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Thursday, March 27, 2003

At the intersection of Woodward and Tikrit: Hussein and Detroit's Chaldeans.

I strongly recommend this excellent WSJ article from yesterday's first page about the complex but generally deteriorating relationship between Saddam and local Iraqi Catholics:

Sacred Heart Church on Seven Mile Road is the church Saddam Hussein built.

In 1980, Reverend Jacob Yasso flew to Baghdad and met with Mr. Hussein, who wanted to help Iraqi Christians who had come to America. That year, Mr. Hussein sent $1.5 million to cover the church's debt and build a social hall and day-care center.

Last Friday night, 450 parishioners gathered at Sacred Heart for a service. They prayed for Mr. Hussein's overthrow. They also prayed for a miracle -- that loved ones who disappeared in Iraq during the dictator's reign would be found alive after the war.

Father Yasso says more than half of the parish's 1,200 families have missing loved ones in Iraq. The 70-year-old Iraqi-born priest says he decided Mr. Hussein was "evil" in the years following his meeting with the ruler, as newcomers to his church told their stories about the regime. "I shook his hand in 1980," he says. "Now, he is the devil."

* * *

Detroit's Iraqi community, the largest in the U.S., is made up mostly of Chaldean Roman Catholics, who began arriving here a century ago. Chaldeans, a non-Arab ethnic group who speak Aramaic, constitute about 5% of Iraq's population. About 15,000 Detroit Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, members of Iraq's majority religious group. Most of these Shiites fled Iraq in recent years to escape persecution from Mr. Hussein, who leads the secular Baath Party but is a member of the Sunni Muslim minority. Starting in about 1982, the U.S. viewed Mr. Hussein, then fighting a war with Iran, as a strategic partner. U.S. efforts to maintain relations with him continued until he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Until recently, many of Detroit's Chaldeans and Muslims feared speaking out against Mr. Hussein, frightened of reprisals against their relatives in Iraq. Now, emboldened by the war, they're more vocal. Several Iraqi-American groups say they plan to seek a full accounting of their missing loved ones after the war. They envision open trials, input from U.S. law groups and Internet databases cataloging the missing. They're also debating whether lower-level officials in Iraq should be held accountable for the disappearances they oversaw.

* * *

As Iraqis here become more outspoken, some simmering tensions within the community are surfacing. Members of the Iraqi Democratic Union of America, a longtime anti-Hussein group of Chaldeans based in suburban Detroit, say several thousand local Iraqis have supported the dictator over the years. If those people are invited to help in reconstruction, the Democratic Union and other activists say they will protest. Still, Nabil Roumayah, an officer in the group, says he is forgiving of church leaders who took Mr. Hussein's money early in his regime, "when not a lot of people saw through Saddam."

Those who knew of the regime's tyranny often kept quiet. Souad Mansour, 52, says she was scared to mention publicly that her brother and sister disappeared two decades ago. Family members in Iraq, she says, "always told me, 'Don't open your mouth in America, because they'll kill us.' " Now, the former Kmart clerk clutches black-and-white photos of her missing siblings, Tamader and Khalid, and speaks of her brother's sharp intelligence and her sister's green eyes.

Tamader was abducted from her engineering job in 1979 after she criticized the regime. Khalid, a college student who Ms. Mansour says had compared Mr. Hussein with Adolf Hitler, disappeared a year later. Ms. Mansour believes that if her siblings weren't killed early on, they were murdered in recent years to ease prison overpopulation.

Rumors about the missing are common in Detroit's Iraqi community, with some members saying the people who've disappeared may emerge as bargaining chips by Mr. Hussein's regime. For many people, the uncertainty over loved ones can be debilitating. Among Detroit's Iraqi Shiite refugees, many of whom were tortured themselves, "a sizable number are suffering from extreme emotional depression," says Hassan Jaber of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

Father Yasso often counsels refugees who are new to Sacred Heart. He says a mother and daughter-in-law told him they had asked to see their loved one in an Iraqi jail. A few hours later, authorities knocked on their door. "You asked to see your son? Here is your son," the mother was told. The man had been chopped into seven pieces. Another body part was given to the wife. "Here is your husband."

If, for some reason, you needed any further reason to pray for our Iraqi brothers and sisters, you now have it.

To end on a "stranger than fiction" note, ABC-7 here reported last night that Saddam's charitable endeavors amongst local Chaldeans earned him the key to the City of Detroit from then-Mayor Coleman Young (scroll down to click on the story, which requires RealPlayer to access).

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