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Iraq Perspectives
Catholics and Dominicans in Iraq
Richard Woods, OP
January, 2006

The War in Iraq has drawn the attention of the Christian world to the presence there of a native church with roots extending all the way back to Apostolic times. There are also about 200 Dominicans there. Dominican friars first came to Mesopotamia, the country the world now calls Iraq, in the thirteenth century. They established a small community in Baghdad to minister to Christians there and to study Arabic and the culture and history of the people at the University of Baghdad. A church and priory were built in Mosul in the northern part of the country.

One of the most famous Dominicans of the period, an Italian friar from Florence, Ricoldo of Montecroce, traveled throughout the Near East for over twelve years at the end of the thirteenth century. Riccoldo recorded how he had come across a mound of Dominican vestments, blood-stained habits, breviaries, and books from the last Dominican priory in the Holy Land when these were brought to Baghdad after the fall of Acre in 1291. He learned from the lone survivor, a Dominican nun, how the entire community had been put to the sword.

After the expulsion of Latin Christians from the Near East at the end of the Crusades, Dominicans did not return until 1750, when Pope Benedict XIV sent Italian friars to reestablish a church in Mosul. The Order has been present ever since, although the care of the church in Mosul was taken over by French Dominicans within a few years of its founding. In order to commemorate its 250th anniversary in 2000, the church underwent extensive renovation. Nine Iraqi friars now work at parishes in Baghdad and Mosul, as well as the Center of Christian Formation in Baghdad, and publish an Arabic journal, Christian Thought. Several Dominican students are completing their studies there and in France. A new novitiate was being planned even as the War was under way.

Two congregations of Dominican sisters were founded in Iraq in the nineteenth century, the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Tours and the Sisters of St Catherine of Siena, whose motherhouse is in Mosul. Over 120 native Iraqi Sisters belong to the latter congregation. In addition to those in formation, the sisters engage in catechesis, education, pastoral work, and hospital ministry. Two sisters are presently studying in the United States. The Presentation Sisters are located in Baghdad and are mostly involved in health care.

Dominican laity are also active in Mosul and Baghdad, being involved in family ministry, youth work, and pastoral work. Lay Dominican groups form wherever the Sisters are ministering. Whenever possible, the whole Dominican Family comes together for prayer and celebration.

In the declining years of the Ottoman Empire, the Dominicans suffered greatly, and several sisters suffered martyrdom. After the establishment of the Kingdom of Iraq in 1921 and especially when Iraq was declared a Republic in 1958, the Dominicans enjoyed greater freedom and protection, even under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

For over twelve years the Dominican family in Iraq was inescapably affected by the impact of UN-imposed sanctions. But even during those difficult times, they continued their ministry with confidence and irrepressible generosity, as several delegations of Dominicans from the United States and other countries discovered beginning in the late 1990s. Visits from the Masters opf the Order, Frs. Timothy Radcliffe and Carlos Azpiroz-Costa, buoyed their spirits and deeply impressed Dominicans throughout the world as they learned about the sisters and friars from the Masters’ letters and talks.

During the horrific bombardment and invasion in March and April of 2003, the sisters were able to remain in contact with friends in Rome and the United States, usually through the sisters living in Amman, Jordan, but sometimes directly by telephone and e-mail. Although frightened by the ferocity of the war and the ever-present danger of stray bombs, missiles, and shells, the Dominican family escaped personal injury.

Both the sisters’ and the delegation reports of the suffering of the people, from the years of oppression the UN sanctions, and then during the war, have helped the world understand the dire plight of the civilian population of Iraq. More than one million Iraqis, most of them children, died as a direct result of the sanctions. Thousands more died during the Persian Gulf War and the recent war.

At the beginning of the Gulf War, Iraqi Christians numbered about a million. Many were allowed to migrate after sanctions were imposed, leaving about 750,000 in Iraq today, although estimates vary. The Catholic population is mainly concentrated in the northern area near Mosul, but many Catholics can be found in Baghdad and Basra. And where Catholics are found, Dominicans are found. And as Iraq is a young nation in terms of the population — almost half are under the age of 16 — Dominicans are also young and vital. Their presence will undoubtedly assist the Christian community and the country as a whole to recover from the years of political oppression, the suffering of the people under twelve years of sanctions, and the devastation of the recent war. As Iraqis are so fond of saying, Insh’Allah — God willing!

Dominican friar Richard Woods teaches in the theology department at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. In 2001, he traveled to Iraq with a delegation of Dominican sisters and laity to observe conditions under the sanctions, returning there just after the war iun 2003, and again in January 2004.

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