Members of the Assyrian Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Baghdad, Iraq, must walk around a large gray pool of undrained sewage to reach their sanctuary each time they worship God.The raw sewage is not merely a smelly nuisance but a deadly health hazard. Sewage seeps into the water supply throughout the city, spreading disease and death among Baghdad's 5 million residents.Ten years ago, the United Nations placed stringent economic sanctions on Iraq for not disclosing its plans to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and biological arms. Iraq's government, under the military dictator Saddam Hussein, again refused to allow entry of international weapons inspectors in August. That refusal will undoubtedly keep the sanctions in place, although countless Western products are smuggled into the country.

Life-threatening conditions

Mennonites and Quakers joined human-rights activists in New York in early August, marking the tenth anniversary of the sanctions by lobbying the United Nations Security Council to drop them."The sanctions have contributed in a major way to persistent life-threatening conditions in this country," they said in a letter to the council.Few question that the sanctions mostly harm Iraq's poor and marginalized groups, including Christians. Iraq has 260 churches, according to World Churches Handbook. About 620,000 Christians live in the nation. Chaldean Catholics are the single largest Christian subgroup. Muslims are about 95 percent of Iraq's 22 million people.The sanctions ban the import of an estimated 2,000 items, including chlorine, which is essential in curbing the spread of waterborne diseases. Despite the many problems aggravated by the sanctions, Christian churches continue to function within Iraq. In urban Baghdad, the Assyrian Evangelical Presbyterian Church is surrounded by boxy, rundown office buildings. The minarets of neighborhood Muslim mosques are within clear view.During Sunday worship earlier this year, this church's service opened with 75 Iraqis singing "Nearer My God to Thee" in Aramaic, the ancient language of New Testament times. English-speaking visitors are easily accommodated with an Iraqi interpreter, an English Bible, and an English summary of the upcoming sermon.Just before the sermon, the congregation sings "How Great Thou Art" a cappella in Arabic. Pastor Nashwar Nicola preaches for 45 minutes, focusing on the importance of avoiding temptation and sin and of following Christ.But Nicola saves another urgent message for after the service. Drinking a can of warm Pepsi in his office, Nicola passionately describes how the sanctions are killing Iraqi children who could survive with modern medical care, drugs, and supplies. He believes that part of the church's mission is to document how the sanctions harm children.Nicola is a leader of the Iraqi Society for Childhood Support, which has published its findings on how the sanctions have hurt children the most.According to UNICEF, a United Nations agency, the sanctions have contributed to the deaths of 500,000. But the Iraqi government puts the death toll at a much higher 1.3 million.An oil-for-food program, in which Iraq may sell crude oil to buy food staples, has at best stabilized malnutrition. Street children, once unknown in Iraq, are now visible all over Baghdad, selling cigarettes from sidewalk stands and offering to shine shoes to earn a few dinars.

Article continues below

Will suffering end?

Joseph Habbi is pastor of St. George Chaldean Catholic Church, perhaps the largest Christian congregation in Iraq. Habbi says Iraqis have endured the effects of warfare for more than two decades."For 20 years we have suffered—the Iran-Iraq war and 10 years of the embargo—and our children saw 20 years of only war and poverty and every kind of suffering," Habbi said during a recent interview.St. George's members focus on helping the neediest of the 3,000 families in their parish. Each month they assist 300 of the poorest families with money or clothes. One month they also provided milk. They have assisted 500 to 600 families at Christmas and Easter."I pray that everybody in every part of the world could help us by really discovering more about the reality of our situation. The biggest help for us is that this embargo be lifted as soon as possible," Habbi says."We have to consider our life as Christ's life. That means that the glory, the joy, the goodness, are always through the cross," he says. "We have not only to believe in Christ, as St. Paul says, but also to suffer with him."Habbi and Nicola both say the sanctions have also restricted their ability to interact with Christians overseas. Thus, in this time of hardship, Christian leaders overseas are largely unaware of how sanctions have eroded the Iraqi church's mission.

Related Elsewhere

"When broadly and harshly imposed, sanctions are 'weapons of mass destruction,'" Christianity Todayeditorialized in a February 8, 1999 calling for the end of Iraq sanctions.Visit the Iraq Action Coalition , a group trying to educate people about the effects of the embargo.Other Christianity Today stories on the Iraq sanctions include:Iraq Sanctions Missing the Mark | Christian leaders argue embargo punishes the poor, not the Iraqi elite. (May 24, 2000) Graham Meets with Iraqi Leaders | Religious heads invite Graham to visit Iraq. (Nov. 15, 1999) Relief Groups Struggle to Aid Churches | Iraq's one million Christians face many hardships.(Jan. 11, 1999) Christians Protest Trade Embargo | Conscience International calls for end to UN sanctions (Jan. 12, 1998)Yahoo!'s full coverage on Iraq has several excellent links, including an NPR report on the results of 10 years of sanctions, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer series on the effect of sanctions, and an editorial from the Miami Herald that claims the sanctions are justified by Saddam Hussein's actions.

Article continues below

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.