giovedì, settembre 12, 2013

 

The dangerous life of the Apostolic Nuncio in Iraq: Msgr. Giorgio Lingua

By Baghdadhope*


Being an Apostolic Nuncio, practically a Vatican’s ambassador, is not an easy task. It means being the voice of papal diplomacy but also the bearer of Catholic religious values and in this double role, therefore, being particularly careful in operating in different cultural, political and economic environments.
This is true especially in case of "difficult" countries, in war with others or where the civil war rages on, dominated by dictatorial regimes or mired in poverty, plagued by recurrent disasters or where Christianity,  Catholic or not, is a minority, as in the case of Iraq, "freed" by a tyrant but not yet "free" and above all still far from any semblance of normalcy.
In such a difficult environment the Apostolic Nuncio has to double the prudence that his diplomatic role already imposes on him and that is what Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, Apostolic Nuncio in Iraq and Jordan, does since his arrival in the small building of the Nunciature in Sha' ra Saadoun, in Baghdad.
Always ready to listen and to give voice to all parties, in the interviews he granted up to now he showed wisdom and prudence to disappoint no one of them, and it could not be otherwise.
But what do we know, in practical terms, of the life of the Apostolic Nuncio in one of the most dangerous countries in the world? We can imagine him, or even see him while meeting heads of state, ministers, ambassadors and other representatives of all religions, but how is his typical day?
Baghdadhope asked it to him:

Your Excellence, you live between Amman and  Baghdad, can you describe your daily life in the Nunciature of the Iraqi capital city?
"I would say that is a very retired life although as Papal Nuncio I have many institutional meetings in the Nunciature or in the Green Zone, the large and heavily guarded area established by the Americans where are the seats of the Iraqi government institutions.
"
Institutional meetings, however, are not the only opportunities you have to leave the Nunciature I guess ..
"No. There are the meetings with the religious leaders, Muslims, Christians or of the other two minorities, the Yazidis and the Mandaeans, the religious ceremonies such as ordinations, consecrations of new churches and the celebrations of the liturgical calendar, and there are the national holiday parties that are held in the about fifty embassies in the city.
According  to your description it does not seem a very retired life. What did you refer to describing it as such?
"Well, I referred to the fact that although I arrived in Baghdad almost three years ago I still don’t know the city very well because I can’t decide to go out for a walk and breathe its true air, the one I could appreciate only by getting lost in its streets following a smell, a sound, a man walking in front of me. Yet I'd like to do it. Baghdad is like a woman wearing a burka who shows her beauties only to the one who loves her and for the little I saw from behind the car window it is a city that would be worth knowing but where, unfortunately, safety is an unknown good: days of illusory calm are followed by days in which the echo of the explosion of the car bombs and the sound of sirens can be heard in large areas of the city."

What about your security? Most of us can’t imagine what does it means to live under escort like you.

"The security of the building of the Nunciature is entrusted to armed guards and until a few months ago to a dog that unfortunately passed away, I fear for the terrible heat of July. As for me when I go out I have to inform the head of the guards who organizes the 7 policemen armed to the teeth who escort, in front and behind, the armored car of the Nunciature on two pickups. By order of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs I can’t go out without the body guards who, in case of meetings in other cities, are doubled and alerted at least 72 hours in advance.
In three years I was allowed to go out by feet on very few occasions, for example to visit the tombs of the priests killed in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that is just 400 meters from the Nunciature. To obtain the permission to go there I have to point out to the authorities every year that such a pilgrimage, made on All Souls’ Day, is a requirement of my religion and then they do not oppose it. The first time, however, I was escorted by five guards in uniform, helmet and Kalashnikovs and who saw me leaving the Nunciature said that I looked like someone arrested and taken to prison. Since then I  requested, and the authorities sensibly accepted, to be escorted by guards in civilian clothes.
Sometimes the issue of security has also surreal implications: one day I went out to buy an ornamental plant and I found a nice one, but it was too big to fit into our car. I asked to load it on the pickup of the police escorting us and the agents kindly agreed to help me: one of them travelled for about 5 km across Baghdad holding with one hand his Kalashikov and with the other my plant !
Leaving Baghdad is not easy too. The authorization to the company in charge of security at the airport must be requested at least 24 hours before the departure. Once you have the authorization number you must show it to the first checkpoint located about 4 km from the airport where, if you who don’t have a special pass, you must leave your car and take a taxi. There is where the body guards leave me. After about 500 meters the explosive sniffer dogs inspect the car and after another 2.5 km there is the last checkpoint operated by a security company different from the one in charge of the first one and after which you  finally arrive at the airport.
Do you think these security measures are sufficient?
"I find them a bit excessive since they reduce the freedom of movement. It must be said, however, that they are good for health: a regular and almost monastic life is surely healthy.
"
But in this way you never make exercise, there is not a gym in the Nunciature and the lack of movement is not good for health..
"Technology helps me. In the afternoon, if there are no meetings in the Nunciature or somewhere else,  I run for about 40 minutes on the treadmill but, as to run indoors is rather monotonous, I do it while watching on TV football or tennis matches imaging to run on those fields. I do what I can!"
Meetings, work and sport. What else? At what time does your working day begin?
"At 6 o'clock when my smartphone tells me the time, informs me on the outside temperature, reminds me of the commitments of the day and above all the reason I wake up for that day: living to love Jesus and to try to be another Mary. The miracles of technology! A small device, if properly set up, can do many things and my smartphone is useful also when, especially in winter, the generators are still off and in the absence of electricity I use it as a breviary at 6:30
After waking up and before the prayers there is a special moment. Shacking the laziness of the early morning hours off I drag myself out of bed; many times I am already sweaty by that hour since in the hot months there are already 30 degrees in the room. Then I go to the bathroom where the previous evening I filled the tub of water to give it the time to "cool down" during the night: with an outside temperature that sometimes exceeds 50 degrees and the water tanks on the terrace the water would still be too hot in the morning. 
After reading the breviary I go to the small chapel of the Nunciature where I pray the Office and where I meditate until 7.30 when I celebrate Mass with the Lauds with the Secretary of the Nunciature, Msgr. George Panamthundhil. Usually present to the Mass are also two Chaldean nuns of the order of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate: Sister Hanan and Sister Clara.

