Mairead Maguire

Speech at the Nobel Centennial Symposium – Dec. 6, 2001

Mairead Maguire
December 06, 2001— Oslo, Norway
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Good morning, my dear friends. It's a great joy for me to be back in Oslo and to be given the opportunity to speak to you this morning. And I would like to congratulate the Nobel Institute on this wonderful occasion. They have done such a great deal of work, and we have much to be grateful for to the Nobel Institute and the Norwegian people.

I would like to make my contribution in the form of a letter which I wrote to a friend, because this friend give me great hope for the future, and I think in our world today people need hope. We need to believe in each other, and we get our hope from each other.

When I went three years ago to visit the Amiriyah shelter in Baghdad, I met a wonderful women there called Umm Reyda, and Umm Reyda give me such hope for the future that, by way of a thank you to her, I sat down and I wrote this little letter to Umm Reyda, and I would like to share it with you this morning if I may.

I have addressed it to Umm Reyda in the portacabin in the Amiriyah shelter in Baghdad in Iraq.

"Dear Umm Reyda, I hope you receive this letter. We met three years ago on a Sunday in March 1999, when Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness and Father John Dear from the International Fellowship of Reconciliation brought an international delegation, including Adolpho Perez Esquivel and myself, to visit the site of the Amiriyah shelter in Baghdad. How are you keeping, Umm Reyda? Well, I hope, in spite of the ongoing suffering and hardships.

"When we met, you were living in a little portacabin on the site and acting as a guide for visitors to the shelter. You told us that one night during the Gulf War many hundreds of people had gathered in the shelter to celebrate the end of Ramadan. This happened to be the same day us Christians were remembering Ash Wednesday, the beginning of 40 days of repentance, prayer and fasting. That night the shelter was struck by two American bombs. Of the hundreds present, only 14 people survived the inferno. Your son, your daughter Reyda, and thirteen relatives were amongst the dead. We were moved to tears when we saw the photographs of the victims, most of whom were women and children. You told us that you had worked since that day to keep the truth alive—for them and the world. I remember so well your passionate plea for the story to be told about what happened and your call for 'no more wars.' How much we need to hear your voice in the world today—no more wars. Since then, I am haunted by the memory of the burnt imprint of bodies, fused into the concrete walls, and the shelter overwhelmed with grief.

"I remembered another time when sorrow had paralyzed my soul. It was January 1988, when at the invitation of Elie Wiesel, I walked through the horror chambers of the concentration camp of Auschwitz. I cried at what those who call themselves Christians had done to their Jewish brothers and sisters. That day, my hope and strength lay in the belief that God loves and lives in each one of us. It is not God who kills—it is human beings who are blinded by fear and anger and frustration and despair. Auschwitz and Amiriyah shelter—how much suffering can the human family bear without drowning in the collective sea of despair and hopelessness?

"But suffering can be a positive force. It can water the seeds of compassion and motivate us to speak to power. Umm Reyda, your words challenge each one of us not to harden our hearts or fall into despair, but to begin the journey of repentance and forgiveness together, which can lead to reconciliation and celebration of life and creation.

"Your gift to me that day was your gentle presence and your witness to truth, the truth that each person's life is precious and unique. You have suffered so much, yet your dignity as a woman, as a mother, keeps shining from within. You remind us that even in our brokenness and vulnerability, the human spirit is magnificent. Your remind us that millions of men and women around the world are a source of hope and inspiration for all to practice forgiveness in the search for truth and justice. You give us the courage to believe in ourselves and each other. When I see you in my mind's eye, standing in front of the shelter at your portacabin, I think you are the living proof of the transformation of love.

"It is now Ramadam, a month of penance and purification for Muslims. It is also a special time for Christians, as we prepare for the Christmas season of Advent. It is a special time for us to repent of the wrongs that we have done to others.

"On this occasion, I'd like to apologize to you, Umm Reyda, for the terrible injustice being inflicted upon the Iraqi people by the misguided policies of my government. I'm ashamed to witness the continuing imposition of economic sanctions, a silent bomb, which cost the lives of thousands of lraqi children. I understand your increased fear at the present moment by the threats, being made openly, that your country will again be targeted because of the war in Afghanistan. I want you to know that I, just as openly, am opposed to these threats, and will continue to work in a peaceful way to prevent these becoming a reality. And not just in Iraq, but in so many countries, children are suffering because of our life styles and policies.

"Fear is at the root of many problems, and fear can blind us from seeing the image of God in each other, in all of creation, and stops us from loving our neighbour as ourselves.

"In December, in the Christian tradition, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who was born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. Today, in Bethlehem, as in so many places around the world, children continue to suffer from violence and war. It was in the awareness of the need to build a better future for children, that the Nobel Peace laureates launched a campaign which has culminated in the declaration by the UN General Assembly of the Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010). This decade gives us all hope.

"Everyone, especially children and youth, can bring their imagination and creativity to building this new culture. They can take inspiration from others in the past such as Mahatma Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Takashi Nagai, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. People who loved humanity and strived to overcome prejudice and discrimination to build the "beloved community."

"Recent developments in Northern Ireland also give hope. With its deep social and political problems resulting in almost 30 years of "troubles" it is an example that complex relational and structural issues cannot be solved by military or paramilitary means, but only by building a peace process through dialogue at all levels. The new all-inclusive, power-sharing government now in place in Northern Ireland gives us, the Northern Irish people, a chance to heal past wounds and to engage in a genuine process of reconciliation. I believe that the lessons we have learned in Northern Ireland could be of help to other communities emerging from years of violent conflict, encouraging them to explore new nonviolent alternatives in the search for peace.

"In this regard, I am full of hope for humanity. I believe we can, we must, we will overcome violence and war. Many will think I am naive in saying this, but I believe Umm Reyda—and millions and millions of ordinary men and women in our world today who have a passion for peace—believe this with me, too.

"I wish you peace. Peace to my Iraqi brothers and sisters, whose kindness I remember with a smile. I hope someday to visit again, to share your friendship, and savour once more the beauty and the mystery of your people and their desert land, Iraq.

"Salaam, Mairead

"P.S. Our dear friend, Kathy Kelly, leaves tomorrow for Baghdad and will take this letter to you, with all my love."

Thank you for listening to me.

"Mairead Corrigan – Nobel Symposia." The Nobel Prize, 2010.