04/10/2012, 00.00
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Educating people, building peace, Islamic-Christian dialogue from Lebanon to Iraq

by Maroun Atallah
A Lebanese delegation led by Fr Atallah spent Holy Week in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, to call attention to the value of peace. Education and culture are the first steps in this direction since Christians and Muslims can rebuild the Middle East "together". An interfaith meeting brings together political leaders, as well as representatives of the Sunni, Shia, Christian and Turkmen communities.

Kirkuk (AsiaNews) - For Fr Maroun Atallah, a feisty 84-year-old Lebanese monk, it is important to educate people as citizens, even more so as human beings, irrespective of their religious faith. It is equally important to rebuild Lebanon and Iraq by teaching people the fundamental values of freedom, justice, brotherhood as well as personal and collective responsibility. He spent Holy Week in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, where he and other faithful participated in a series of initiatives promoted by the local archbishop, Mgr Louis Sako.

With a focus on youth and especially culture "to bring together what religions appear to divide, Fr Atallah has been involved in interfaith meetings and exchanges across the region for some time. Active in reconciliation in Lebanon during the civil war, he is now working in Iraq.  His initiatives include visits to the West and the publication of an encyclopaedia dedicated to the region's cultural heritage.

On the urging of Kirkuk Bishop Sako, AsiaNews has decided to publish Fr Atallah's account of his days in Iraq. "You have to be crazy to ask the residents of a city that has known wars and that is still in the grip of violence to come and listen to poetry," he said.

The idea was crazy but it had unexpected results. At 5 pm on 3 April, they were all there: local authorities (city and province), army officers and representatives of all ethnic groups (Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians) and their respective political parties as well as religious leaders, Assyrian (Orthodox, from which the Chaldean Church emerged), Sunni, Shia as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists.

Even though all or most of these groups are at loggerheads with one another and find it hard to sit around the same table in the governatorate, they all accepted the invitation of Mgr Louis Sako, the city's Chaldean archbishop, and in their best clothes came to the church hall next to the cathedral.

It was a strange but beautiful sight to behold with a first row decked out in turbans, keffieh and military berets, not to mention a few cassocks.  With the sensitive issue of the protocol out of the way and armed soldiers and bodyguards patiently waiting outside, the evening was given over to discussions, divisions parked on the sidelines.

Lebanese poet Hicham Chidiac read a "bouquet" of poems he carefully chose for the occasion, including some of his latest works touching on universal themes like God, love, motherhood and the nation. . . .

In a brief but touching presentation, he focused on what is essential. "We are here because God is in us, however we may love, so that God may be the greatest ('Allah Akbar') for centuries and centuries."

Like him, I chose to deal with the problem of religious tensions, especially ethnic in nature at present, that still cause bloodshed in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. For this reason, I quoted from the Qur'an, a verse in favour of coexistence: "And if your Lord had pleased He would certainly have made people a single nation."

Speaking after the event, Kirkuk Christians who were asked about its repercussions on their daily life and the country's future said they were caught between hope and fear. Among the younger participants, some saw the event as a token of "solidarity" and hope that "they might not look at us as disbelievers and infidels, that they might accept us." For a woman from a local parish, "The problem lies in the Friday sermons in the mosques, which influence the youth a lot".

Osama Thomas noted that Mgr Sako organised similar events in the past, for instance following the bloody attack in Baghdad's cathedral of 31 October 2010 or on World Peace Day. For him, it would be desirable if the next meeting were held in "a mosque".

During this Holy Week, the members of the small Lebanese delegation came with their own personal experiences to promote a message of multiethnic and multicultural coexistence.

A catechist name Najwa brought together some 20 women in the city to discuss John Paul II's text on the "women's dignity". She also met families who lost loved ones in the many years of conflict.

Sister Micheline, a Good Shepherd nun, organised a peace education session for the catechists of the diocese and their students, directly inspired by her life in Lebanon in a community installed in the remaining Christian villages in the Bekaa Valley. Here she is patiently working with local residents to promote the idea of cultivating relations with their Shia neighbours.

At catechism, each Iraqi child was asked to imagine what actual "bridge" he could build around him. This echoes a message Mgr Sako has often repeated with regards to dialogue with Muslims, namely, that "We have no choice. It is also our mission to create ties among the various communities, showing Christ's love for them and love them."

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