Pope Francis’ journey in Iraq; the 1990 earthquake in Pangasinan and pioneering in the Middle East

Published March 7, 2021, 12:04 AM

by Former House Speaker Jose C. De Venecia Jr.

PEACE-MAKER

Jose de Venecia Jr.
Former Speaker of the House

We join Roman Catholics around the world in praying for the safety of Pope Francis who boarded his plane for Iraq last Friday, indeed a historic but dangerous journey in the midst of the raging global pandemic and the recurrent violence in the war-ravaged country.

The unprecedented papal visit takes place amid the frequent rocket attacks by armed groups on bases housing US troops in the country, including the assault on Al Asad airbase a few days before Pope Francis’ arrival in Baghdad. Last January, a market in the capital Baghdad was rocked by a twin suicide bombing claimed by ISIS, killing more than 30 civilians and wounding  more than a hundred. 

The well-loved 84-year-old Pontiff is scheduled to visit communities, especially the dwindling Christian group there, that have been ravaged by decades-old war and terrorism. More importantly, he will meet with the preeminent and influential Shiite Islam leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the latter’s home in the holy city of Najaf. The reclusive 90-year-old Ali al-Sistani is said to be a moderating force in Iraq.

In the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, as a young entrepreneur in the Middle East and North Africa, we undertook mass housing and infrastructure projects in this oil-rich country.

Much later, in 1997, as then speaker of the House, we flew to this Middle East country to help negotiate the release of three Filipinos who were sentenced to life imprisonment.

We had the privilege of conferring with then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in his underground headquarters in Tikrit, his hometown, located on the west bank of the Tigris River about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of capital Baghdad.

By the grace of God, Saddam Hussein granted freedom to the three Filipinos and we brought them home.

We are deeply saddened by the dreadful turn of events in Iraq in recent years.

Pope Francis’ historic visit sends a powerful message of solidarity and reassurance to the Iraqi people who have tremendously suffered from decades of violence, devastation, and carnage.

It also highlights the importance of inter-religious dialogue as a way of helping resolve politico-religious conflicts, strengthening the religious moderates, and isolating those who advocate terrorism and violent extremism in the name of religion.

Finally, it is a significant step – on a journey of many, many steps – for achieving peace in Iraq and the Middle East in general.

***

Since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been spending most of our time in our home in Dagupan City.

Every now and then, we would go around to see and experience the development our city has achieved over the years, which, we would say, is remarkable.

Its progress deeply warm our heart as the Dagupan City we see today was a scene of massive devastation and looked condemned to extinction when a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck this city in July, 1990, 21 years ago.

Buildings sank by one meter, a bridge collapsed, roads cracked open and  trapped many vehicles inside, electric poles crushed, liquid mud emitted because of liquefaction, and a number of people were killed and injured.

The national government considered condemning Dagupan City but we, as then representative of the fourth district of Pangasinan, together with then Dagupan City Mayor Liberato Reyna Sr., Vice Mayor Alipio Fernandez Jr., our fellow Dagupenos, and our constituents of the fourth district of Pangasinan, pleaded with President Cory Aquino to help us rebuild the city. She did and for which we were most grateful.

Together with the late Camarines Sur Representative Rolando Andaya Sr., we authored the P10-billion Earthquake Rehabilitation Fund Law which completely rebuilt Dagupan City in two years, as well as paved the way for the rebuilding of Baguio, La Union, Cabanatuan City, and other areas destroyed by the powerful earthquake.

Our wife Congresswoman Gina and our son Congressman Christopher who succeeded us in subsequent elections, have been fortunate in the continuing task of rebuilding our City of Dagupan and of the 4th Congressional District of Pangasinan which were damaged by the 1990 earthquake.

***

On behalf of the De Venecia family, we wish to thank our relatives, friends, and all those who offered masses and prayers, sent flowers, visited the wake, and expressed their condolences on the passing of our older sister Carmen de Venecia-Lim.

Carmen, a certified public accountant who joined the Central Bank and later became a business executive, was the fifth among us eight siblings. She passed away last March 2 due to lingering illness. She was 87. She was married to Ramon Lim of Zamboanga del Sur, younger brother of the late Sen. Roseller Lim.

While in banking, she and Ramon helped us draft the US Dollar Remittance Program for overseas Filipinos in the Middle East, when we pioneered there, operating the ports of Jeddah and Jubail in Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf as prime contractor under the then Philippine-Singapore Ports Corporation, which we founded, and which helped raise the then modest Philippine dollar reserves. Indeed in those days we pioneered in the employment of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and Libya in the Arab world and in North Africa.

 
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