Christian patriarch, schooled in U.S., loses sleep over his Iraqi flock

As leader of one of the world's oldest Christian sects, Patriarch Zakka Iwas has pursued his calling from Baghdad to New York and back again to the Iraqi capital.

He lives and works now in Damascus, seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church a 1,500-year old institution that counts thousands of members in the United States. His prayers have focused lately on his hometown, Baghdad, and the 10,000 followers of his church living there.

Candy-red prayer beads clicked in the patriarch's fingers as he spoke of his anxiety about the dangers facing Christians in a war launched by U.S. President George W. Bush against Iraq.

"I'm sick because of it. I sleep only a little, and I'm very worried. I pray that God will have mercy on us and save our people and our country, not only Iraq but the whole area," he said in a recent interview.

Iwas, 69, insists he is no friend of Saddam Hussein. He met the Iraqi President several times while serving as archbishop of Baghdad and Basra. Iwas left Iraq when he became the church patriarch in 1980, one year after Saddam rose to power.

"I am not with the government. I am not with the regime. But I am with the people," he said.

Iwas is suspicious of Washington's motives. Like many in the Middle East, he believes the Bush administration's relentless push to disarm the Iraqi leader is driven by greed for Iraq's oil reserves the world's second largest and not by compassion for its people.

"Americans are trying to destroy Iraq, as they did Afghanistan, to get the petroleum and other things. That is clear," he said.

"Is this human rights? What is the business of the United States to move into this country or that country, to remove this or that head of state? Why don't they do that in Israel, to help the Palestinians?"

Iwas, whose official title is Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, draws a sharp distinction between Americans and their government. He spent two formative years studying at the Episcopal Church's General Theological Seminary in downtown Manhattan. He left in 1962 with a love for the people he met there, and a newfound passion for the music of Beethoven and Handel.

Unfortunately, he said, Americans are likely to find themselves reviled in the Middle East because of an Iraq war, particularly if they make no forceful effort to stop Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights.

Iwas spoke with a passion and bluntness that seemed at odds with the conservatism natural for a cleric steeped in ancient tradition. When he conducts services at St. George Cathedral in the oldest, walled section of Damascus, Iwas speaks in Syriac, a modern version of Aramaic the language Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken. He discusses the medieval Crusades as if they were a recent calamity.

Iwas, a monk, wears a crimson cassock and a matching, fez-like hat. With his white beard and paunch, the outfit gives him the vague look of Santa Claus.

His church, known also as the Syrian Orthodox Church, was founded in the year 452 after a schism with the bulk of the world's Christians. Of its 4 million members, half are descendants of converts in southern India's Kerala state. Others live in Germany, Sweden and in the United States, where immigrants from the Near East introduced the faith in the late 19th century. About 4,000 families worship today at Syriac Orthodox churches in America, with large communities in Los Angeles, Michigan, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Syria's Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully for centuries. Although most Syrians are Muslims, about one-tenth are Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, or followers of smaller sects such as the Syriac Orthodox.

"We are very good friends, let me say, brothers," he said of the country's majority Muslims