Will the once thriving ‘Vatican of Baghdad’ ever return?
London - Baghdad’s Christian neighbourhood of al-Doura was once thriving with churches and Christian institutions that earned it the nickname of “the Vatican of Baghdad.” After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the district was subjected to an ethnic cleansing spree by al-Qaeda extremists, who drove out the Christians and confiscated their property. At one point, US soldiers called it “the most dangerous place in Iraq.”
The neighbourhood’s Christian identity developed after the British quit Iraq in 1955. Under an agreement they made on departure, members of the RAF Iraq Levies, a force made up primarily of Iraqi Christian Assyrians, settled in al- Doura in south-western Baghdad. A nearby oil refinery provided jobs for many of the area’s new inhabitants.
Al-Doura became a suburb of beauty with shaded streets, eucalyptus trees and neat gardens that would fit in any British suburb. Regina Khamoo, one of the earliest residents of the neighbourhood, said: “Those were days of happiness. Most people were poor by today’s economic standards but they were rich in moral value. We all lived just like members of one big family.”
Reverend Ishmael Tamras of the Assyrian Church of the East in London said: “Immediately after our relocation, we began building our churches and places of worship. The chanting and chiming of bells ascended from various ends of al- Doura.”
Churches, a monastery and a pontifical college were built by various Christian denominations. The booming neighbourhood attracted more middle-class families and became home to more than 5,000 families, one of the biggest Christian communities in Iraq.
Iraqi Christians, like their Muslim compatriots, suffered during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war. Al-Doura was transformed by the bloody conflict, which altered the course of its history. Coffins of soldiers killed in battle arrived almost daily. Grieving parents and relatives would gather to mourn their loved ones.
“Almost every day a van would arrive with a casket draped in an Iraqi flag,” said Ashur Ninos, a teenager at the time. “We could hear the screams and wailing of the parents. The neighbourhood turned into a funeral city.”
Bombing during the war to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1991 wrecked the civilian infrastructure and institutions of Iraq. UN-imposed economic sanctions on Iraq lasted 13 years. “People passed their days in a bitter and wearisome struggle to earn a living. Thousands of Christians left al-Doura for better living conditions abroad,” said Rita Georges, who lived under the sanctions.
After Saddam Hussein defeated the Iraqi uprising following his eviction from Kuwait, he deliberately allowed Sunni hardliners to live in al-Doura to defend Baghdad’s southern flank in the event of another rebellion in Iraq’s Shia-dominated south. The neighbourhood became predominantly Sunni with Christians reduced to small enclaves.
After Saddam’s toppling by the US-led invasion, Iraq lost all semblance of order. Al-Doura fell under the sway of insurgents and became a hornet’s nest of sectarian violence, forcing the remaining Christians to abandon their homes.
As foreign Islamic fighters flooded into Iraq, the neighbourhood became one of Baghdad’s most notorious al-Qaeda strongholds. In 2004, the US Army fought pitched battles with al-Qaeda fighters there.
US Army Lieutenant-Colonel James R. Crider wrote in the professional journal of the US Army: “Al-Doura was a place that al-Qaeda felt it could and must hold on to. This Sunni neighbourhood was important to al-Qaeda because it was readily accessible from the southern belts where al-Qaeda remained largely unchallenged. It offered insurgents passage over the Tigris to the Shia-dominated areas.”
The US Army used Babel Pontifical College in the neighbourhood as a command post. The Reverend Nadheer Dako of the Chaldean Catholic mission in London, said: “This controversial move further increased resentment towards Iraqi Christians as they were seen as America’s fifth column, even though they did not hand over the building to the Americans. Violence against al-Doura’s Christians increased in its ferocity. We found ourselves in Baghdad offering sanctuary to the displaced people.”
Some residents of al-Doura resettled in Ankawa, a northern Iraq area that is regarded as housing the largest concentration of Christians in Iraq. Just as in the 1950s, they built churches and religious institutions. Many who left al-Doura didn’t sell their properties, with the hope that one day they might return.
“For me, al-Doura was a dream that shone in the firmament of my life and then went out; it was a paradise Adam himself would envy but I wonder if I will ever hear the chanting and chiming of bells that once ascended from various ends of place,” said Ashur Petrous, a former al-Doura resident who now lives in Canada.