Happy Holidays, fellow Americans.
It’s that time of year when we usually start hearing about the War on Christmas, how a bunch of tree hugging atheists and parent teacher politburo members are doing their best to undermine God and Jesus and the like. Stephen Colbert has made it somewhat of a staple for his show.
And so I’ve gone two paragraphs without mentioning the word Iraq, mainly because I want people to read this post, and I’m very aware that the war in Iraq is something that most Americans would prefer to forget, to pretend never happened, especially during a season when we’re better off thinking of such things as love and peace and joy.
But the Christian minority in Iraq is facing an actual war on Christmas–not just one that prevents them from saying “Merry Christmas” over “Happy Holidays.” It means death threats and church bombings and canceled masses. A war that has, over the past six years, decimated the Christian community in Iraq. (For details, here’s my Washington Post story today; and/or, take a look at Timothy William’s New York Times piece, also published today, which adds some very nice color.)
I don’t want to get preachy or up on my high horse–which, for its nice view of the moral landscape, can be pretty obnoxious. That being said, while reporting this story, something quite strange happened.
The scene: interviewing an Iraqi priest at the Virgin Mary church in downtown Baghdad. The priest is describing the threats against his parish, lamenting the fact that he can no longer celebrate Christmas like in the old days(read:before the U.S. invasion.) He tells me that Christians are “living like rats.”
I ask him for his name.
“I’m not going to give your kind my name,” he says.
“You mean journalists?”
“No, I mean Americans.”
He then, without raising his voice, angrily told me what he thought of America’s war in Iraq. Of George W. Bush. Of weapons of mass destruction. Of the terror of living like a rat.
“How could you have done this,” he said, “You have know idea of the suffering you have caused.”
“I know, I know,” I said.
“No, no you don’t know.”
At that moment, for whatever reason–perhaps because he was a priest, in priest’s garb, and was thus somewhat familiar to me; perhaps because I haven’t been yelled at by a priest since high school; perhaps because my feelings about the war, though I pretend otherwise, are often quite raw; perhaps because what he was saying triggered memories on things I’ve reported on and felt…Well, I felt tears in my eyes.
Totally unexpected, totally against the typical hard boiled, cynical, image I like to present to the world at large.
It was an awkward moment, to say the least.
Me, an American. I wasn’t a person, but a symbol–I represented something to the priest that triggered something dark and painful inside him,a boiling over of emotion, an outlet for his own frustrations and anger and disappointments.
For a few moments, the intellectual distance that I usually try to keep between what I write about here and what I feel broke down.
When that distance collapses, all the talk of success and winning in Iraq and policy and credibility and the casual reciting of dry civilian death tolls is exposed for what it is. That kind of talk–perfect for policy briefs and think tank discussions and op-ed pages– becomes empty and hollow and almost obscene.
Here was man, I told myself, who had loved Christmas, loved his role celebrating this time of year, loved his congregation–who had associated Christmas with all the good things about humanity–who was now fearing for his life and the lives of others. A dude who had seen his wife of life wrecked.
The priest offered me coffee and a piece of candy. I left fifteen minutes later.
Later, part of me was sort of pissed at the priest, too. Couldn’t he see that I wasn’t to blame? Not my fault! Hell, I always thought the war was a bad idea…I voted for Nader…I try to bring attention to what’s happening here…I’m more than my just my passport…and what happened to forgiveness…. I suppose I was pissed at him, though, for making me feel. He was angry at me, so I responded with anger in kind.
This morning, a bomb, hidden in a handcart, exploded outside a historic church in the city of Mosul, killing two.