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Against All Odds: Preparing Iraq’s Priests

text and photos by Rev. William D. Corcoran

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Raw sewage splashed on the sides of our four-wheel-drive vehicle as we approached the entrance to Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Patriarchal Seminary of St. Peter. Boarded-up stores, shabby homes and broken pipes reminded me that Dourah, once a respectable Baghdad suburb, had fallen into abject poverty under the weight of two wars – Iran and the Gulf – and the five-year, U.N.-imposed embargo. Only when we drove past the open gates of the seminary did we find relief from the stench given off by the piles of rotting garbage.

In 1960, the seminary was transferred to Baghdad from the city of Mosul, about four hours north of the capital. At that time, the Society of Jesus still operated Al Hikma University in Baghdad; the Ba’ath Party had begun to consolidate its power and the first class of Chaldean Catholic seminarians had just completed their theology studies.

But today, even behind the walls of the seminary, no one can escape the harsh realities of life in Iraq. The spartan conditions of the seminary, which currently houses 24 men, border on the unsanitary. The plumbing system has had to be turned off in several sections: spare parts are not available. Hot water is only a dream; the hot water tank has not functioned in ages. Even if it worked, the out-dated wiring would no longer handle the extra load. Since all the wires are exposed, Father Shlemun, Rector of the seminary, notes half-laughingly that replacing them should be easy.

Iraq’s Catholic seminarians, however, are well versed in adversity. Many of them fulfilled their military obligations before entering. During the Iranian and Gulf wars, they survived deprivation for long stretches of time. With no fixed tours of duty, and Iraq’s frequent periods of war, soldiers served an average of eight years after university. Consequently, some seminarians did not begin their theological studies until their mid-30s.

Half of the seminarians were born and reared in the ancient Christian villages around Mosul. Although Iraq is 96 percent Muslim, the villagers of Karakosh, Betnaya and Alquoch – to name but a few – have preserved their ancient Christian faith, despite tremendous obstacles. The remaining seminarians grew up near Baghdad, although most of their parents were born in and around Mosul.

The eyes of the seminarians brightened and smiles appeared as they realized that I was quite familiar with their native villages. These tiny hamlets have long provided Iraq with most of her priests, sisters and religious. Even Father Shlemun hails from a small farm in Betnaya.

The Chaldean Catholic Seminary is not exclusively Chaldean. This year, six of the seminarians enrolled are members of the Syrian Catholic Church. And young men of the Armenian Apostolic and Assyrian churches are among the 33 students enrolled in the minor seminary’s philosophy program. The presence of Chaldean Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Assyrian seminarians – in Catholic facilities – demonstrates the desire among Iraq’s Christian churches to cooperate with one another. Pooling available resources has raised the standards of the programs while providing cross-cultural opportunities for these churches, so rich in history and tradition.

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