Queer and Christian in Iraq

Ever since the oppressive Taliban government was dismantled, the United States has been pursuing Saddam Hussein’s regime. In Iraq, the United States is seen as a Christian nation. Maybe because most Americans are people who believe in Christ, whether they call themselves Christian or Catholic (and to a Muslim, there is no distinction.) Is Iraq a Christian nation? No. If anything, it is a Muslim — and a Sunni — nation. Of the 27 million Iraqis, Christians are just under a million.

In other words, for every 27 Iraqis there is just one Christian. I wondered how these Christians felt. As a queer, I searched for a queer Christian. You may think it is easy to find one among the 850,000 Christians but it was hard. I found one and we became instant friends. Meet my new Iraqi Christian friend, Haddi Al-Harrari, an anonymous name he chooses to protect his identity. Haddi is 26 years old and is working on his second degree. He is student at a Catholic theological university in Iraqi’s capital, Baghdad.

I asked him how he feels about all this buzz of a war with Iraq. He quickly corrects me by saying that “the war is first against Saddam Hussein.” He is right. “A war on Saddam, however,” he says, “ultimately means a war on Iraq.” Again, he is right. “My feelings are as any other Iraqi,” says Haddi, the youngest of five children. “I’m afraid of what will happen to us. What will be the end of this war if it ends up taking place?”

As a Christian, Haddi, like most Iraqi Christians, has an extra pressure on the back of his mind, I learned. Christians are afraid they will be held responsible for what their “brethren” might do. In several television and other media outlets, some Iraqi Christians have tried to appeal to the Christians in the West. One woman said on a news channel that America is a Christian nation and should not attack another country, Christian or Muslim. “Of course, we are especially afraid,” says Haddi. “There are [Muslim] sermons going on in the country that say America is trying to eliminate the Muslims. That this is a pattern. They are scared and it is easy to believe false notions when you are scared.” This reminds me the horrific things some people said about us Muslims after 9/11. One clergy said that “Muslims are trying to destroy us,” even though there were Muslim lives lost in the attacks.

Haddi says Christians in Iraq have tremendous freedom. He tells me that most Christians in Iraq are actually Assyrian Christians known as “Chaldeans.” There are Christians who immigrated from neighboring Arab countries all over Iraq, he says. “Here, Christians are free to worship,” he says to me after he sends me many articles he clipped from newspapers, where Christian leaders are included and Christian holidays and festivities are announced. “No one restricts us in worship. We are respected here. As Christians and as Iraqis.”

I learned from some of the things he sent me that Iraqi Christians are in the government. For example, the second most powerful man in Iraq is a Christian named Tariq Azziz, who is the current Deputy Prime Minister. Another surprising piece of information — for someone in America who rarely hears the “good” parts of Iraq — was the fact that in Iraq, Christmas day and the day after are both official holidays. “In many Christian countries,” notes Haddi, “the days before or after Christmas are not official holidays. And January 6th and 7th are the Orthodox Christmas and therefore official holidays for Christians.” So, during the holidays, Iraqi Christians get four official days of Christmas.

If Iraq is treating Christians this good why are the Iraqi Christians worried? “Because we are afraid of what might come from the Shi’ites,” says Haddi, who tells me around 50 percent of Iraqis are Shi’ite Muslims. Even though Shi’ites are that many, the Sunnis are most in the government, especially high ranking offices. Haddi says by dismantling Saddam, Shi’ites in Iraq might join Iran and “it will be the end of the Christians in Iraq.”

As a queer, Haddi faces equal harassment from Christians and Muslims. “Unfortunately I’m very feminine,” he says, laughing, “I cannot hide my sexuality no matter what I do. People know I’m gay after I say two words or I take two steps.” He says he used to be so upset, growing up, at the fact that he couldn’t change himself. “I would imitate masculine men for days and nothing would change.” After he graduated from “secondary school” [their version of high school] he accepted himself, he says.

Haddi and other queer Iraqis recognize that the homophobic reactions of the Iraqis is more cultural than religious. “Muslim or not, you are told you are a disgrace to society,” says Sharifa Ismail, a lesbian activist in Canada. “I meet so many Christians who thinks it is the Muslims but it is Iraqi culture, sadly.” And Haddi says it is “no more a problem for a Muslim than it is for a Christian.”

Christmas comes to Iraq and Iraqi Christians are always out shopping and getting ready for the holidays. Haddi says the best Christmas gift for him is spending time with his boyfriend of three years. His boyfriend, a Muslim, is in the military and is rarely home. On Christmas Eve, Haddi joins dozens of Christians in a neighborhood Church. They pray for a peaceful future in Iraq, for all Iraqis. Secretly, he wished for his boyfriend to be home for the holidays, he tells me. How romantic.