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St John’s Church reopens in Baghdad amid calls for Christians to return to their neighborhoods

By Michael Ireland
11/19/07 IRAQ (ANS) — Neighborhood Christians and Muslims attended a mass to celebrate the reopening of St. John’s Church in Baghdad on November 15.

According to a copyrighted story by Michael Yon (www.michaelyon-online.com ) for the Assyrian International News Agency (www.aina.org/ ) a Bishop came to St John’s Church in Baghdad last week, where a crowd of locals welcomed him home.

They were joined at the service by soldiers from the 2-12 infantry battalion, many of whom had fought hard to secure these neighborhood streets. Members of the hard-fighting Iraqi Army 3rd Division were also here for this special day, says Yon.

‘The Most Revd.Shlemon Warduni celebrated Mass at St. George’s Church in Baghdad.
Most Reverend Shlemon Warduni, Auxiliary Bishop of the St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Diocese for Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iraq officiated, standing directly beneath the dome under the Chaldean cross.

Speaking in both Arabic and English, Bishop Warduni thanked those American soldiers sitting in the pews for their sacrifices. Again and again, throughout the service, he thanked the Americans.

Among them was LTC Stephen Michael. LTC Michael told Yon that when al Qaeda came to Dora, they began harassing Christians first, charging them “rent.”

Yon reports that it was the local Muslims, according to LTC Michael, who first came to him for help to protect the Christians in his area. LTC Michael said more than once that the Muslims reached out to him to protect the Christians from al Qaeda.

Yon says that “Real Muslims here are quick to say that al Qaeda members are not true Muslims.

“From charging ‘rent,’ al Qaeda’s harassment escalated to killing Christians, and also Muslims. Untold thousands of Christians and Muslims fled Baghdad in the wake of the darkness of civil war. Most of the Christians are gone now; having fled to Syria, Jordan or Northern Iraq.”

Yon says the celebratory service “was long and very Catholic, and since I was not raised Catholic, I would not have understood most of it even if it were all in English. But some of the American soldiers understood what was going on, and they said it was good.”

On that day, Muslims mostly filled the front pews of St John’s.

Muslims and Christians sit side-by-side during the celebration of Mass.

He says: “Muslims (who) want their Christian friends and neighbors to come home. The Christians who might see these photos likely will recognize their friends here. The Muslims in this neighborhood worry that other people will take the homes of their Christian neighbors, and that the Christians will never come back. (And) so they came to St John’s in force, and they showed their faces, and they said, ‘Come back to Iraq. Come home.’ They wanted the cameras to catch it. They wanted to spread the word: Come home. Muslims keep telling me to get it on the news. ‘Tell the Christians to come home to their country Iraq.'”

The Iraqi children were well-behaved, but they seemed restless during the service, and so the parents quietly marshaled them into line.

It was the first mass said in St John’s since the church was shuttered after the nearby St George’s was destroyed and clergy in the north were kidnapped, tortured and executed, said Yon.

“But things have changed dramatically in Dora, which is how the locals refer to this part of Baghdad. So much so that St. John’s is open and mass is being said again.”

The interpreter “Ice,” pictured here with members of the congregation outside St John’s after mass, grew up in this neighborhood. His family is Christian and St. John’s is their church.

Yon asked Ice if the Muslims treat the Christians poorly in Iraq, and he said what other Iraqi Christians and Muslims have also told him: an unequivocal “No.” Ice said they had no problems at all until al Qaeda instigated friction between people.

“I talked with some of the Iraqi boys between the ages of about 7 and 14. A 9 year-old–at least, I think he was 9 — told me he likes to read,” said Yon.

When he asked the boy what he likes to read, he said “Superman.”

“And then he told me how Superman wears a mask. Ice and I said that Superman does not wear a mask. I pointed to the Indian Head patch on an American soldier’s arm and said Superman wears that patch. Everyone laughed,” Yon writes.

“But we thought he was talking about Batman, but then he said no, it was not Batman. We figured maybe it was Zorro and he asked if Zorro is from America, and I said something like ‘no, I think he is from Mexico.’ But then an American photographer named Chris Hondros said he thought Zorro was from Spain, and shortly after that, the boy smacked another boy behind the head and laughed saying ‘you told me Zorro is from America!’

Yon continues: “All the boys cracked up. Nobody mentioned the Lone Ranger, or Captain Marvel, or Spiderman, or any of the other myriad masked men in the Pantheon of comic book superheroes. When I asked a 14 year-old boy if he liked school, I cautioned him to be careful about his answers because the video was running and his teacher might see it. I won’t publish what he said because many Iraqis read this site, and he could get into trouble at school. All the world around, boys are boys.”

Yon writes: “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any fighting. I can’t remember my last shootout: it’s been months. The nightmare is ending. Al Qaeda is being crushed. The Sunni tribes are awakening all across Iraq and foreswearing violence for negotiation. Many of the Shia are ready to stop the fighting that undermines their ability to forge and manage a new government. This is a complex and still delicate denouement, and the war may not be over yet.”

He concludes: “But the Muslims are saying it’s time to come home. And the Christians are saying it’s time to come home. They are weary, and there is much work to be done.”