Will the once thriving ‘Vatican of Baghdad’ ever return?

October 22, 2017
Beleaguered district. A file picture shows an Iraqi police officer standing guard outside a Christian church in Baghdad’s al-Doura district. (Reuters)

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.