Members of St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad are likely to go to the polls Oct. 15 with heavy hearts. Their founding lay pastor, Maher Dakel, has been missing since Sept. 12 and-along with four other church members, including Mr. Dakel's wife and son-is presumed dead.
The group was on its way back to Baghdad after attending a pastor's conference in Amman, Jordan. Road travel through Anbar Province is treacherous but few Iraqis have the option of air travel, given the inflated cost. Mr. Dakel alerted a friend by cell phone when he reached the border and was expected in Baghdad three to four hours later. "Then he just vanished," said Nabil Haj, an Iraqi resident and Lebanese-American friend of Mr. Dakel who helped with restoration and reopening of St. George's two years ago.
The missing include Mr. Dakel (also spelled Dakhil), 48; his wife, Eman, who leads women's ministries in the church; their son Yehya, 18, the church's pianist and music director; associate pastor Firas Raad; and an unnamed driver. Friends and fellow church members assumed the group had been kidnapped and awaited a ransom note.
None arrived, but rumors showed up in force: U.S. or Iraqi soldiers had rounded up the group in Anbar for interrogation; insurgents held them as a bargaining chip with U.S. forces, according to another unsubstantiated report; or, the group was injured by al-Qaeda terrorists and had been taken to a U.S. military hospital. For the family's daughter, 21-year-old Rana, a university student living in Baghdad, absorbing both rumors and uncertainty is particularly hard.
Late last month a report came that a white SUV matching the description of the group's own vehicle was seen charred along the 325 miles of largely desert road between Baghdad and the border. Relatives of Mr. Dakel's missing driver traveled all the way to the Jordanian border but found no trace of the five. The burned-out SUV was not theirs. No evidence of the vehicle, of bodies, or of personal belongings has surfaced since their disappearance.
Canon Andrew White, until recently the church's liaison with Canterbury, told members of the press that the five travelers are presumed dead. "We are all devastated," he said. "This is the very core of our Anglican Church in Iraq."
The disappearances are a blow beyond the brick walls and newly manicured grounds of St. George's in downtown Baghdad. Once a prominent engineer and Baath Party member, Mr. Dakel brandished an outspoken Christian testimony and zeal for his community that brought him trouble with the Saddam Hussein regime but made him an asset to U.S. forces-and long-oppressed churchgoers-following U.S. liberation of the capital two and a half years ago.
Mr. Haj told WORLD many church members believe "it is too early to say that he is dead." Without corroborating evidence, the church may not be ready to admit its loss, but its members are preoccupied with the daily reality of violence. Last year insurgents gunned down two young children from one church family because the father made wine.
Last month over 1,300 Iraqi civilians were killed, nearly all by insurgent bombings and terrorist attacks, according to news accounts compiled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. At least 600 Iraqi civilians are officially regarded as missing since the U.S. invasion. As the country prepares to cross critical political thresholds-a national referendum on the constitution Oct. 15, the trial of Saddam scheduled to begin Oct. 19, and another nationwide election in December-it is hard for many Iraqis to take the future as seriously as the deadly present. "Everything under consideration is good for the future, but what about today?" said Mr. Haj. "Every morning we must tell our kids goodbye when they go to school because we may not see them again."
Under the circumstances public interest in the referendum is astonishing. More than 14 million Iraqis-or nearly 98 percent of those eligible-are registered to vote Oct. 15, and turnout is predicted above 80 percent. Voters will be asked a simple single question: Do you approve of the draft constitution of Iraq?
High interest is in part the result of organized registration by Sunni parties, many of whom boycotted last January's elections. While Sunnis may more likely vote "no" on the constitution, they are unlikely to carry what is expected to be a positive outcome. Further, the Shiite-Kurd coalition currently governing Iraq has encouraged high Sunni participation.
"If a legitimate government emerges that is broadly seen as being representative of Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish interests, I think there is no reason to suppose that we can't bring force levels down in the spring," said General John Abizaid, U.S. commander in the Middle East.
Following the referendum, the UN plans to open an office to investigate Iraqi disappearances-an announcement timed to coincide with the first charges to be brought against Saddam Hussein, which center on forced disappearances and mass killings.
Hundreds of post-war cases, however, are like Mr. Dakel's: caught in a limbo between missing and presumed dead with nowhere to turn for official inquiry. "No one at high levels has answers for us," said Mr. Haj. "With no one helping the church or the families, they are just open to rumors."
Improving security for coalition forces and Iraqi civilians ahead of key electoral milestones is the main reason U.S. forces have launched two major offensives in two weeks against insurgent-held towns in western Iraq. But one of the unintended consequences of the operation is an increase in terrorist activity along the Amman-Baghdad route. Eyewitnesses say car bombings and other attacks picked up in recent weeks as terrorists fled south to avoid U.S. capture.
Whatever overtook Mr. Dakel and his party along that desert highway, he was until then a symbol of grit and survival in post-Saddam Iraq. A member of Iraq's minority Mandean sect from southern Iraq, Mr. Dakel earned two engineering degrees from the University of Baghdad. He then rose through the ranks of Saddam's coddled community of scientists and engineers to manage one of Baghdad's largest power stations and to develop computer interfaces to run factories and public reconstruction projects following the Gulf war.
His position meant compulsory membership in the Baath Party. But minority status made him an ill-fitting bureaucrat, more so after he converted to Christianity. Moonlighting as a sidewalk evangelist-translating Scripture into Arabic, reproducing and handing out sermon tapes he received from London, and writing five books of his own about Christianity-eventually landed him in prison for 18 months.
He survived to make friends with his U.S. liberators following the 2003 invasion. And to make the most of regime change. During a December 2003 interview with WORLD at his home in the Karadat section of Baghdad, he flung open floor-to-ceiling cabinets (filled with books, tapes, and other materials) to show how thoroughly his house was ransacked prior to his arrest. Then with a hearty laugh, he said, "The worst of it was, Saddam's thugs ate my watermelon."
By then Mr. Dakel had served as a translator for coalition forces, as a chaplain in Baghdad hospitals, and oversaw Iraqi workers for a 3rd Infantry batallion in charge of rebuilding the Olympic Stadium. He arranged, with the help of U.S. and British chaplains, to secure St. George's, an Anglican outpost built by the British in 1936, and set out to refurbish the church's neo-gothic building.
From a completely defunct membership, the church acquired about 50 worshippers at its first service on the church lawn, 250 by the time services could be held indoors, and today attendance is 800, making it the largest church in Baghdad.
The rapid growth of the congregation, most of whom are new believers, makes the loss of key leadership particularly devastating, according to Canon White. But in this season of uncertainty, Mr. Dakel's friends are willing to wait longer before giving up on his survival and making a transition to new church leadership.
"Hope is for future generations in Iraq," said Lt. Col. Bobby Towery, a 3rd Infantry commander who oversaw Mr. Dakel at the Olympic Stadium, now stationed at the U.S. Army War College. "You are going to see an Iraq in five years that looks very different from what it looks like today. They have to hold onto that."