NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Like many Iraqis living in the United States, Father Noel Gorgis is following the war in his homeland with special interest. And he is watching it from a very different vantage point than the last time the United States fought Iraq.
Father Gorgis, a priest at St. Paul Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in North Hollywood, had to serve with the Iraqi army in the 1991 Gulf War.
He was stationed at the H3 airfield, the suspected Scud headquarters in western Iraq that allied special forces seized in the early hours of the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Though he was a priest, he was given no special status in the Iraqi army.
“The Iraqi army has no chaplains; I was a regular soldier,” Father Gorgis said. He endured air bombardments and, as the war continued, he fled to Turkey. From there he made his way to the United States in 1992.
Like many Iraqis living in the United States — Christian and Muslim alike — Father Gorgis sees the current war as an opportunity for improvement in his country, an opportunity the American government has vowed to see through to the end.
“Most people here are looking for change in Iraq,” Father Gorgis said of his parishioners who are almost all of Iraqi origin. “Ninety-nine percent don't like Saddam.”
He believes Iraqis back home want change, too, though they cannot voice their feelings for fear of the current regime's henchmen. Iraqis “don't like Saddam, except in Tikrit,” the town where the dictator was born, he said.
Reports from Iraq indicate Saddam's Baath party is forcing men to fight by holding their families hostage, but “if they had their choice,” Father Gorgis said, the Iraqis “would rise up” all over the country.
So great is the fear of Saddam's security apparatus that even Iraqis here in the United States are unwilling to speak out for fear of reprisals against their families, according to Father Gorgis.
“Last night I talked to my sister in Baghdad,” he said March 27, “but I can not say ‘wait for freedom’ because she might be harmed.” He said his sister was leaving Baghdad for the relative safety of the north ahead of the ground assault on the city.
Father Gorgis said Christians still in Iraq have real concerns.
“[Iraqi] Christians are afraid from the bombing, the embargo and their Muslim neighbors,” he said.
Don't Repeat ‘91
Because among Muslims “there is much hostility to Christians,” Father Gorgis said he hopes “the Americans will stay longer” than in 1991 and a government is established that will ensure Christians can live in peace.
A senior Bush administration official, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that Pres -ident Bush and many in government do indeed intend to stay long enough to make things work.
The administration's strategy is to “identify moderate Muslims who can speak for the heart of Islam,” to help them promote a message “of tolerance and peace” and to “amplify their voices,” the official explained.
The moderates, he said, have been squelched between their own governments and Islamic extremists.
Christians make up only about 3% of Iraq's population. They include Assyrians, an Orthodox Church, but the majority of Christians are Chaldean Catholics, who left the Assyrian Church to come into communion with Rome 450 years ago.
As many as 250,000 Iraqi Christians now live in the United States.
Bishop Bawai Soro of the western diocese of the Assyrian Church of the East was born in Kirkuk, Iraq, and educated in Baghdad before emigrating. He came to the United States in 1976 and lives in San Jose, Calif.
Like Father Gorgis, he looked with hope to a post-Saddam Iraq. He said Assyrian Christians, even more than Chaldeans, have been “Western-oriented” since World War I, when they helped the British drive out the Turks and form the state of Iraq.
“The time is right to transform global politics in the Middle East,” Bishop Soro said, adding that he believes Iraq is the perfect place to start that transformation.
Once the initial anger about casualties wears off, people will welcome the Americans as liberators, the bishop predicted.
He is heartened by the resolve of the Bush administration to create a free Iraq.
“The wisdom of the administration is providential [because] everybody in the Arab world looks at Iraq as the model,” he said.
According to Bishop Soro, Iraq is looked up to because it has the best combination of advantages of any Middle Eastern country: It is wealthy, well educated and business savvy, he said. Its riches include not only oil but also its agriculture, minerals and well-educated people.
“It is shocking to see Iraq sunk to [its current] level,” he said sadly.
The bishop explained that many Iraqis are angry at Saddam because of the political repression and the fact that his government has gone about a program of “Arabization” in which the other cultures in Iraq — Assyrian, Turkish and Kurd — are ruthlessly suppressed. The persecution, he said, is not so much religious as it is cultural and political.
Entifadh Qanbar, a Muslim who is the Washington representative of the Iraqi National Congress, an expatriate opposition group that hopes to be at the forefront of the political restructuring of Iraq, said his vision of Iraq is one of religious freedom and democracy.
Though some have praised Saddam for not persecuting Christians outright for their faith, Qanbar insisted a new regime “will be more tolerant: It will be democratic.”
Even the prosecution of the war itself gives Bishop Soro hope.
After “being abused by [Saddam] for 35 years and before that 10 years of coups,” the people of Iraq are conditioned to accept force, he said.
The way you change that “is through love,” Bishop Soro said, and the way the war — which he characterized as “a charitable war” — is being fought, “accepting surrenders, avoiding civilian casualties,” will go a long way toward healing the citizens of Iraq.
And while the politicians and military commanders make their plans, Father Gorgis said he wants people to remember to take part in that which brings the greatest hope of all: prayer.
“Prayer,” he said, “is our most powerful weapon for peace and justice.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.