The Dominican Mission in the Arab World

An interview with fr. Amir JAJE, OP.

Fr. Amir Jaje OP. is the first Arab brother to be the Provincial Vicar of the Vicariate of the Arab World. He was born in Karakosh in Iraq. He has a doctorate in History of Religions and he teaches at the Theological Faculty of Babel College. This is an extract from his interview with frs Prakash Lohale, OP (Socius for Apostolic Life) and Gabriel Samba, OP (Socius for Africa) at Santa Sabina, Rome.

fr Prakash: As the Vicar for the entire Arab World, what are your apostolates and in which countries?

fr Amir: The Vicariate of the Arab World comprises three Arab countries.

Egypt - In Egypt we have seven brothers whose principal task is to serve as a "bridge" between the Islamic/Oriental World and Christianity through the Islamic-Christian dialogue. There are eight brothers in Cairo. We have a huge library there which is used as a tool for study and dialogue. The library is used by both Christian and Islamic students even from Al-Azhar (the supreme college of Sunnite Islam).

Algeria - At the moment there are only two brothers at Tlemcen. The brothers work with youths as a way of living-dialogue. The brothers have also done a great job with the documentation of the martyrs of Algeria.

Iraq - There are two convents, one in Mossoul founded in 1750, so the Dominicans have been in Iraq since then. Initially, there were Italian brothers but since 1850, we have had French brothers. They are activily involved in formation. About 40 years ago we started having Iraqi Dominican vocations. Now there are five brothers; one is in Fribourg (Switzerland) doing his doctorate while the others are in Karakosh. In Karakosh, we have a Centre of Archives and the Novitiate since 2005 which is an idea initiated by Fr Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former Master of the Order.

There is also a convent in Baghdad with five brothers. The brothers have a publication, "Pensée Chrétienne" (Christian Thought) which has been in existence for the past 48 years. This is an important Christian Review in Arabic with a large followership especially among Christian Arabs in the diaspora. Another important project is that of an "Open University" which started five or six years ago. This is indeed a prophetic apostolate which contributes to the reconstruction of the country in no small way.

We are conscious of the fact that Christians are very few in this country, from around 1.2million (3%) to about 600,000 today. In this situation, it is better to do something in the Human Sciences, that is, theology and other subjects that can help in the rehabilitation of the person. So Dominican brothers work side by side with Muslims, university scholars who are very open to dialogue and change. We have other brothers who are studying and preparing to come back to Iraq. There are 2 brothers in Lyons, 3 brothers in Strasbourg and one in Lille.

fr Prakash: What are the challenges of working in different ministries in different countries?

fr Amir: Indeed, they are three different countries with different realities. We preach, and we try to serve the cause of the unity of the Churches. In Iraq there are several religions with different rites but we work and live together. Part of our work is to promote unity among the Churches amidst the difficulties, rivalries and conflicts. In Egypt the brothers do hardly any parish work, they are caught up in the field of Islamic-Christian study and dialogue. In Algeria, as the reality of the Church is very limited, the brothers have to work with Muslims in a day-to-day fashion by living the human values with them. So there are three different realities which, for me, are complementary.

During our next Vicariate Assembly (24 Sept-1st Oct, 2012), we will discuss precisely the differences and complementarity that exist in our apostolates in the Vicariate. We will also discuss common grounds like the “Arab Spring” and dialogue with the Evangelical Churches. There are many Evangelical Churches in Iraq now, we need to discuss how to work together with them. Really, the diversity in our apostolates is rather a blessing.

fr Gabriel: What are your major challenges and perspectives for the future?

fr Amir: I think Islam is very present to each one of us since we represent only a tiny minority, be it in Egypt, Iraq or even in Algeria where the Christian reality is a foreign conception. We each live differently with Islam and there are certain realities we have to grapple with. Do the brothers of the Vicariate believe in the future of Christianity and the Order in the Arab world? What should they do and what can they do? What message can they transmit? That is the real challenge, to be as Dominicans a "bridge" between Islam and Christianity.

