In Iraqi Kurdistan, teacher's murder devastates students
SULAIMANI, Iraq, March 30 (UPI) -- It’s been a month since an 18-year-old Iraqi student killed his Christian American teacher at a Christian school in Kurdistan and police say they still don’t know what sparked the violence.
Bayar Sarwar, an 11th grade student, turned the gun on himself after he shot Jeremiah Small, 33, in the Classical School of Medes in Sulaimani, a city of more than 1 million people in northern Iraq. An investigation is ongoing. Sarwar’s father told reporters that his son is a relative of prominent Iraqi politicians, including President Jalal Talabani.
Sulaimani Mayor Zana Hama said the violence stemmed from a “student-teacher conflict.” Many residents in the city, which has welcomed Iraqi Christians who have fled targeted killings in Baghdad, say Small’s outspokenness about his Christian faith had nothing to do with the incident.
But others say they’re frustrated with the Christian school, which they say has shifted from focusing primarily on education to converting Muslims to Christianity.
Sarwar’s father, Sarwar Rasheed, said he was told that his son converted to Christianity in the days before the incident. Rasheed has publicly spoken out against the school, which he says is trying to brainwash students.
“Jeremiah was also brainwashed,” Rasheed told a reporter for Rudaw, an English-language news outlet in Iraq.
In that interview, Rasheed spoke of his suspicions that Small tried to affect students psychologically to get them to convert to Christianity.
“Christians are our brothers but the Christians I have known are very different from those who work at that school,” he said. “The latter bring danger. They are more dangerous than al-Qaida. Therefore, I warn the parents, if the school system remains as it was, they should not send their kids to that school.”
Since that interview, Rasheed has declined requests for additional public statements.
The Classical School of Medes is run by Servant Group, a Christian organization based in Tennessee. Christian evangelism is a major focus for Servant Group but the school is considered by some city residents to offer a high-quality, progressive curriculum. About 95 percent of the school’s students are Muslims, Servant Group’s Web site stated. School officials declined to comment.
Former students say the school is academically rigorous.
“The curriculum is classical, it is highly advanced,” said Darya Abdulkarim, a student at American University in Iraq-Sulaimani, and a former student of Classical School of Medes. “It helps students become critical thinkers."
Small was well-liked by his students. He was “the epitome of what a teacher was,” Amed Latif, an American University of Iraq-Sulaimani student, said via e-mail. Latif had known Small for five years. Students thought of him as a friend, he said.
Small’s faith was a dominant piece of his identity, students said.
“He taught with his own distinctive style, referring to God and literature as often as he could,” Latif said.
“I can’t deny that he was a religious man and he was talking about it,” said Rebar R. Ismail, an American University of Iraq-Sulaimani student who met Small in 2006. “He was talking about all the religions as part of the class discussions.”
Small taught humanities, literature, history and mathematics. He coached women’s basketball and often took students hiking, students said. He adapted to Kurdish culture and participated in local cultural events.
“Jeremiah Small was a born leader” Ismail said. “He had influence on the lives of hundreds of people. He challenged us to think and think. Personally, I am this person because of him.”
The Kurdish Regional Government, in a statement on its Web site, expressed pride that expatriate deaths are rare in the region. Small is the only foreigner to have been killed since the Iraqi government fell in 2003. Statements by students and others indicate it’s unlikely that Small was killed because he was an American.
Christians have been targets of violent attacks in other regions in Iraq. Church bombings and targeted killings in Baghdad have sent Iraqi Christians fleeing to Europe, the U.S. and the Kurdish region. There are several Christian churches in Sulaimani, and Christians in the city freely attend services and wear crosses openly. At American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, Christians mix with other students.
Small’s family arrived in Kurdistan shortly after his death. Small’s funeral was crowded with local officials, media and family members of both Small and Sarwar. Small was buried in a Christian graveyard in the city.