Inside a Christian church in Baghdad
Fehim Tastekin

BAGHDAD – Everywhere in the Iraqi capital is an off-limits “red zone” for Westerners except for the American invasion's legacy known as the “green zone.” This central quarter in Baghdad, accessible only by the right identification document or special permission, is actually a sort of privileged prison for those with valuable blood.

But I have not come to see the green zone; I am on the trail of the ever insecure people of the red zone, those which history so easily prefers to write off.

It's the last Friday of February. We pass the Tigris; moving towards Karrada. The traffic is dense, which makes us nervous, and talk turns to what one should do if a bomb sets off. For the past two days, we'd been traveling in an armored vehicle, with our driver Mahmud's hand moving constantly between the shift stick and his Kalashnikov. The vehicle is not armored this time.

Today's driver, Muhammad, asks again: “Did you say Saint Raphael? Can it be Rahibet? Because there is no other Christian hospital in this area.”

Security is tight at the entrance of the street. Civilian bodyguards are watching the surroundings in front of the building with the sign "Saint Raphael." The well-equipped hospital is choked full. I have arranged to meet with someone with strong credentials, who can help explain the Christian “exodus" from the Middle East, which started in Iraq with the U.S. invasion, and has spread to Egypt and then Syria in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

But my contact is nervous – there is a price here for even talking, and the man was clearly on edge. “I do not know much,” he says. He recommended instead that we see the priest of the Catholic Assyrian Church Seyyidet el Necad, where 58 people were murdered during a mass on October 31, 2010.

Baghdad, Iraq - Adora area. St. Mary ,Chaldian church. Young Christians are watching through the garden an American patrol which has just finished a verification at the near school.

The exodus

Eventually, there, we would manage to find a victim of the raid.

“No photos, no name, no address...”

All right.

Nothing she told was a secret, but she was afraid of again being a target if identified.

“We are under threat. My family, my friends escaped abroad. The escape started after the invasion, but the massacre in 2010 would wind up being a turning point," she said. The escape accelerated. Four hundred thousand Christians left, from a population of over 1.5 million.

"They went to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt; those who have the means go to Europe and the U.S. Some settled in Kurdistan," said the woman. "The church attack achieved its goal. I was hurt by broken glass. We were taken to France by a private plane for treatment. But I am back here in trouble again.”

So, why did she not leave Iraq?

“This is my country. I am proud to be Iraqi, and Arab. I was born here and I will die here," she said. “The bombs do not differentiate. We die together in the street as Muslims and Christians."

She said that the Iraqi government has made some efforts at protection. "The Christians are a pretty qualified group. We are all educated and have jobs. There is a need for these kinds of people.”

In peril

This woman of faith holds no grudges. Everybody knows that the Christians who are in the crossfire of the Shiite-Sunni clash are also a prime target of al-Qaeda and their "leave, pigs, or die" policy of kidnappings, executions and bombings.

The cradle of civilization is in peril. The Middle East once was a place where different religions, denominations and cultures lived together despite the historical enmities and provocations that might flare up, from time to time, and place to place. Unfortunately the cities that are the symbols of religious and denominational peace are under threat today in the wake of the American invasion a decade ago.

The tradition of coexisting has been badly damaged by the Sunni-Shiite struggle, alongside open enmity towards the religious minorities – and the Syrian crisis has only deepened the conflict. What we are losing is the spirit of cities like Aleppo, where the culture of tolerance had long been a source of pride, and the cosmopolitan spirit of Mosul.

Tolerance for violence is the most dangerous thing; and minorities provide a society with balance and modesty, a safeguard against the extremes of the prevailing majority.

Iraq left me with a heavy heart. My phone rang as soon as I landed in Istanbul on the evening of Feb. 23. The news was bad: our driver Mahmud had been killed in an attack at a roadside checkpoint.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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