The Long Reconciliation: Iraq In the Time of ISIS

By Catherine Woodiwiss 12-02-2014
The Iraqi flag, shattered. Image courtesy MyImages - Micha/shutterstock.com
The Iraqi flag, shattered. Image courtesy MyImages - Micha/shutterstock.com

For Christians in Iraq, a foundational creed of the faith is facing a sticking point.

The creed is itself a challenge to human nature — “But I say to you, love your enemies; bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you; pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”

In the West, Jesus’ summons has relevance on the daily relational level. But how do we genuinely practice reconciliation in the presence of something much more terrifying and insidious? How do we love our enemies when our enemy doesn’t want to resolve?

Iraq today is a testing ground for how Jesus’ words hold up in the growing presence of horror. For those of us in the business of peace, clamors for war — however targeted — are too facile and the inevitable collateral damage too enduring. But honest calls for peace require open-eyed discernment and informed wisdom — and working toward reconciliation requires all parties to come to the table.

Two groups working in Iraq made headlines this summer — the Preemptive Love Coalition and the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, led by Jeremy Courtney and Canon Andrew White, respectively. Courtney provides hands-on training for Iraqi surgeons to perform lifesaving heart operations for children across Iraq, and started the viral #WeAreN campaign this year. Canon White leads inter-religious dialogue with Iraq’s religious leaders with the help of Baghdad-born Dr. Sarah Ahmed.

Though working from different angles, both groups are discovering how to love and reconcile in concrete terms.

Embodied Reconciliation

Founded in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion in Iraq, Courtney’s group is named for a different pre-emptive posture — one of love. The Preemptive Love Coalition trains surgeons to perform heart surgeries for children in clinics throughout Iraq. In the tribal country, PLC’s commitment to serve all children in need, regardless of ethnicity or religious belief, can prove contentious.

“[The clinics] are places where people will be served by what they may call their ideological or ethnic enemies,” Courtney said.

In the summer months after the rapid expansion of ISIS, PLC’s hospitals expanded services to provide for terrorized communities and victims of violence. Many clinics themselves have been damaged, particularly in Fallujah and Tikrit. Courtney believes their work plays a role in reconciliation. The nature of their open-door policy means “we have to love our enemies whether we want to or not,” he said.

“Often, the enemy is literally holding your child’s heart in your hands.”

Elsewhere, Courtney describes the effect as recognizing the blood of your enemies physically pumping in your veins. It is a striking example of interdependence — physically and metaphysically.

Perhaps what’s spiritual is what’s biological. In the midst of the ongoing violence, Preemptive Love Coalition performed its 1,000th heart surgery last month.

“It is really inspiring to save lives in an otherwise dark and stormy situation,” Courtney said. “It’s a step up the road from full-blown reconciliation.”

Communal Reconciliation  

For years, Canon Andrew White — known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’ — shepherded the last Anglican congregation in Iraq, St. George’s in Baghdad, while working with Iraq’s top religious leaders through FRRME.

FRRME works with Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Jewish religious leaders as part of the High Council of Religious Leaders to build the language and practices of reconciliation at the highest levels. While often operating at a high level, Canon White and Dr. Sarah Ahmed — an Iraqi Muslim trained as a dentist — emphasize the critical necessity of peer-to-peer engagement.

“That’s really hard to establish, at this point, because there’s so much history between these different groups,” Ahmed said. “But you need personal reconciliation because you need a foundation for everything.”

Indeed, years of massacre under Saddam Hussein followed by a nearly decade-long American-led war based on false pretenses and corrupt governance has eroded Iraq’s social fabric and primed accumulating grudges to rise to the surface in the wake of American occupation.

“The fact is that under Saddam, we were thousands of times better off than now. And I supported getting rid of him,” White told Sojourners. “I was not against the war. And I was totally wrong.”

What we see in the aftermath of that war is the rise of ISIS — the results of which have been devastating, particularly for Christians and other minorities. White’s church community alone dropped from six and a half thousand to a thousand in the last decade, many fleeing north to escape targeted violence. Now even there, White says, the congregation faces “immense” and “awful” persecution.

Both White and Ahmed say that possibilities for love and reconciliation have only become more limited.

“When blood gets in the equation, everything gets distorted,” Ahmed said. “Forgiveness is really hard when you lose someone you love, or lose your home, or lose everything. Some people lost everything.”

In many ways, the partnership between White and Ahmed represents the tensions and the possibilities inherent in their work for Iraq.

“I am the only Muslim worker in a Christian foundation in Baghdad,” Ahmed said. “It’s very challenging. Because I’m working with Christians and Jews and other minorities, I’m judged by many, even Christians themselves — and I’m helping them.”

The experience of many citizens in Iraq, under nearly constant conflict, encourages us to think about reconciliation as a process rather than an outcome. Ahmed believes focusing on local-based work can provide critical space to regroup and heal.

“Let’s love the actual neighbors; let’s love the people that are actually persecuted and internally displaced; let’s take care of them — and then we will see what will happen to ISIS,” she said.

Necessary Ingredients  

Indeed, presence is a bulwark against fanaticism — one reason why protecting diversity is so critical to a region hemorrhaging its citizens. To reconcile means to settle debts, to even out the balance. Reconciliation implies a history of relationship through which to re-situate our context.

As ISIS systematically eradicates non-Sunnis and Sunni dissenters in ISIS-controlled regions, we must wonder if reconciliation will be possible in a land rapidly being scorched of all diversity. What stories will Iraq’s people even be able to hear?

The ongoing persecution and terrorizing of Iraqi citizens — what Courtney calls a “harrowing rollercoaster” — is of a kind the United States hasn’t seen face-to-face yet. But Courtney urges against the inclination to treat reconciliation as an “over there” issue.

“I don’t think we’re beyond deep splits [like in Iraq] at all,” Courtney said. “We have this stuff in the U.S. It absolutely comes down to gender, to race relations. You even see it in Christian extremist movements — calls to store up for ourselves guns, weapons, food. Our fascination with a zombie apocalypse. It’s a preemptive posture — we declare, ‘You are my enemy.’ It just hasn’t been set aflame like in Iraq.”

Pre-Emptive Reconciliation?

Courtney talks of preemptive love and preemptive war as postures. This begs the question: could we think of reconciliation, too, as a preemptive posture? How might we set about knitting our social fabric tighter before it tears?

An essential step is listening to each other’s stories.

“If you’re concerned about ISIS, Iraq, Syria — the best thing you can do is walk across the street and meet your Muslim neighbors,” he said. “If that’s too daunting, ask your church to gather a delegation to a local mosque. It’s disingenuous to carp about Islam and not do anything yourself to get to know any practitioners.”

Both groups share an additional commonality required in reconciliation work: tenacity.

“Our primary mission is to eradicate the backlog of heart surgeries,” Courtney said. “We’re staying.”

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. Find her on Twitter at @chwoodiwiss.

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