Two Jesuit Colleges in Baghdad</a>

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Two Jesuit Colleges in Baghdad

From the introduction to the book

J esuits By The Tigris

by Joseph MacDonnell, S.J.

Some pages concerning the story of Baghdad College and Al Hikma

Science Building at Baghdad College
In 1931 Jesuits were requested by Pope Pius XI (at the urging of the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad) to start schools in Baghdad. This they did, and more. In 1932 four Jesuits went to Baghdad and started a secondary school and then later in 1956 started another school Al Hikma University. Both came to a sudden halt in 1968 when the two schools were taken over by the Baathi Governemnt and the Jesuits expelled from the country. The Christians cherished the work of the Jesuits from the start and the earlier suspicions of Muslims dissolved once they realized that the Jesuits were not covertly trying to convert their sons but were offering them an excellent education. In fact Muslims are listed among the Jesuits' strongest supporters. They saw them as religious men whose only purpose was to take seriously Jesus' admonition to serve others. That service came in the form of education. Muslims and Christians alike came to realize that the Jesuits introduced to the Baghdad community unanticipated intellectual, spiritual and social benefits.

The most interesting part of the Baghdad College and Al-Hikma story does not concern buildings, curricula or huge campuses but concerns rather the people that built and used these creations. It still is the students, their families, the Jesuits and their colleagues that make us remember that "fleeting wisp of glory" with such emotion. This story of the Baghdad Jesuit adventure, whch is related in Jesuits by the Tigris , focuses on the interaction between young American Jesuits and youthful Iraqi citizens and their families. Starting in 1932 it grew into a strong bond of affection and respect.
Baghdad College School bus

Much more than other Jesuits in their American schools the "Baghdadi" Jesuits entered the family lives of their students frequently and intimately through home visits to celebrate Muslim and Christian feast days as well as a myriad of social events, both happy and sad. There was much more than ordinary student-teacher bonding. On campus the Jesuits participated in games, debates, drama, contests, athletic events almost as much as the students. Jesuits became enthusiastic about their Iraqi charges when they noticed early on that there was a great affinity between these Iraqi students and themselves. Jesuits found the Iraqi students warm, hospitable, humorous, imaginative, receptive, hard-working and appreciative of educational opportunities. This story presents evidence that the Iraqis found the Jesuits happy, fun-loving and dedicated.
Baghdad College

As the years went on Iraqis increasingly liked them and were proud of the two schools as part of the Iraqi scene. Each of the many government crises were opportunities for successive governments to force the Jesuits to leave. The fact that they were always allowed to continue is testimony to how widely Jesuits had been accepted. The exception was the Baathi coup in 1968. In spite of the Jesuits' strenuous efforts to remain in Iraq, they joined the long line of Jesuits in various lands at various times who were expelled from their adopted country.
Al Hikma Engineering Building

A remarkable phenomenon is the number of biennial reunions of the Jesuits and their graduates. Why do hundreds of middle aged Iraqis spend long weekends every two years with post middle age American Jesuits in order to celebrate two schools from which Jesuits were dismissed 25 years ago? Why have two and a half decades not dimmed memories of activities and routines of everyday school life? Why has the hostility between Iraq and the United States not weakened the bonds of friendship between these Iraqi students and their American teachers - not even frayed them? First time visitors to these reunions find the excitement, the enjoyment and the camaraderie of both parties beyond belief. This book is an attempt to explain this latter phenomenon as well as to respond to an alumni request for a record of the Jesuit Baghdad adventure which they can pass on to their children.

The ceremonial "Dabkeh" dance

During the past 25 years it has often been proposed that someone record and celebrate this very Ignatian enterprise where men of faith, armed with little more than trust in God, overcame great obstacles to build a successful and joyous sign of faith and dedication, and one of the great works of the New England Jesuit Province. Alumni wanted some means to explain to their children the extraordinarily close bond between alumni and Jesuits. At these gatherings they discuss how they can pass on to their own children the system of values they have received. They appreciate the fact that the quality of their lives has been enriched. Their compassion for others has deepened and they value the spiritual dimension of life. A major concern of these men and women, who are now American citizens, is how to serve others.

My plan has been to document the extraordinary successes of the Jesuits and their Iraqi colleagues as they introduced to the Baghdad community a variety of intellectual, spiritual and social benefits. My story treats neither of church politics nor of secular politics partly because I have neither expertise nor interest in either: it was none of our concern. The Jesuits deliberately avoided such involvement from the beginning because it would interfere with their commitment to education. It is curious that none of the numerous books recently published on Iraq mention the two Jesuit schools in spite of their many prominent graduates. Among other things it certainly demonstrates that the Jesuits were considered neither political nor even politically relevant.
Visit to Baghdad College of 22-year old King Faisal in 1958
shortly before his death
The Jesuits, themselves, were sensitive to the needs of the Iraqi churches and offered a great deal of pastoral assistance outside of their classrooms. Their primary reason for being educators in Iraq was to help rejuvenate the native church. The Jesuits intended to strengthen the Christians in the practice of their faith in a Muslim world; they welcomed Muslim students also - it would have been unthinkable not to. In this educational setting these Christians and Muslims got to know one another intimately. In this context also the Christians developed a patriotism and pride in a society of which they were a part.

Baghdad's date-picking time

My sources include letters and documents from the New England Jesuit archives {file #510} at Campion Center in Weston, Mass. as well as the memories of Jesuits and alumni who have generously sent me their evaluations and recollections. After introducing Baghdadis and Jesuits, this story divides naturally into three periods punctuated by four events;
the arrival of the Jesuits in 1932,
the start of World War II in 1941,
the start of the Republic in 1958 and
the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1969.
Then follows a description of the many Baghdad College programs, the Al-Hikma story, some of the interesting characters of both schools, the expulsion and finally a splendid and proud heritage, our alumni.

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