How an Iraqi Christian school became 82 percent Muslim

Sectarian violence and a Christian exodus has left Baghdad's St. Elia Catholic school largely surrounded by Muslims, who were drawn to the school's no-hitting rule.

Jane Arraf
Father Douglas al-Bazi with his neighbor in the courtyard of St. Elia Chaldean Catholic church in east Baghdad. The church school in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad is now 80 percent Muslim as more Christians leave Iraq.

Down a battered street in the working class neighborhood of New Baghdad, next to a Shiite mosque frequented by followers of hard-line cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, children play in the school courtyard of St. Elia Catholic Church.

This was once a mixed neighborhood, home to Sunnis, Shiites, and – before the war – 2,500 Christian families. But the particularly fierce ethnic violence that raged here engulfed everyone and left a mostly Shiite neighborhood surrounding the Catholic school and church.

Related: In Iraq, Christians fear they could be wiped out – like Jews before them

“Eighty-two percent of the students are Muslim,” says Father Douglas al-Bazi, the Chaldean Catholic priest who runs the school in East Baghdad. When he rushed across the city to Our Lady of Salvation church in Karrada on Oct. 31 after news of a hostage taking, his Muslim neighbors offered their help.

“We got calls from the neighbors – they said just give us the green light and we can bring guns and help the people inside,” he says. “Our neighbors here say if someone touches you that means they touch us.”

In a country that has been almost torn apart by sectarian violence, Christians and Muslims say the attacks are politically engineered and fueled by neighboring countries. They point to their long history of living side by side, and highlight examples of cooperation even amid the tense security situation in Iraq today.

"When I came back to my neighborhood, I found all the neighbors outside waiting for me to welcome me back,” says George Meti Boutros, an Arabic teacher who survived the Karrada church attack. He says he is the only Christian living in his neighborhood in Bab al-Sharja.

A rare school that doesn't allow hitting

At St. Elias, four of the 53 teachers are Muslim, dedicated to teaching the Koran, as mandated by government regulations. The subjects include English, French, and as of this year Assyrian – the native language of many of the Chaldean Christian students.

Spaces are reserved for Christians but months before registration, other families clamor for some of the 600 places in the school, which serves students from kindergarten to sixth grade.

Apart from its more demanding academic curriculum and its focus on music and sports, one of the main reasons the teachers say parents prefer St. Elia is much more simple: This school doesn't allow students or teachers to hit anyone. Iraq’s overcrowded, crumbling public schools are notorious for violent behavior.

“This morning one of the kids hit another one and I wrote to the parents to tell them,” says Father Douglas. “If someone brings a toy pistol we break it in front of them.”

'Take care that violence is not part of your life'

After the attack at Sunday mass in the Karrada church killed 53 people, including two of his fellow priests, Douglas used his morning address to the students to talk to them about it.

“Yesterday, I told the students I lost two dearest brothers … but this should not make us pessimistic,” he says. “We should know that when someone puts his hand to violence his end will be death. Pay attention to your future because you are the future. Take care that violence is not part of your life.”

Douglas knows first-hand the effects of violence. He still has a bullet lodged in his leg and has back problems from being beaten with chains when he was kidnapped in 2006.

One of his kidnappers, he says, would ask him for advice during the day and torture him at night. He says he told his tormentor he forgave him. “It’s not that I’m a hero – I don’t care about that. I care about staying with my people. My people never asked me to be a hero, they just want to see me here with them.”

“I know we are few and this school is nothing in this big community,” he says. “But at least when they grow up we will have taught them how to behave well, how to be really kind to others.”

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