Sr. Beth Murphy, OP: Restoring the Body of God’s People: A lesson from Iraq

Sr. Beth Murphy, OP

The spaces we humans inhabit are closely linked to our identity. Is this why their destruction challenges our sense of self, security, and community?

Sixteen years ago, I stood for the first time on the roof of a magnificent 19th-century Dominican church in Mosul, Kinesa al-Saa’, the Church of the Clock. So named because it houses the first public clock in the city, it afforded a spectacular view of al-Hadba, the iconic leaning minaret attached to Masjid al-Nuri, one of Iraq’s oldest and most revered mosques.

Ziad Bunni, the engineer who guided my tour of the church that day, would become my friend. He and his family have been a source of much joy — and the cause of much worry and prayer — as I’ve had privileged access to Iraq’s story through their eyes the past 16 years.

What has become of those beautiful buildings Ziad introduced me to that day? Tragically, the 800-year-old minaret and mosque were obliterated by ISIS on June 21. Al-Saa’, though damaged, still stands, saved by Ziad’s timely repairs to the limestone foundation years ago. His work saved it from sinking into the mud, and proved a firm foundation to hold it steady during the airstrikes of these past months. That — and the fact that ISIS didn’t lace the building with explosives as they fled the city — is its salvation.

Ziad and his family live in Toronto now. I spoke recently with his brother Louay, the gifted architect whose skills renewed Kinesa al-Saa’ above ground, where his brother left off. Louay says based on the few photographs he’s seen of the church since Mosul’s liberation, it is possible to rebuild the church. With an understated chuckle he said, “I told Ziad ‘good work!’ ” His appraisal of al-Hadba is not optimistic. That priceless treasure could be recreated, he said, but never replaced.

Of course, rebuilding structures is a simpler matter than reconstituting a people — the body of God’s faithful — symbolized by a church, a mosque, a minaret. This is a more delicate process. Yet, there is evidence that the body of God’s people is, in fact, being rebuilt in Iraq.

One of the most painful conversations I’ve had with Iraqi friends is about whether they can go home again. Many of them struggle to trust neighbors by whom they feel betrayed. In the early days of the exodus, people who remained behind sometimes stole items from their homes, then called their mobile phones to tell them about it, saying things like “Nice refrigerator. It is ours now,” or “I’ve given your new sofa to my daughter for her house.”

What will it take to heal such experiences? More encounters like this one between my friend’s Christian brother and his Muslim friend. We’ll call them Behnam and Sattar. Sattar recently knocked on the door of Behnam’s home, freshly reclaimed from ISIS and still under reconstruction. He did not presume the welcome he’d received in the past. At the threshold, head bowed, he said: “I no longer have any right. May I enter your home?”

“I have no right to refuse my home to anyone who asks,” Behnam replied. “Please, come in.”

The friends sat together: One deeply wronged, but not by the friend before him. The other, deeply pained — by suffering for which he bore no responsibility. Between them flowed silences and words: Deep silences; challenging words of anger and pain. Profound silences of forgiveness; salvific words of reconciliation.

These words and silences between two old friends? These are the true foundation stones of God’s reign, on which the body of God’s people may surely be rebuilt.

Sister Beth Murphy, OP, is the director of communications for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield.


(14 August 2017)