Bombing of U.N. Building in Baghdad Strains Humanitarian Aid in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A growing danger to foreign civilians in Iraq has forced humanitarian organizations there to revise their operations. But the Vatican's envoy to Iraq has said the humanitarian needs must be met first in any return to normalcy in the country.

Following the Aug. 19 truck bombing of the U.N. headquarters, which killed U.N. chief representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 others, the U.S. administration in the country warned that Iraq is becoming a major target for terrorist groups.

The European Union sent its staff home, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has announced a scaling back of personnel.

“Nongovernmental organizations are very concerned about their security,” said Hanno Schafer, information officer for Caritas Iraq in Baghdad. “This will of course curtail the work they do and will slow down the process of rebuilding Iraq.”

Schafer said the U.N. bombing “did not come out of the blue.” There were “a couple of incidents”: An employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross was killed in his car and there was an attack on someone working for the International Organization of Migration.

“There have been attempted car robberies, and so the number of incidents was quite significant,” he said. “But nobody thought something like that [at the U.N. building] could happen.”

Sister Else-Britt Nilsen is the superior general of the Dominican Sisters of Chatillon, based in Oslo, Norway, which runs St. Raphael Hospital in Baghdad. There are 40 sisters working there, and Sister Nilsen hears the situation is “very tense” and the sisters are “scared,” but they are continuing their work.

“The situation is more insecure now since Saddam Hussein was deposed,” Sister Nilsen said. “Of course he wasn't a good man, but we were able to cope with him because he allowed us to work and kept his distance.

“Now it's chaos, but the sisters won't leave, because most of them are Iraqis,” she said.

Americans helped to stave off attacks during the invasion, she said. “They protected the hospital with tanks to prevent the looting.”

Caritas, the international consortium of Catholic relief, development and social service agencies, also is likely to continue its work.

“We have several programs in health, water, sanitation and shelter,” Schafer said. “We decided to carry on our programs here. We're lucky; we have 150 staff who are Iraqis. They can keep working and undertaking other projects.”

But he and his Danish colleague are the only foreign workers employed by Caritas in Baghdad. “After the bombing of the U.N. headquarters, we took a very close look at what's going on,” he said. “We have decided to stay for now, but we will go back to Jordan if things get worse.”

Schafer said security for nongovernmental organizations is minimal.

“We don't have armed guards or armored vehicles,” he said. “So NGOs are a perfect target for those who want to do harm. Caritas wants to keep a low profile, but if anyone wants to target an NGO, there's nothing we can do about it.”

The Red Cross is overburdened with patients. Speaking on his return to Rome from Iraq, Dr. Antonio Coletto, who went to Iraq under Italian Red Cross auspices, said approximately 200-300 patients are arriving in hospitals every day.

“One of the biggest problems is with children who are playing with unexploded bombs,” he said. “Many have been seriously injured and lost limbs as a result.”

Religion Issues

Meanwhile, the Church itself continues to go about its business in Baghdad and elsewhere. “Priests are continuing to visit the hospitals and celebrate Masses there,” Coletto said.

And the Catholic Church has voiced support for the work of the United Nations and international cooperation in Iraq in the wake of the bombing. The attack should not discourage the international commitment to return Iraq to normalcy, said Archbishop Fernando Filoni, the Holy See's envoy to the country.

Though there are elements that do not desire normalcy in Iraq, “the people desire that … normalcy return as soon as possible and, therefore, that the local authority assume control of the situation,”

Archbishop Filoni said.

The first priority in the return to normalcy is the “humanitarian situation: the situation of hospitals, internal and external security,” he told Vatican Radio.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the coadjutor of Dublin who was until recently the Vatican's representative at the United Nations in Geneva, also voiced his support for the United Nations' work in Iraq, saying, “We have the duty to guarantee that the United Nations' mission continues and is not abandoned.”

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Archbishop Martin said U.N. member states must help “these little-protected international civil servants who commit themselves on our behalf” to “win the peace.”

Meanwhile, the mounting tension in Iraq has been exacerbated by groups of Protestant preachers entering Iraq, another Catholic archbishop there said.

Discalced Carmelite Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman, the Latin-rite Catholic archbishop of Baghdad, said one problem making the situation worse is the presence of preachers from U.S.-based religious sects.

Archbishop Sleiman told the MISNA missionary news agency that the preachers “harangue people on the streets and want money.”

“They put a notice up anywhere and open a church,” the archbishop said. “They don't realize that they are creating an impossible atmosphere which, by offending the sensibility of the people, fosters the development of Shiite extremism.”

Archbishop Sleiman also warned that the ongoing problems in Iraq could lead to problems for Christianity as instability and fear “foster the growth of Muslim fundamentalist forces as the civilian population more or less identifies Iraqi Christians with Westerners and, therefore, with the Americans.”

The archbishop said he “cannot see a political solution” and despite “all their analysts, Americans have not realized that Iraq is a much more complicated country than they imagined.”

Many commentators have called for a police presence in the country, but this has not materialized.

“There are no security agents,” the archbishop said, “or police or any sign of a presence — even if generic — of public administration on the streets.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.