Lessons in hope from the Middle East
This is an edited version of a talk given by Dominican Fr Timothy Radcliffe to the Glasgow Newman Circle and the St Andrew’s Foundation at the University of Glasgow.
Teilhard de Chardin said that the future belongs to those who give the next generation reason to hope. When I studied in Paris, the walls bore the motto of our generation: ‘L’imagination au pouvoir’, all power to the imagination. Today the intoxicating optimism of that time is over.
I have spent time in the last few years in the Middle East and North Africa. I have no Arabic, no expertise about Islam, but one of the reasons that I love to go to there is because they teach me hope.
In a curious way, it is exhilarating to stay in war zones. Our obsession with small concerns is stripped away. I was in Baghdad in the time of Saddam Hussein in 1998, when I heard on the BBC World Service that there was the threat of a bomb attack on the city that night by the US or the UK. Over breakfast the next day I asked my brother Dominican Yusuf Mirkis, now the Archbishop of Kirkuk, whether he had been able to sleep with the menace of bombs falling from the sky. He said that when you have lived that long with death, you do not worry about dying, only whether you will rise again.
My Dominican sister in Iraq told me that there are two words in Arabic for hope. There is ‘amal’, which means optimism. And there is ‘raja’, which means hope in God. They have lost nearly all amal, optimism. The Iraqi government is weak; they do not trust the West which they believe is only after their oil. They have no optimism about the future. But somehow they keep alive their hope in God. This overflows in a joy which never ceases to surprise me.
Aquinas says that the most fundamental expression of hope is prayer. We pray in the confident hope that God will hear. One of my brethren, Herbert McCabe, said that people on sinking ships complain of many things, but not of distractions in their prayers.
A couple of years ago, I visited Syria with Mairead Maguire, the Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work in Northern Ireland. Our base was a monastery in the hills between Damascus and Homs. We were just three miles from the front line with Da’esh and we were kept awake at night by gunfire. There was an artillery fire from a gun emplacement just fifty yards away.
Celebrating the Eucharist not far from people who had a devout desire to cut off your head really sheds a bright light on what the Eucharist is always about. We remember how on the night before Jesus died, everything seemed to be plunging towards disaster. Judas had denied Jesus. Peter was about to betray him. The others were about to flee. The community was collapsing. All that lay ahead was disaster, suffering and death. Jesus’ whole life seemed to be a total failure. And in this darkest moment, he made a gesture of hope. He took the bread and said ‘This is my body, given for you’.
It is paradoxical that our great sacrament of hope carries us back every Sunday to the bleakest moment in the history of the Church. Getting to the Eucharist on a Sunday can seem like a tedious duty. But not in places like Syria and Iraq.
One of the ways in which human beings face suffering and death is by singing. I flew back from Jerusalem to be with my father when he was dying. I asked him whether there was anything that I could do. He asked me to bring his Walkman and the music of Mozart’s Requiem and Hayden’s Seven Last Words.
Karim Wasfi is the conductor of the Baghdad Symphony orchestra. In April 2015 when there was a suicide bomb attack he went and got his cello and played to the crowds that gathered around. After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November of that year, a young man wheeled up a piano, and played, and walked away weeping.
When I went to Iraq in 2015, Da’esh had overrun the north of Iraq, the plain of Nineveh. The first thing they did was to destroy the schools, many of them Christian, mostly run by the Iraqi Dominican Sisters. When I went back two years later, Da’esh had been driven out, and our sisters were back. They first thing they did was to rebuild the schools. Every place of study, from a primary school to a university to a small study group, is a sign of hope.
The Iraqi education system is in such crisis that many people send their children to Christian schools. Muslim, Christian and Yazidi students sit side by side and become friends. When a Dominican sister returned from a visit the doctor, she found a Muslim teacher giving the Christians their catechism class. This is a sign that a new Iraq maybe be being born.
At its best, study teaches you to engage with people who think differently from you. If you disagree, you might have something to learn from each other. Alas, this is counter cultural in the West, which is generally afraid of difference.
