Monday, November 29, 2004

BAGHDAD — Hope has become increasingly rare among Iraq’s Christian minority, which says it is under threat as never before.

But Sister Beninia Hermes Shoukwana, the nun who has served as headmistress at the Hebtikar public school for more than 30 years, sees the threats and violence against her faith as just another challenge to be met.

About 10 percent of Iraq’s estimated 800,000 Christians have fled the country, most of them to neighboring Syria.

“The people are terrified, actually, about what is happening,” said the Rev. Saad Hanna, a priest at Mary Jacob Church in the Dora section of Baghdad, which recently was blackened by a bomb. Its parishioners number a third of what they did before the war.

“The people no longer come to church,” Father Hanna says. “The truth is we are in trouble and we don’t know how to overcome this.”

Sister Shoukwana, 64, does not hide her distress over the fate of her fellow Iraqi Christians, most of them Chaldeans — members of the Nestorian sect who converted to Catholicism in the 16th century.

“For years, Christians and Muslims lived like brothers and sisters. Today, the extremists are trying to separate us,” she says.

She vows to continue running her white-brick school attended by 3,000 students and keep building bridges between Iraq’s faiths.

For years, she says, she has been peppered with the same innocent questions from her mostly Muslim student body.

“‘Madame Headmistress,’ they ask me, ‘why don’t you dress like mommy? Why do you always wear the same white dress?’ ”

But this year, she began hearing more vicious remarks from parents and students.

“I’ve been accused of trying to convert little Muslims into Christianity,” Sister Shoukwana says as the worry creases spread across her forehead. “Leaflets have been distributed asking the parents to withdraw their kids from my school.”

She says fliers were distributed in her hometown of Mosul during Ramadan, ordering Christian women to wear Islamic-style head scarves.

Before that came a wave of attacks on five Baghdad churches in October, the second mass targeting of churches. Attacks on churches in August killed at least 10 and wounded nearly 50 Iraqi Christians.

Through it all, Sister Shoukwana has been fearless in defense of her school.

During the lawless period after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime last year, she holed up for months at Hebtikar, protecting it from would-be looters.

“I wasn’t armed, and I was vulnerable,” she says. “But I confronted the thieves, and they went away.”

Despite the prejudice against her faith, a growing demand for education has more and more parents trying to get their children into her school. Some classrooms have as many as 60 students, and the school is building an annex.

“Of course, I’m afraid that the fanatics will consider this school a target,” says Khaled Hamed Rachid, whose three daughters attend Hebtikar. “Even so, I will never take my daughters out of the school, because its level of discipline is unique.”

Despite her administrative duties, Sister Shoukwana maintains a hands-on approach to running the school. At recess time, she hollers through a megaphone, demanding order from the crowd of uniformed children pouring into the yard.

“Stay in line,” she commands. “Don’t run around.”

The children obey.

If classes end abruptly because of fighting in the Iraqi capital or a nearby explosion that rattles students, she often remains in the school until dawn, making sure her students and teachers have arrived home safely.

Even so, 16 of her students, mostly Christians, have left the country. Every day, desperate parents visit her office, telling her that they are frightened and are considering abandoning Iraq. She urges them to stay.

“I try to explain to them that wherever they go they’ll always be immigrants,” she says. “Iraq is like our house. It’s our duty to try to clean up our house.”

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