CHICAGO-Even though the suite in Chicago's Palmer House Hilton hotel was 17 stories above street level, the shrill wail of fire engine and ambulance sirens sliced through the air. As a seemingly endless stream of emergency vehicles sped by, sirens at full blast, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad smiled and shrugged. "In Iraq, we are very used to this," he said, gesturing toward the source of the noise.
Since 2001 the spiritual leader of Iraq's smallest Christian community-with, at most, 3,000 members-Jean Benjamin Sleiman is no stranger to emergencies, disaster, violence and war-bred chaos. Born in Lebanon 58 years ago, Sleiman, who speaks five languages and holds doctorates in theology and in cultural and social anthropology, taught sociology at universities in Lebanon. In addition to being an expert on Christian-Muslim relations, his years of on-the-ground experience means he knows the problems and challenges of the Middle East as well as anyone.
A member of the Discalced Carmelites, an international Catholic religious order with roots in the Middle East, Sleiman was in Chicago to attend a July 21-25 conference sponsored by the order's two branches to address the multiple levels of crisis on the world scene. He graciously took time out of his busy schedule for an exclusive interview with the Washington Report.
While he certainly does not claim to carry a crystal ball in his suitcase, the archbishop practically predicted the following week's attacks on the Christian churches in Iraq. He described violence of the kind that erupted Aug. 1 against Iraq's minority religion as the sad but logical development of the chaos and unrest now rampant in Iraq. And, he warned, the current level of tension makes MuslimChristian coexistence in Iraq very precarious.
While the U.S.-led war and toppling of Saddam Hussain has brought some positive changes to Iraq, Sleiman acknowledged, it also has opened a Pandora's box, creating some problems worse than those it solved. The Catholic prelate laid part of the blame for that on the world view and foreign policy of U.S. President George W. Bush.
Like the rest of the world, the archbishop considers Saddam Hussain a "terrible person" and a ruthless dictator who perpetrated horrendous atrocities against his own people. In Sleiman's opinion, however, Saddam already was losing his grasp on the country before the war, with the end of the regime just a matter of time. "I think in a [short time] we would have seen the end of Saddam Hussain," he said, "even without the war."
"I wasn't being the prophet," he added. "We were against the war because morally war is really a terrible evil, even if you have some reasons [to support it]-but war in Iraq is very, very dangerous."
And, he thinks, Bush seriously underestimated that danger.
"Really, I tried to understand George Bush," he continued. "I am sure he is a good man, morally. I've read that he is a converted iborn-againl Christian. But that is not enough to understand the realities in other societies, in other cultures [or] international politics.
"Maybe war is simple for him," Sleiman said, his passion for the topic growing more evident in his voice and gestures. "But, really," he insisted, "war is not simple."
Pausing to find the right words, he said, "If you achieve something by war you are creating a very, very new situation. And you cannot control it as you want, as you desire."
What most worries Archbishop Sleiman is precisely that spiraling out of control-the lack of rule of law, the kidnappings and the killings-which the world now is witnessing in Iraq. That, along with the potential for creating innumerable clones of Saddam Hussain.
"Saddam Hussain was a product of Iraqi society," the archbishop explained. Forces at work for generations in Iraq-including tribal conflict and intramural power struggles-now "can produce many other Saddams," he warned. …