You, the Secretary and two nuns. Does anyone else live in the Nunciature?

"A good lady named Shamiran who is responsible for the cleaning and a gardener with whom I communicate with gestures and who, although well understanding the reproaches, has the habit to do only what he wants. It’s a losing battle! On the back of the Nunciature there is a small garden under his care in which, after the breakfast with Msgr. George, I take a walk to check the plants and possibly to collect some flowers to welcome the guests; if I am lucky I collect some fresh eggs from the chicken coop set up near a small vegetable garden that I would not describe as flourishing and if I have time I encourage the papayas in their growth and I look with commiseration the tomatoes that do not want to sprout. At 9:00 the actual working day starts with the Secretary and the Iraqi nun who, speaking a fluent Italian, has to work very hard. Twice a week an Iraqi priest comes to help us with the translations.

The first tasks are to check the e-mail and the agenda to distribute the assignments depending on the urgency and everyone’s skills but before that, to remember that the most important thing is to put into practice the Word of Scripture, we read the Arabic/Italian sign that we change every month and that we hung in the Chapel. As Pope Francis said we are not an NGO or an embassy like the others: we are consecrated and it must be a priority for us to live the Word that gives meaning to our activities, our work and our meetings.. 
After this organizational meeting I usually surf the web for national and international news and I check what I have to do: drafts to be corrected, answers to be given, budgets to be controlled, letters to be signed, speeches to be prepared, information to be communicated, phone calls to be made and dossiers to be studied: the normal administration of a Nunciature.
On Monday, when the diplomatic courier usually arrives from Rome the Secretary
immediately opens it - I don’t know if for authentic zeal or curiosity - to record the official correspondence, organize it and take it to me.
Around eleven Shamiran "breaks" my activities with some tea and some biscuit and, if scheduled, after this break I meet someone, but only until 12:00 because at that time my secretary, Indian but punctual like a Swiss, rings the bell that calls us to the Chapel where we recite the Angelus and pray for the peace in the world, especially for the countries at war.
After an hour I have lunch with the Secretary eating what the good nuns prepare for us and we use those moments to take stock of the work flow. At approximately 14:00 I retire to my office where I turn on the TV to watch the news from Italy or on Al Jazeera even if, due to digestion and the heat, after three or four news I doze off to wake up when I feel the remote control slipping from my legs to the floor. At about 15:00 I go to the Chapel for the prayers of the Ninth Hour and after them, with great effort of will, I try to do some exercise in Arabic to be ready for the Monday nights Skype conversations with my teacher, Ahmed.
After the homework I work again until 19:30 when I have dinner with the Secretary and the nuns. Since I can’t  go out I take a walk in the garden and say good night to the guards who watch over us. Another visit to the Chapel for the Vespers and the evening ends with a table tennis match on the WII between me and Msgr. George.  Neither of us wants to lose because the stakes are high: a chocolate candy, but do not ask me who usually wins, I won’t reveal it!"

A long day...

"That does not end with the table tennis. There is some good reading, internet and contacts with friends around the world, there is the personal correspondence to check. Usually my day ends on the terrace where I go to pray the Holy Rosary and from where I contemplate, behind the guards’ back as they would not allow it, all that I can see of Baghdad. In those moments I commend the city, its inhabitants and the whole country to the protection of Holy Mary and look at the great cross of the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that is only 400 meters far from the Nunciature. With the recitation of Compline on the terrace or in the Chapel I say good night to Jesus too, asking for forgiveness for the shortcomings of the day that, despite my good intentions, I feel to be more than the good deeds I wanted to do. At that point there is still one thing to do: hang up the smartphone charger that on the morning after will wake me up saying that "It's six o clock!" and that another day is about to begin for me in Baghdad ."


* The pictures by Baghdadhope were taken in 2002 and show the Apostolic Nunciature still bearing the symbols of its status: the plaque on the outside of the building now hidden by the protective barrier, the Vatican flag barely visible on the roof and above all the coat of arms of John Paul II, Pope in that year, on the facade. Symbols that now, as it is clear from the photo taken by Mr. Zaia, are hidden or disappeared. In the other photo Msgr. Giorgio Lingua and one of the armed guards of the Nunciature.

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