COLUMBIA — With the Oct. 16 bombings of five churches in Baghdad, Iraq, in the news, Sgt. First Class John W. Proctor’s desire to inform people about Christian persecution in that country has become more intense.
This year Proctor returned from a hazardous tour of duty in Iraq with a new mission to urge American Christians to help secure the spiritual needs of their military and also their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters.
“Christians (in Iraq) are a well-kept secret,” he said. “They are ferociously devout and pious, they are in communion with the pope, and they are in great distress.”
Iraq has approximately 700,000 Christians. The country’s population is estimated at more than 25 million. Catholics are Chaldean Rite, Syrian Rite or Armenian Orthodox.
Proctor is a Catholic who serves as a combat pastoral assistant at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson. His job entails research and development of how the Army can embed chaplains in tactical fighting units and how they can best provide religious support for men and women in the context of military operations.
He left Fort Bragg, N.C., in February 2003, and spent two months in Kuwait “waiting for the war to begin” and 10 months in Iraq. Proctor went with the 82nd Airborne Division of Special Forces, who fought in Samawah in what he described as “the bloodiest and most violent engagement in the war.” He was in Fallujah and Baghdad from May 2003 to January 2004.
In Baghdad, Proctor said that there were six SA6 missile platforms lining the wall of the Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church complex. Satellite imagery would pick up the missile sites and coalition forces would bomb those sites, destroying the church.
Catholic News Service reported that the most recent bomb blast and a subsequent fire gutted the Chaldean Church of St. Joseph on Oct. 16. But Sunday Mass was celebrated Oct. 17 following an all-night cleanup effort. The other churches that were damaged included the Latin-rite Church of Rome, the Orthodox churches of St. Jacob and St. George, and the Syrian Orthodox Church of St. Thomas.
“Christians own the only liquor stores in Iraq, and [terrorists] would roll grenades in stores,” he said. “Christian girls are kidnapped and sold into slavery into Kuwait. When we first got there, because of the danger in the streets, the Iraqis only had one Mass on Sunday. Terrorists target Christians. The Christian churches offer social benevolence to everyone, not just Christians — clothing, food and assistance.”
In an interview with CNS reporter John Thavis, Syrian Catholic Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of Mosul, Iraq, who was in Bangkok, Thailand, at the time of the latest bombing, expressed shock and sorrow at the news. One of the churches bombed in August was in Mosul. He told CNS that the terrorist groups that carry out such attacks “hope that many, many more Christians will go.”
“Their strategy is to create fear among the Christians and push them out of Iraq,” Archbishop Casmoussa said.
Catholics are leaving Iraq for safety. Last August, car bombs at five Catholic churches killed 11 people and sparked an exodus of at least 10,000 Iraqi Christians into neighboring Syria and Jordan. Proctor witnessed that exodus. During his assignment, he worked with Iraqi priests like Father Warda Bashar in Baghdad, with whom he maintains contact. He lauded the local clergy’s pastoral care.
“Father Elyas Firas from Baghdad put his life at risk to come to minister to coalition paratroopers,” he said. “He was so generous and didn’t own a wristwatch or car and carried his alb in a plastic bag. He had a very poor struggling parish, and he gave all his money to it.”
He said that the Catholic Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Baghdad has a seminary with 52 candidates for the priesthood.
“They are using textbooks from the 1970s,” he said. “The government ran everything. The seminary wasn’t allowed to use current theological materials.”
Though he would like to see people give donations to Christian efforts in Iraq, Proctor feels that they need more than money.
“They need to know that we are praying for them and consider them as our brothers and sisters,” he said.
Proctor said that because there are no banking systems or mail services operating in Iraq, he wrote to Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, who steered him to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).
“I feel responsible because I am a Roman Catholic Christian; I am an American soldier, and I know these people,” Proctor said. “I feel responsible to tell their story.”
The Army sergeant returned to the United States in early February. He told other tales of faith among the American soldiers. While in combat, prayer services were conducted by flashlight at odd hours, Communion services were held hastily, and holy week services took place in looted buildings.
“Those were some of the most moving and memorable moments in the spirit,” he said. “It was very graced, very solemn, and the men and women were most sincere.”
He assisted Father Steve Carlson, a priest for the Special Forces, at Mass in a room made to hold 100 people.
“It was filled with 250 paratroopers and Marines whose machine guns and rifles were lined up on the floor,” he said. “It took 15 minutes to give out Communion.”
While in Iraq he also prepared eight American soldiers to receive the sacrament of confirmation. Father Neal Buckon, who was granted a dispensation to bestow the sacrament by Archbishop O’Brien, confirmed them.
“We conducted civil military operations which, for the chaplain, Major Jim Murphy, meant going to all religious facilities in Baghdad to assess damage from looting and war,” Proctor said.
“We had a commander’s discretionary fund, which comes from capital recovered from the Baath Arab Socialist Party. It puts Iraqi money back into Iraq. So the Army, Chaplain Murphy and I got help for a cloister of nuns, a Catholic pre-school, the seminary, and Babel College, a Catholic liberal arts college. We also frequently brought soldiers from our unit to worship with Chaldean Rite Catholics in their chapel in Arabic. People received us like long-lost relatives.”
Proctor, 43, has served in the Army for 11 years. He and his wife, Amy, are active in their parish. They teach confirmation classes, and he is an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Amy led a fund drive that raised $6,000 for theological books for the Iraqi seminary.
The couple has four children: Johnny, 12, Anya, 11, Helen, 8, and Isaac, 6. Though separated from his own family, who suffer the stress of life in the military, Proctor won’t forget Iraqi Christians in his prayers.
“They need to know they’re not alone,” he said.
Proctor has a Web site at www.johnnyproctor.com. To make a donation or find out more information about CNEWA, go online to www.cnewa.org.