Print Version    Email to Friend
The difficulties of ministering in Iraq

  NEW YORK (Agencies): “When the bombs started falling in Baghdad and people started to flee, we opened our convents to families,” Dominican Sister Maria Hanna told the Catholic Near East Welfare Association on August 12, describing the beginning of the Iraqi War in 2003.

“We gave them a place to stay or we connected them with families that could shelter them for a night. We did not wait for people to come to us. We went to locations where people congregated and asked them if they needed anything that we could provide,” the Iraqi sister continued.

She explained that the sisters baked bread every day and formed an organisation of young adults to go from door to door in the besieged city and beg for food to be distributed among those who had none.

“At least the bread enabled them to survive,” Sister Hanna said.

She explained that the sisters also worked to comfort families that had lost loved ones to the violence, adding that kidnapping was also a big problem at the time. She said the sisters would go and sit and pray with them in an effort to provide some comfort.

Sister Hanna added that Catholic schools had been nationalised by the government of Saddam Hussain, but after he was forced out of office, the new government returned the properties to the Church.

“We let displaced families stay in the schools too,” she went on. “We made sure that people had the necessities to live. Our pantries were always empty, because we always gave everything away.”

Sister Hanna said that the Al-Hayat Hospital, which is run by the Dominicans in Baghdad, was kept open 24 hours a day right through the crisis. “We stayed open for the people,” Sister Hanna said.

She went on to describe the difficulties in looking after orphans, as most were in extremely dangerous parts of the city, and how they were able to get a place in a safer part of the country with the help of the embassy of the United States of America (US).

The Dominican sisters in Iraq are a foundation of the Dominican province in Springfield in the US and its specific mission is to bolster and strengthen the Catholic presence in the country. Sister Hanna said that this is not done in the schools or hospitals, but by their contact with the families.

“Every year we prepare about 1,600 boys and girls for their first communion,” she noted, “and take the sacraments to the remote villages where the priests can seldom visit. We do gospel sharing with the families, catechetics and organise the lay people to be involved in the daily affairs of their parishes.”

Sister Diana Moneka related how their convent was bombed around 1.30am right at the beginning of the conflict. “Four Sisters were stranded in their rooms,” she said, “and it was only because one sister was sleeping in the hallway that they were able to get out.”

However, she said that the biggest problem the sisters face is their own frustration. “We are happy working,” she said, “but we get down with the frustration.”

However, Sister Moneka added that they spend every day dealing with traumatised people and the trauma tends to rub off on them. 

“We have lost lots of family too,” she went on. “I lost my brother. Five years ago, he was shot. One sister and two of my nephews were kidnapped and disappeared. Another nephew disappeared and we have not heard anything about him.”

In the middle of this, Sister Hanna added that their situation is aggravated, as travel is difficult and it is hard to come together to support each other. She explained that since their mother house was bombed they cannot live together, and she sees this as being their biggest need at present.


More from this section