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Priests from Baghdad say Americans are asking wrong questions about Iraq crisis

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[August 30, 2007]  SPRINGFIELD -- "It's love that brought us here," Father Butros said. "We need you. We need your love. We need your reflection. We don't need your guilty feeling." The middle-aged Iraqi priest and his younger colleague, Father Nabil, spoke Aug. 22 in front of a packed crowd at Sacred Heart Convent in Springfield. The priests are on a six-week tour of the United States. They say they are trying to help Americans understand the current and deteriorating humanitarian and political crisis facing Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. For security reasons, they asked that their real names not be used in the media.

"The situation in Iraq is (presented to Americans) like a Hollywood film, black and white," Butros said, "but the situation is much more complex. Americans are asking the wrong questions, and that they are focused on their self-interest, not on what is best for the region."

"Before the U.S. can leave, they must establish security and the infrastructure that is needed to live," he added. "American forces bombed everything during the invasion, most notably our power plants, and most of it has not been rebuilt."

"They don't have a choice; America must stay," Nabil said.

The priests are not in complete agreement about how this must happen, but they do agree that if the U.S. can hope for a resolution to the crisis in Iraq, and ultimately for success in the fight against terror, it must begin to think more broadly about the cause of the situation. The issue is regionwide and multilayered and must be approached as such, they said. There are multiple actors involved in creating terror in Iraq: disaffected members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party from within the country and from Syria, al-Qaida terrorists supported by Saudi Arabian-backed Sunni fundamentalist groups, Kurdish separatists, and Iranian-backed Islamists of the Shiite persuasion.

The struggle for power is created by an overlapping mix of ideological, religious, political and economic forces that all conspire against the safety and security of millions of Iraqis. This has plummeted Iraq into one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Four million Iraqis are displaced as a result of the conflict, about half of them now refugees in neighboring countries. Forty percent of the population does not have enough food. The infrastructure has been so decimated that Iraq's health care system, once state-of-the-art, struggles to treat the most elemental diseases. Half of Iraq's population is under the age of 16, and the poor security means that many of those young people are not going to school.

The priests do, however, agree that the U.S. alone cannot solve the issue. They said a multilateral response from the U.N., or a coalition of nations along with the U.S., should be formed to thwart the ongoing instability and the deteriorating lack of trust the Iraqi people have in the occupying forces.

"To be hungry, that is difficult. To not have electricity, that is difficult. This is the 21st century, and we don't have electricity," Butros said. "If we have good services, trust with the people could be restored and the situation in Iraq would turn around."

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Christian suffer from this situation just as all Iraqis do, the priests say, but the instability has also unleashed a level of persecution of Christians that has not been experienced in Iraq in generations.

"(In) some parts of Iraq it is genocide. We are not optimistic about the future in those areas," Butros said. "If we are persecuted, it is not because we did harm but because we are Christians."

"Recently two churches have been transformed to mosques, and crosses and statues are being destroyed," Nabil added. He also explained that the persecution of Christians has taken many forms. Kidnappings, assassinations, rapes and bombing of religious places were just a few he named.

The current Christian population in Iraq is estimated at 550,000-600,000. Figures are difficult to come by, but based on their experience, the priests estimate that 200,000 Christians have been displaced since 2003. About half of those are from Baghdad and have fled to the Christian villages in the north of Iraq. The other half are living as refugees in neighboring states, mostly Syria and Jordan.

According to the priests, in 2003 the American army was warmly welcomed by the Iraq people. Today, they say that trust has been eroded because of the lack of progress and continued instability.

"The people would shake their hands and give them flowers, but today they hate the U.S. army," Butros said. "Regaining the trust of the Iraqi people is one of the best ways the American forces can fight the terrorists."

The Dominican Sisters of Springfield have a seven-year relationship with other Dominicans and Christians in Iraq. Since 2001, two sisters from the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Sienna in Mosul, Iraq, have been living with the sisters of Springfield.

[Text from file received from Nathan Mihelich, director of communications for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield]

Sister Beth Murphy, OP, contributed to this article.

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