Monday, October 12, 2009



Joseph Seferta

In 1932 a handful of American Jesuits sailed the seas to Beirut and bussed across the desert to Baghdad. They went in answer to a request by the Chaldean Patriarch Mar Emmanuel II Toma that they start a secondary school for Christian boys. He himself was a graduate of the Jesuit University St. Joseph in Beirut. The Patriarch had made his request known to Pope Pius XI who asked the Jesuit General, Fr. Wladimir Ledechowsky to approach the Jesuits in America because they were (and still are) the most numerous English-speaking Jesuits in the world. The New England Province undertook the project.

Jesuits had passed through Mesopotamia before. St. Ignatius Loyola, their founder, had spent some time in the Holy Land, and dialoguing with Islam was one of his highest priorities. In 1850 two Jesuits were sent from Beirut to Baghdad to determine if the time was ripe for a Jesuit mission there. As their caravan was robbed on the way to and from Baghdad, they decided that the time was not yet ripe.

So in 1932, the same year that Iraq gained its independence, four U.S. Jesuits arrived in Baghdad. Initially they bought two houses by the Tigris and started Baghdad College, a high school for boys, with an enrolment of 120. The students were to increase eventually to 1000 at Baghdad College and 700 at the later Al-Hikma University.

The Jesuits were not missionaries in the classical sense of the term. They preached rarely and proselytised not at all. Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston once remarked: “This mission has to be the biggest waste of men and money in the history of the Church—not a single convert from Islam!” Although an extraordinary man and a great promoter of Jesuit missions worldwide Cushing failed to see that the Jesuits in Iraq were not trying to? Convert any Muslims, who were actually admitted to the school from the beginning. In fact, if they had tried to proselytise, they would not have lasted more than a few months. Nevertheless, their impact on Christians and Muslims alike as excellent educators and as religious men of great integrity and dedication was extraordinary.

It is true that the primary aim of the Jesuit mission was to educate Iraqi Christians, and this aim was fulfilled magnificently. But they also helped the church of Iraq by their physical presence, moral support, participation in liturgies and devotions, and providing pastoral services. The Christians made up only 5% of the population and were second-class citizens in an overwhelmingly Islamic environment. The Chaldean Catholics made up three quarters of the Christian community, with the rest belonging mainly to other Eastern denominations, both Catholic and Orthodox. Chaldeans and Assyrians originally belonged to the same “Church of the East” in Mesopotamia which, according to legend, was founded by the Apostle Thomas, as well as saints Addai and Mari who gave us what many scholars consider to be the oldest liturgy in the universal church. There are serious attempts now to reunite the Chaldean and Assyrian churches into one again.
Now the Jesuits, as you know, are famous primarily for being educators, and they run some of the best universities in the United States. Ignatius Loyola’s assumption, however, was not that education was an end in itself but rather as a means to lead the student to care about other human beings. This is the outcome of the famous “spiritual exercises” of St. Ignatius which help set the person free from selfishness, strengthen his free will, inform (as well as form) his conscience, and prepare him to see the good in other people in order to bring out the best in them. Hence, the aim of the Baghdad Jesuits was to help mould an active Christian community through a sound Christian education. At the same time, by educating a good number of Muslim young men, they would also encourage greater tolerance and understanding of the faith, which would work to the mutual advantage of Christians and Muslims alike.

In 1932, then, eight American Jesuit universities, headed by Georgetown, sponsored the Iraq project, and this led to the formation of the Iraq American Educational Association, which was duly approved and registered by the Iraqi authorities. The motto used in the advertisement was “an Iraqi school for Iraqi boys”. Such policy and spirit were faithfully maintained thereafter as was also a high standard of academic excellence. This was so high, in fact, that about half of the top ten results in the baccalaureate exams, taken at the age of 18, usually came from Baghdad College alone.

From 1934 to 1969 (when they were expelled), the B.C. Jesuits occupied the 25 acre property in Sulaikh, four miles north of the city centre. Nine major buildings and seven minor ones were constructed. Strict discipline was always maintained and mutual respect all round was emphasised. A variety of sports was encouraged and the boys threw themselves into everything with great enthusiasm. One of the highlights of the year was the annual baseball competition between faculty members and senior students, which always drew large crowds.

A fleet of distinctive yellow buses was acquired to ferry the students back and forth on a daily basis. Gradually Muslim clerics, government officials and others replaced their mistrust of the American Jesuits with enthusiasm for their educational efforts, once they realised they were there not to convert them but to educate them. This change of heart was quickened by the 1942 pro-Nazi coup, when other Americans fled Iraq, while the Jesuits stayed put. Thereafter, even government ministers began sending their sons to the College, realising that the Jesuits were fostering intellectual, spiritual and social benefits that went beyond education.

