|01-03-2007 - Traces, n. 3
Christians: a Dwindling Resource in Iraq
Papal Nuncio in Iraq and Jordan from 2001 to 2006, he never left the land of Abraham, not even during the 2003 bombardments and later terrorist attacks. In this long conversation, Archbishop Fernando Filoni expresses the concerns of the Pope and Church for the dramatic situation of the Christians, compelled to flee from their homeland. Theirs is a presence to defend, for the future of the whole Middle East. “The Christians have always been a resource for Iraq. I remember some of them telling me how the Muslims said, ‘Please, do not leave Iraq. You are a force of moderation in this country!’”
edited by Roberto Fontolan
“I’m certain you will be a messenger of peace and hope.” A few hours after the air raids began in Baghdad, Archbishop Fernando Filoni recalled these words of John Paul II, when he ordained him bishop and made him Papal Nuncio in Iraq. Just three years after the celebration in St. Peter’s, the war began and, faithful to the charge he had received from the Pope, Filoni remained the sole ambassador of a foreign country in Baghdad. Archbishop Filoni was born in Manduria, Italy, in the province of Taranto, in 1946, and ordained priest in 1970. After a short time as Parochial Vicar in Rome, in 1979 he entered the papal academy that trains the Pope’s ambassadors around the world. After working at Apostolic Nunciatures in Sri Lanka, Iran, Brazil, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, John Paul II posted him in Iraq. It was 2001, and the country was under embargo, suspended between the dramatic aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War and the tensions that flared up again in 2003. Filoni shared the sorrows and hopes of the Iraqi people, of the Christian communities scattered across the country. He stayed with them when the bombs were falling. This total commitment made him a still more authoritative figure, recognized both in Iraq and abroad. For a year now, he has been Nuncio in the Philippines, but his experience and commitment in Baghdad make him one of the most highly regarded voices on Iraq and its history–past, present, and future.
The alarming question is, what does the future hold for the Iraqi Christians? Are Christians really in danger of disappearing from the region within the next few years?
The concern for the future of Christians in Iraq (but also, I would say, for other Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon and Palestine), is not new. Some years ago, the bishops of Iraq met in the Vatican to study the question. That was when Saddam Hussein was still in power and already there was a substantial exodus, for political and economic reasons, and many families were tired of the wars. First it was against the Kurds, then Iran, and finally the two Gulf Wars. The wars decimated families, brought untold destruction, and reduced the population to poverty.
The story of the presence of the Christians in Mesopotamia has almost always been harsh and troubled, even before the creation of Iraq (1920), and then in the last 87 years. Saddam created a secular regime but the Christians found a modus vivendi. They were a small minority, capable of adapting to the shifting political circumstances. But, I repeat, even then the tide of emigration was growing. Many communities of Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriac Catholics, and Orthodox have sprung up abroad (in Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Jordan). This raises problems of providing spiritual assistance and safeguarding their cultural identity. The substantial presence of Iraqi Christians abroad, particularly Catholics, has led the Holy See and patriarchates to create new ecclesiastical districts in the USA and Australia. They have established parishes and appointed patriarchal visitors. In the summer months, the Iraqi patriarchs and bishops made long journeys to visit these communities, to enable their identity and liturgical life to survive.
Certainly, the biggest exodus has been since the 2003 invasion and the recent terrorist attacks, including bombs against churches and religious institutions. And this is troubling. When a family packs up, sells its home, and goes abroad, that means it no longer has any intention of returning to the land of its ancestors. Those who have returned to the villages they came from, mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan, probably think that when peace comes they will be able to go back to their homes in Baghdad, Mossul, Kirkuk, and Basra. Many families have gone to live in the north of the country, waiting for things to change.
Thousands of other families live as refugees in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon. They are mostly hoping some country where they already have friends and relations will give them permission to join them. Often years pass before that happens. They encounter endless problems, human and social. As for their religious and other needs, the priests in the host countries tend these communities of the faithful, but they lack the means.
Iraq/Mesopotamia is a land not only biblically and historically important for the communities that have always lived there, but also for all Christians. Think of the cultural and religious richness that fostered Christianity in its early centuries and its profound influence on the life of the Churches. Never forget that the Acts of the Apostles tells us that at Pentecost the witnesses to the early preaching of the Apostles included a number of people from Mesopotamia.
