Easter and Iraq’s Christian minority

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By Paul Eedle

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Two Pauls: Deacon Monk Boulous Bahnam and me. He insisted on the photo when he heard my name. ‘Boulous’ is the Arabic for ‘Paul’.

For Iraq's 800,000 strong Christian population, Easter is the biggest festival of the year. They call it 'the Major Feast' (Christmas is 'the Minor Feast') and celebrate it with a special Passion play in churches across the country that is unique to Iraqi Christians.

It's one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The religion was already well established by the time of the first major schism in 431 A.D, and has survived the coming of Islam, the sacking of Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes, and the vicissitudes of life in modern Iraq.

This monastery dates back to 363 A.D. when a Saint Matthew came here as a hermit and founded it. It housed 7,000 monks at its height. But after the 9th century it suffered from repeated attacks as different military rulers swept through the area and today the large complex houses only two monks and a bishop.

But it's famous throughout Iraq. Father Adda said Saddam Hussein's late uncle, Adnan Khairallah, who was for many years defence minister, came here in 1979 and asked for his wife to bear a child. The family are Sunni Muslims, but it's quite common for people in the Middle East to visit shrines of different religions. Khairallah's wish was granted, he told Saddam about the monastery, and the President came on two visits in 1980 and 1981.

And Iraqi Christians - many of them from the city of Mosul an hour's drive away - flock here at the big Christian festivals like Easter.

A holiday in Iraq, especially one in mid-spring, means a family picnic - not a matter of a few chicken legs wrapped in aluminium foil and beers in a cold box, but a full-scale blowout meal of rice, barley, vegetable stews and meat (if you can afford it) cooked on a primus stove in the open air.

The women do the work, of course, sweating away in the heat of the sun while the men sit under an awning smoking and chatting. The children run around everywhere.

Some of the families I saw were eating chicken but the staple was rice and vegetables. "We have all the barley products here," one man said. "But meat, chicken and eggs are a problem."

The priest who took us to the monastery spotted some of his relatives by the roadside and I shared some of their picnic - piles of cooked barley with a few scraps of meat, and courgette and bean stews. They obviously weren't well off - Ramzy Shalla al-Ham, the senior man there, was a retired hospital orderly who was now working as a minibus driver and had borrowed his bus to drive the whole extended family out to the monastery.

They were all Syrian Orthodox Christians and spoke a dialect of Syriac to each other rather than Arabic.

Father Adda Khidr Ablahad Al-Qiss is a small, jovial man with twinkling eyes and an extremely public appreciation of the generosity of President Saddam Hussein to his cliff-hanging monastery.

"He gave a large donation to the monastery and we are still benefiting from it. We have used it to rebuild and repair the monastery. He offered to put everything right inside the monastery and out - except for the most ancient parts, which he ordered should stay as they were so people could see how old they were," Father Adda said.

"The monastery is open to all sects and religions. We pray that God will always keep President Saddam Hussein and preserve him."

Of course, Father Adda couldn't very well say anything else about Saddam even if he wanted. Everyone knows the penalties of public criticism in Iraq. But there are reasons for thinking that
Iraq's Christian minority might genuinely think their community's position may be better under Saddam than it might be under a successor regime.

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