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Journey Through Iraq

by Michael J.L. La Civita
photos: CNEWA Archives


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On 1 May 1993, Msgr. Robert L. Stern traveled to Iraq as a member of a Vatican delegation headed by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini. The purpose of this visit was pastoral: to meet with members of the Christian hierarchy, Catholic and non-Catholic, and to assure them of the Holy See’s support for their struggling communities.

I spoke with him in his office after he returned from a grueling month and a half of travel. Iraq was not the only stop; Jordan, Israel, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Rome were also on his itinerary.

Although he should have been exhausted, I found him refreshed and, as he recounted his experiences, invigorated.

“The only way into Iraq,” the monsignor began, “is to drive from Jordan. We left early on Saturday morning [1 May] after Mass and breakfast at the Latin Vicariate in Amman.

“After a three-and a-half-hour drive from Amman we arrived at the Jordanian-Iraqi frontier. We were met there by representatives of the Iraqi religious affairs office and foreign ministry. We had originally intended to travel as guests of the Chaldean Catholic patriarch, Raphael I Bidawid. However the Iraqi government intervened and determined to host us as its guests.

The Holy Father is concerned with the plight of the people of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf war and the emigration of the Christian communities. Cardinal Silvestrini was sent to assure them of the pope’s love and support.

“After a few hours at the border we proceeded to Baghdad, which is another five hours by car. The highway was a beautifully designed six-lane highway that resembled an interstate in the United States. Although it was rather empty, I saw no signs of damage from the extensive Allied bombing [the Allies targeted this highway; it was assumed to be a supply route]. Most of the trip was through an arid wasteland and a dense sandstorm. The first sign of greenery was when we reached the banks of the Tigris River. Some claim that it was along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, ancient Mesopotamia, that civilization began. We arrived in Baghdad in the early evening.

“We were housed in the Al Rasheed Hotel, which was damaged by an Allied missile during the war. It had just been repaired. In the entrance a mosaic image of former president George Bush paved the way. ‘Bush is liar [sic]’ is inscribed in both English and Arabic. It is difficult to enter the hotel without treading on the image,” he continued.

“Once in Baghdad we visited representatives of every Eastern Christian community with a presence in Iraq. We met with the Chaldean Catholic hierarchy, who lead Iraq’s largest and most influential Christian community; we visited the Armenian, Latin and Syrian Catholic bishops and we met with the Armenian Apostolic, Assyrian, Greek and Syrian Orthodox leaders. With each community the cardinal delivered an address from the pope, which again reiterated the pontiffs fraternal love and support.”

While listening to Msgr. Stern list the names of these bishops, archbishops and patriarchs, I remembered seeing a few slides that were taken while the delegation was in Iraq. Among the photos were a few that depicted a group of men in white robes and flowing beards. I can usually identify the costume for each community, but this time I was bewildered.

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Tags: Iraq War Chaldean Church Msgr. Stern