Our Dominican tertiary level academy in Baghdad has as its symbol a Dominican cross with an enormous question mark, because here all questions are permitted. The Archbishop said, ‘Here in Iraq we need the oxygen of debate.’
The best response to violence is study, intelligent engagement with others. I visited Homs in Syria a couple of years ago. Most of the city is a bombed out wreck. But there amid the ruins we found a school. The Dutch Jesuit, Franz van der Lugt, had refused to leave despite death threats. He was sitting in the garden when someone walked in and shot him. And there in a small classroom was an old Egyptian Jesuit still teaching. That is what hope looks like.
We study not only texts but people, and learn to read their hidden struggles, fears and hopes. During a trip to Algeria, I drove to the northern Sahara with the Dominican bishop of Oran. Flights had been cancelled because of fighting. We drove right into a skirmish between a mob and the army. Eventually, our car was surrounded by people with rocks. I shall never forget the face of a young man who stood in front of us with a stone the size of a football, hanging over the windscreen. His face was angry, but beneath the anger one could see waves of fear, and beneath the fear, I could see a face of a gentle young man, the face of someone whom one could like. I hoped he would see mine.
St Paul says that we are ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’(Ephesians 2.10) We just have to get out of bed and do whatever good deeds are to be done that day.
Next to our priory is a home for abandoned children, of all faiths, run by Mother Theresa’s sisters. I shall never forget Nura, about eight years old, born without arms or legs, feeding the younger children with a spoon in her mouth.
Da’esh took the village below that monastery in Syria. They defaced the icons in our churches, and dug up the Christian graves and scattered the bones around the church to defile it. When the village was recaptured the Imam said to the Christians, where will you celebrate Christmas? Come use our mosque.
Last December 19 religious who were martyred in Algeria in the nineties were beatified. When the Archbishop said to a sister, you had better go or your lives will be taken, she replied, ‘our lives are already given.’
I stayed with one of our brethren who was a bishop in Algeria, Pierre Claverie, a few days before he was murdered. He knew that they would come for him, because they could not abide that this Catholic bishop should be friends with Muslims. He was blown up with his driver, a Muslim called Mohamed Boukichi. Mohamed picked him up at the airport and when they got back to the bishop’s house they were waiting. They had packed the wall with dynamite which they ignited the moment they returned. When I arrived for the funeral three days later, there was a nun still collecting their remains with a spoon.
A thousand Muslims came to his funeral. A young woman gave her testimony at the end saying she had returned to Islam because of Pierre. He was the bishop of the Muslims too. Slowly the cathedral was filled with a murmuring in Arabic. I asked what they were saying: ‘He was our bishop too. He was the bishop of the Muslims.’ Now his tomb is covered with flowers left by Christians and Muslims.
When I returned to Oran for the beatification of these religious last December we were given an extraordinary welcome by the Muslim authorities. The Minister of Religious Affairs, Mohamed Aïssa, expressed the government’s ‘entire satisfaction’ with the beatification. Hundreds of Muslim officials came to share our celebration. Their presence was greeted with thunderous applause. That evening we all went to a play about Pierre the Bishop and his Muslim chauffeur. Mohamed’s mother sat in the front row and blew kisses to the actor playing her dead son.
A last sign of hope: staying and not rushing off into exile. Many have gone and perhaps had no option but to do so. This is not a judgment of them.
A couple of weeks before Christmas last year, I spent two weeks in Iraq with my Dominican sisters. They are well qualified teachers, often with doctorates in science, theology, maths, music, art. They could all get jobs abroad. But they hang on as a sign of their hope that Christianity is not finished in the Middle East.
Have you seen that wonderful film Des hommes et des dieux (‘Of gods and men’)? It describes a small community of Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s who face a growing tide of violence. They must decide whether to stay or go. One of the monks says to Muslim neighbours: ‘We are like birds on a branch, birds who don’t know if they will fly away or stay on the branch.’ The villagers reply: ‘We are the birds; you are the branch. If you leave, we lose our footing.’ The monks decide to stay even though it will cost them their lives.
If you take away anything from this evening, let it be the decision to watch that film.
Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP is a former Master of the Dominicans and author of many books.