Following the suicide bombings that struck the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, on Easter Sunday, young Iraqi Muslims visited the Miskanta Church in Baghdad to show interfaith solidarity with their Christian brothers and sisters.
Despite being a country geographically far-removed from the attack, the bombings were especially felt in Iraq. Experiencing its own recent conflict and a prolonged war against ISIS, Iraq has witnessed ISIS’ brutality first-hand over the past years. Following the attacks, Iraqis were keen to react to the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka with their Christian brothers and sisters so as to demonstrate how strength and cohesion defeat isolation and strife.
The following Sunday, over 50 Muslim students and volunteers from the Imam Jafar al-Sadiq University gathered at the Armenian Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church, also known as “Miskinta”, in al-Midan district of Baghdad, to stand in solidarity with their Christian neighbours and demonstrate their willingness to strengthen communal bonds during a period of global instability. Imam Jafar al-Sadiq University is known to be the largest non-governmental Islamic University operating in Iraq, while Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church is the oldest Church in Baghdad that is still functioning. The symbolism of solidarity between these two institutions is significant.
“The attack on a Church is just like an attack on a Mosque – today we are here to honour the victims of last Sunday’s terror attack in Sri Lanka,” said the Head of the Law Department at the Imam Jafar al-Sadiq University, Dr Hazim al-Rubaie, in Baghdad.
The students and volunteers lit candles in the church to respect those Christian victims who fell in Sri Lanka, rejecting the hate represented in those attacks and turning to love by offering prayers to their brothers and sisters. They stood inside and outside the church with placards showing slogans such as “They will never divide us” and “United against terror”.
Iraqis of all religious and ethnic backgrounds were faced with the terror, repression and vile discrimination of ISIS. Minority ethno-religious groups, such as the Christians, were specifically targeted by ISIS gangs over the past five years, as such groups intrinsically did not conform to ISIS’ totalitarian ideology. It is for this reason that volunteers from Muslim majority communities have recognised the vulnerability of minorities and have sought to demonstrate their solidarity with them.
“ISIS seeks to turn us against each other – brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour,” said Sayed Jafar Baraka, an Imam and University Lecturer, who spoke at the Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church. “Iraqis of all faiths and none defeated ISIS from our lands – if we stand together they will never win.”
Similar initiatives have been organised across Iraq to express sympathy across ethno-religious identities. Just last year, a group of young Muslims travelled to the Christian-majority town of Qaraqosh, also known as Hamdaniyah or Bakhdida. They attended mass at a local church side by side with their Christian brothers and sisters. This initiative was the first after the defeat of ISIS in Iraq’s northern Nineveh Province, which is historically known for its ethno-religious diversity.
Inter-faith programs have also been implemented in other parts of Iraq, including the South, where a mixed school opened to Christians and Muslims was opened in Basra last year. Muslim individuals have also sought to protect the ancient Christian heritage of Iraq, which has been threatened by ISIS on a number of occasions. For instance, two young men from Mosul kept 800-year old Christian manuscripts belonging to the Chaldean Tahera Church safe from ISIS militants, despite the threat of death if they were caught.
In another case, a Christian tour group visited the ruined Church of Kokheh, near Baghdad. Christians had not been able to visit the Church beforehand due to safety concerns as ISIS was present in the area. During the visit, local Muslims invited the Christian tour group for lunch, despite the fact that the Muslims were then fasting during the Ramadan period. The lunch meeting resulted in an agreement to restore the Church together.
There is a strong willingness in Iraq to uproot the seeds of discord that have been sown by terrorist groups and totalitarian ideologies of the past and present. Identities need not be in opposition with one another. Instead, they can complement each other in harmony. Where there is a will, there is a way.