, on the street because his or her parents cannot support them or working hard for almost no money. "In some villages and remote areas," he said, "the figures are even more alarming. It is not too far-fetched to say that across all of Iraq, more than 2.5 million kids are neglected pitifully."

In the Kurdish portion of northern Iraq, a woman can be killed for looking at a man through the gate of her home, he said. "Any suspicion of wrongdoing is enough to eliminate her," he said. "It's enough to cause many orphans to exist."

Through the nongovernmental organization Concern for Kids, Anderson is seeking Americans to move to Dohuk, a Kurdish city near the Turkish border, to work with orphans from Christian and the pagan sect Yezidi tribes.

He's also advertising during lecture tours and through the Andersons' Web site ( for workers to work with street children in Sinjar, a small town near the Syrian border.

Other groups are helping out. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) operates five orphanages in Iraq, aiding children in a culture where a woman often is not allowed to bring her children into a new husband's home.

Islam allows a man to refuse to raise another man's children as his own. Adoption was widespread in the ancient Middle East, dating back at least four thousand years to the code of Hammurabi. Exodus, the Old Testament book, says Moses was adopted by an Egyptian princess.

There are references to adoption in the New Testament, and adoption was practiced in Greece and Rome as well. In fact, Julius Caesar adopted his nephew, Octavius, who became Caesar Augustus.

It also was practiced among the Arabs and by Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

Signs of hope

About a hundred and fifty miles east of Al Qosh--also spelled Qush, an ancient Assyrian mountain town in Nineveh named in documents as old as 750 B.C.--in Sulaymaniyah, there are three Kurdish-run orphanages, one for girls, one for boys age six to twelve, and the third for teenage boys. Northern Iraq has been especially hard-hit by a succession of wars and attacks, including Saddam's 1988 gassing of the Kurdish city of Halabja, which killed about six thousand people and left 218 orphans.

The plight of Kurdish orphans has been dramatized in two movies by Iranian film director Bahman Ghobadi. His 2000 movie, A Time for Drunken Horses, shows the plight of five orphans who are desperate to find medical help for their handicapped brother. His 2003 movie, Marooned in Iraq, portrays a rag-tag group of shivering children in an orphanage on the Iran-Iraq border in the early 1990s.

Things have improved a little, thanks to the prosperity of the Kurdish areas compared with the rest of Iraq. Rashid Tahir is the director of Sulaymaniyah Orphanage for Boys, a facility decorated with light blue walls and children's paintings. Green grass, rare in Iraq, fills a tiny front yard off a dusty street near the University of Sulaymaniyah.

Tahir said the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a political group, offers to pay for four years of university for each of the boys. Most of the children have relatives who are too poor to house them. Only two have no family at all. "It's related to the economic situation," he said of the homeless children. "Because the Kurdish situation is good, we are not getting too many."

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) says it has contributed more than $420 million through the World Food Program to feed chronically malnourished children, especially in northern Iraq.

The London-based Kurdistan Children's Fund (KCF) provides $15 per month for each of 2,700 children in a "distance sponsorship" program. It has six centers for children in Sulaymaniyah and hundreds more children waiting to be sponsored. The biggest needs are for clothing and school supplies for teens.

KCF also provides a day program on the second floor of an office building in Sulaymaniyah. It includes a music room with a drum, piano, and four violins; a computer room; pingpong tables and a ceramics lab. In a room of children's paintings, one shows a depiction of Elvis. Another shows a crucified Christ.

A boy with tattered sandals, black pants, a dirty T-shirt and sad expression just sits and watches visitors walk by.

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Author:Duin, Julia
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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