It was Fr. William Rice, the first superior of the Baghdad Jesuits (and later a bishop) who in 1937 began to construct the school buildings according to the Arabian architectural pattern. But he was followed by the genius of Fr. Leo Guay who, with a Ph.D. in chemistry, also enjoyed the two hobbies of astronomy and architecture. The science building he constructed, for example, was second to none in its ample space, large classrooms, laboratories, and the bright cheerful environment.
A two-hour homework was demanded of the students on a daily basis, and it was closely monitored. New students were accepted only in the first year, because usually those wanting to transfer from other schools into other years were below standard, especially in the English language. To enroll in the first year, an applicant had to pass a strict entrance exam in English. All the subjects were taught in English with the exception of history, geography and, of course, Arabic. As for the composition of the student body, I’ll take a typical example from 1956 (the year I graduated). There were 196 Chaldeans, 57 Assyrians, 59 Syrians (both Catholic and Orthodox), 100 Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox), 6 Melkites (i.e., Arabic-speaking Byzantines), 19 Latins (i.e., Catholics who follow the Latin Rite rather than an Eastern rite), 5 Jews and 263 Muslims: totalling 705.

Every year, beginning in 1934, a magnificent year-book was produced, called Al-Iraqi (“The Iraqi”), which was eagerly read by students, parents and staff. It contained an Arabic as well as an English section, all fully-illustrated and mostly written by the students, with a bit of help from faculty members. Across the road from the college was the boarding school for students from outside the capital, but who were allowed to visit their families during holidays, especially the long summer vacation.

The 1950s and 60s saw some exciting changes taking place. Having put up nine new buildings and devising ingenious methods for keeping them cool in hot weather, Fr. Guay then built a beautiful school chapel that reflected a harmonious blend of Babylonian, Assyrian and Arabian styles of architecture. In 1952, a language house was started in the Sa’dun area of Baghdad. Here the Jesuits were able to concentrate their talents and energy to the study of the Arabic language and culture. The language house was named after St. Joseph, perhaps because 14 out of the 60 men in the mission were named Joseph. (I like the name too). The teaching was conducted mainly by two remarkable scholars: the Chaldean professor Faraj Raffuli and the American Jesuit Richard McCarthy. McCarthy was internationally recognised as an authority on both al-Ash’ari and al-Baqillani.

In the 1950s Baghdad College was having a real impact on education in the capital. Teachers of primary, secondary and college levels showed great interest in the Jesuit school, which they often visited, admiring its ethos, facilities, methods of teaching and academic progress. They also marvelled at the democratic spirit of the school, when attending dramatic productions, debating contests, sporting events and other activities. In the field of sports, the College participated actively in the city’s track and field events, often achieving great results. People complimented the B.C. students for their cheerful, polite and well-disciplined behaviour.

The 1950s and 60s also witnessed serious political upheavals, both in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. The Iraqi people, however, noticed and admired the fact that the Jesuits stuck to education and never got involved in politics. Whenever trouble or political demonstrations took place, students from other schools left their school premises and took part, while the B.C. students remained on campus and went about their normal studies. In 1958 the monarchy was toppled in a coup that saw all members of the royal family slaughtered and Iraq turned into a republic. In the 1960s a number of other coup d’etats took place, twice resulting in the secular Ba’th Party seizing power.

But the Jesuits always stuck to education. New language laboratories were built, using the latest technology, and this led to enormous enjoyment and rapid learning by the students. In 1964, at the request of the Ministry of Education, seminar courses in English were provided by the College for Iraqi teachers of English. Over 300 applications were received, but only 140 candidates could be accepted. Additional facilities were installed with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation. Texts were especially written for Arabic speakers, and both male and female teachers participated from the primary, inter-mediate and secondary sectors of education.

Let us now focus our attention on Al-Hikma University, also founded by the American Jesuits of the New England Province. Due to their successful efforts in secondary education, they had long considered an extension to the inviting field of higher education. Their intention was not to compete with the existing and competent colleges in Iraq (there was no university yet), but rather to encourage their B.C. alumni to remain in Iraq. When the Iraqi government was approached, it approved the idea but not the original name, which would’ve been Baghdad University, simply because the government was planning to open one by that name. Hence the Jesuits chose the name Al-Hikma (meaning “wisdom”) which also goes back to the 9th century Beit al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) in Baghdad, which was one of the most famous centres of learning in the Arab world, long before European universities flourished in Oxford, Paris and elsewhere.

