Page 1, 21st November 1997

21st November 1997
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Page 1, 21st November 1997 — Iraqi convents searched by UN officials
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Locations: BAGHDAD, Rome, Washington, London

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Iraqi convents searched by UN officials

The Herald reveals how inspectors checked bedrooms and probed graves

BY FELICITY ARBUTHNOT IN BAGHDAD

AN IRAQI NUN revealed this week that two Baghdad convents were searched by officials of the United Nations Weapons Inspectorate earlier this year.

Speaking from her bed at St Joseph's Covent in the Za'faraniya district on the outskirts of Baghdad, Sister Francis Clare, 88, who suffers from poor health, said that between 15 and 20 officials arrived at the gates of the convent on June 18 and rang the bell. When she answered, one man stepped forward.

"He explained that they had flown from Washington to search our convents and

church for weapons," the frail Chaldean nun told the Catholic Herald. "I was stunned and could hardly believe what I was hearing with my own ears.

"When it sank in that there was no mistake I told them that even the bishop requests permission_in advance to visit us, but that if they must, three could come in and the rest would have to wait outside.

"They walked the corridors, entered every room, even our bedrooms. One stayed by the telephone. We felt he was there to prevent us telephoning for help. "Then they asked to go out on to the roof, so I showed them the ladder and the way. 'It's all very clean,' one remarked. 'Of course it's clean, it is a convent,' I told him. 'We clean for God here.'

"Then they went out in to our gardens and sank sticklike implements into the ground. When they found our cemetery where we bury our Sisters, they even sank them there."

The graves do not have headstones or inscriptions, reflecting the selfless life of the nuns. Gravesites are covered by large, square granite blocks, each with an iron handle sunk into the centre. Each block is placed against the next, like a chess board. From a U2 spy plane or satellite observation, the cemetary could be confused with a missile silo.

The experience of Sister Francis and the Chaldean nuns of St Joseph's Convent is not unique. She said: "They went to our church and searched that and to another convent where there was only one young nun there, alone, as the others were out in the community, as the others were out in the community. She was very frightened." Sister Francis said she does not feel ill at ease as part of a tiny religious minority in largely Islamic Iraq. "Religion does not intrude in that way, it is about humanity. We are all of us part of the same human family. People are dying from hunger and desperation."

Foreign experts have said that in the wake of the Gulf War, the city of Baghdad is home to the most traumatised child population encountered in the wake of a conflict in modern times. Despite the apparent waning of the current crisis, children were this week being used as a "human shield" to protect military installations.

The Pope told the audience gathered for Sunday's Angelus in Rome that his thoughts were with the civilian population "caught up in a spiral of violence".

• Wrrx UN sanctions being tightened against Iraq, an Iraqi priest in London this week drew attention to the suffering of Catholics in his homeland, writes Greg Watts.

Sanctions were imposed on Iraq by the United Nations after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Recently, the United States and Britain have prepared for military action against Iraq after Saddam Hussein prohibited a group of American UN officials from inspecting Iraqi bases.

"Seven years of sanctions have created tears, pain and much suffering in Iraq," said Fr Andreas Abouna, chaplain to the Chaldean Catholic Mission in London. "The Iraqi people are in urgent need of food and medicine. It's time to put an end to these sanctions."

The Chaldeans are Eastem-rite Catholics, and the largest Christian denomina

tion present in Iraq. Speaking of his visit last month to Baghdad, Fr Abouna said: "Doctors told me that they are watching, helpless, as people die in hospitals because they don't have the right medicines.

Fr Abouna said that many people cannot afford to buy food. Caritas, the relief agency, and Catholic parishes are distributing food, while Iraqi families in London have been sending home food and medicine.

He said: "Sanctions are destroying the infrastructure in Iraq, as well as putting family life under enormous pressure. It is innocent men, women and children who are being punished in Iraq."




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