We must strive to give a true image of Islam to the Western world because our experience of Islam is based on lived facts. We have brothers who believe in the future of our presence, who believe that we can collaborate despite the difficulties and this is most important for the mission of the Order. Ours is a unique vocation. On one side, we give to the Muslims a different image of Christianity and also present to the Western world a true image of Islam. For example, I teach Christianity in their Muslim Shiite Theological Faculty and a Muslim scholar also teaches our future priests at Babel College. It is very important to allow someone to present his own religion because he will do it from faith and lived experience and not just from learning.

fr Gabriel: How do you deal with the problem of massive exodus of Christians? Also, how do you work with Lay Dominicans?

fr Amir: In Iraq obviously, Christians have been persecuted because Fundamentalist Islamists have plans to empty Iraq of Christians. They talk about "purifying" Iraq and all the Middle East of all that is not Islam. The reality of this is that, the number of Christians has reduced greatly. Some Christians see themselves as the Jews who were once numerous but are very few now. In the same vain, some Muslims will say, “Today is Saturday and tomorrow will be Sunday” (meaning, today it’s the turn of the Jews and tomorrow, it will be the turn of the Christians). However, some Muslims think otherwise. In Iraq where I live, some Muslims say to me, “You are the flowers in our garden, if you leave, you will leave our gardens with no flowers”. This group of Muslims just want a peaceful coexistence with Christians because it has always been like that. But the Fundamentalists always seek to frighten and terrorise Christians to force them to flee.

I maybe too optimistic but it is my hope that Iraq will never be emptied of Christians. There are Christians who are convinced of their mission, of their vocation in those countries and they want to stay even at the expense of their lives. I know many Iraqi Christians who would say; "Even if I die, it does not matter! My death will be a witness". So they do not want to leave and it is because of that, despite the fact that many Christians have left, I think that Iraq will never be emptied of Christians.

Rightly so, we have many lay Dominicans. I spoke to fr David (Socius for the Laity) and we are going to organise his visit to the lay Dominicans. There are about 250 just in Karakosh and in Iraq altogether there are between 500 and 600. They are of varied ages and do a great deal of work. They organise evangelical evenings, they visit families and talk about the Gospel. They pray together every Sunday and also meet twice within the week. They are really active and they have a true Dominican spirituality. They are accompanied on one hand by a brother and also by numerous Dominican Sisters. There are 160 sisters of St Catherine of Siena mostly in Baghdad and about 40 from the Congregation of the Presentation of Tours. Largely, they accompany the lay Dominicans.

fr Prakash: What is the hope of the “Arab Spring” in the midst of increased violence and fundamentalism?

fr Amir: That is a very good question. Personally, I am not really worried. This is because I live here and I know that Muslim fundamentalism is something that works "in reaction" to something else. It only lasts a moment and then it’s over. These movements that developed into fundamentalism are only reactions to systems that pretended to be democratic but were in fact dictatorships and people have had enough of being deprived of their freedom. People have lived through 30 to 40 years of dictatorships, whether under Saddam Hussein, Kadhafi, Mubarak or Assad. All these leaders, these heads of state were against fundamentalism but exercised themselves as dictatorial fundamentalists. For my part I think, this was the sort of fundamentalism which destroyed people because it destroyed their freedom.

So, the people have had enough and they would have accepted anything as long as they got rid of these dictators. I think that even if the fundamentalist take over power, we must not be too worried because they will fail. This is because of the increasing importance of the social media and the involvement of the youth. If they apply their ideas, the Sharia, (Islamic law) or their ideologies, people will revolt, they will not accept it, that is for sure. It is too contradictory to secularism and modernity. Personally, I am fairly optimist and I think they will have to renounce the Sharia if they wish to stay in power. Arab people have changed since the time of Mohamed. Today the young are disconnected from this religious system. I was in Iran six months ago and I saw youths completely disconnected from the "Mollah" system. They live in their world of modernity (with Facebook, youtube, playstations etc). Despite the restricted access to the internet, I am afraid that this is only a delayed time bomb because the "Mollahs" are withdrawn into themselves and have no contact with the young.

That is why I am optimist and I think that the Islamists,  when they do take power, will not be able to apply the Sharia law.