Various grants made the project possible. Al-Hikma began modestly in 1956 on the campus of Baghdad College, but, soon after, it acquired a piece of land, donated by the government, that was six times larger than the Baghdad College property. It was in Za’faraniya, in the southernmost part of the capital and 14 miles away from the College. Financial help to construct the buildings came from many sources, including the Ford Foundation, the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Jesuit Fairfield University. Al-Hikma’s motto was “All wisdom comes from God”. Its formal curriculum included the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, astronomy, languages, history, sociology, philosophy and theology. The student enrolment steadily increased to 700 students by 1968, one fifth of whom were women. Like Baghdad College, Al-Hikma too had to charge tuition fees, but a good number of poor bright students were also accepted.

During the 12 years of its existence, many talented teachers lectured at Al-Hikma, most of whom were Americans, but there were some Iraqis and Europeans as well. Students who did not come to it from Baghdad College experienced some difficulties, notably a weakness in the English language, not to speak of the Arab emphasis on memorising. These obstacles were gradually overcome with extra training by dedicated staff, particularly Fr. Joseph Ryan who conducted his famous “Dean’s Hours” every week throughout the first semester of the freshmen year. The student body was roughly half Christian and half Muslim, and the faculty included many more lay men and women than Baghdad College.

The remarkable Fr. Guay continued his architectural wonders on the Al-Hikma campus, and his jewel on the crown was the Oriental Institute, with its exquisite blue dome. Fr. Richard McCathy, the eminent scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies, was the director of the Institute, assisted by Fr. John Donohue. The Institute was a place for pursuing research into Islamics, Oriental languages and the many manuscripts on early Christianity, buried in the monasteries and religious houses of northern Iraq, N.E. Syria and southern Turkey. Al-Hikma impressed the authorities so much that it became a tradition for the president of the republic to attend the annual graduation ceremony and give a brief address. It also impressed the Chaldean patriarch and other bishops to the extent that they wanted an inter-ritual major seminary under the auspices of Al-Hikma.

In the spring of 1968 there was so much optimism in the air, and so many projects were being planned. The prospects for a scholarly Christian-Muslim dialogue looked quite encouraging, a Jesuit novitiate for native Iraqis had already been launched, and retreat events were flourishing. However, it all turned out to be the calm before the storm. A fiercely anti-American element had gained control of the Ba’th regime, and the loudest voice—that of the Interior Minister, Saleh Mehdi Ammash—kept threatening the Jesuits with expulsion. And so it was that in November 1968, the 28 Jesuits based at Al-Hikma University were asked to leave Iraq after just a five days’ notice to leave. In spite of threats, hundreds of students went to the airport to bid farewell to the fathers in a tearful departure.

Nine months later, the other 33 American Jesuits were similarly expelled from Baghdad College. Army tanks came and surrounded the school, officers sealed all entrances to the buildings, and the fathers were allowed to keep only their residence, the chapel and the cemetery (which were later handed over to the Chaldean patriarchate). It was a cruel and shameful operation that ended a remarkable venture. Needless to say, the Christian community felt devastated by what had happened.

All the pleadings by distinguished people, both lay and clerical, Christian as well as Muslim, did not do any good. Both schools were nationalised, as were all other private institutions in the country. The word used was “iraqised” which indicated that the government took control of the institution without offering any compensation. Apart from the Ba’th socialist ideology, a political factor must’ve contributed to such an action, namely, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which resulted in disaster for the Palestinians and brought the Ba’th Party back to power in 1968.

Following the expulsion, the Jesuit fathers were reassigned to other posts, mainly in the United States, but also in the Middle East and elsewhere. Most of the Baghdad College and Al-Hikma alumni remained in Iraq, but some went to America, with many settling in Detroit and Chicago. In 1977 they decided to have a reunion, which was attended by 360 Iraqis and Jesuits. Since then, regular annual reunions have been taking place at various locations in the U.S., Canada and even Britain, and attended by ever increasing numbers. These reunions have proved to be very popular and joyous occasions.

It all reflects how intertwined were the lives of the Jesuits, the students and their families. The Jesuits in Baghdad entered the family lives of their students frequently through their visits to celebrate Christian and Muslim feast days. On the campuses, the fathers participated in debates, dramas, contests and athletics almost as much as the students. They found the Iraqi students warm, humorous, imaginative, receptive, hardworking and appreciative of educational opportunities. For their part, the Iraqis found the Jesuits intelligent, generous, fun loving and dedicated. We can truly say that the mission of the Baghdad Jesuits is still continuing, not in the Jesuit fathers (most of whom have died by now) but in their grateful Iraqi alumni.

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