It certainly makes you think that John Paul II was a prophet ignored, when he opposed the war so courageously, because of its nature and its predictable results. But how did we get into this plight? Did the war trigger hostility to Christians? Or did the process of marginalization, or outright discrimination against Christians, begin in Iraq, like other countries, independently of the long Gulf crisis that started in ‘91?
Biblical experience confirms that prophets have trouble getting a hearing, especially on problems that decide the destiny of peoples. John Paul II was no exception. Who can fail to remember that finger raised to heaven at the Angelus on a mid-March Sunday back in 2003, before war broke out in Iraq, as he warned against the war for the last time? His voice went unheard. Some Muslim leaders, visiting me after the Pope’s death, said, “Not even the leaders of Islamic countries ever protected Iraq from war the way John Paul II did!”
I must explain that in Iraq, after the war, there was no special hatred against Christians, except in certain times and in certain places like Mosul. The Christians endured and suffered like all the Iraqis, whether Shiite or Sunni, without distinction. There are terrorist attacks against churches as against mosques. The idea that this is anti-Christian prejudice is incorrect. Perhaps the idea got about because the attacks on churches caused more of a stir in the West. Then the Christians, as a small minority, feel more vulnerable to terrorism and they’re not organized militarily or politically, unlike the Islamic world and its factions. During the recent government elections, the parties of Christian inspiration were too divided to win votes; the community lacks critical mass.
In the long years of the Saddam regime and in the years after the first Gulf War, what was the position of the Christians, what role did they play?
As I said, the Christians are a small minority; they have always had to adapt to the shifting sands of politics and have played a marginal role. This doesn’t mean individual Christians haven’t been important players ever since the creation of the Kingdom of Iraq (Treaty of Sèvres, 1920) and then the Republic (July 14, 1958, revolt of Abdul Karim Kassem). Saddam used fear and flattery on the Christians. So long as they didn’t oppose the regime, they were well treated and respected. That doesn’t mean Christians didn’t suffer. Who can forget the sufferings of the Christians in Kurdistan? For decades, the struggle raged between the central power and rebellious Kurds (Peshmerga). Scores of villages were attacked and wiped out and thousands of Christians were forced to emigrate! If they refused to side with the government, they were treated as rebels. If they didn’t side with the Peshmerga, they were accused of being pro-government. In the late 1950s, numerous families moved away out of the combat zone to Mosul or Baghdad, swelling the dioceses considerably. Baghdad was booming with the high oil prices and business development; it became the biggest Chaldean diocese, so the Patriarch had to move from Mosul to Baghdad.
Now I’d like to speak of the role of Christians in Iraq. The ancient history of Christianity in Mesopotamia is rich in theological and philosophical culture. Some Dominican fathers and Syrian-Assyrian-Chaldean scholars have published important studies on this topic. But I want to limit myself to the part played recently by Christians, and especially the Catholics in Iraq, in education and society.
Ever since the creation of Iraq, one of the first efforts of the missionaries and the local Churches was to set up schools in the villages and cities. The Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Tours arrived in Mosul back in 1873. Soon after, some local orders were set up and provided education and welfare services for the needy. At first, the schools were open only to Christians, then later to Muslims. They often had 51% of places reserved for Christians and 49% for Muslims. Dominicans, Carmelites, and Jesuits played an incomparable part. In 1932, the Boston Jesuits founded the important Baghdad College and, in 1956, Al Hikma University (with Faculties of Science and Business Administration). This opened the doors of American and British universities to young Iraqis. Hundreds of students were educated there and helped modernize the Iraqi administration and economy, before the Baath Party nationalized the education system, confiscated the buildings, and expelled the missionaries (1969). The charitable and social experience was less traumatic. The monks and nuns worked willingly in the service of the poor and needy. In 1968, they set up the St. Rafael Hospital. Though the number of places was limited, it provided wonderful service for the people of Baghdad. I could cite numerous other initiatives.
Today, some diplomatic circles are talking about dividing the country into three parts: Sunnite, Shiite, and Kurd. Wouldn’t that be a possible solution to a conflict that now looks like a civil war? And what would be the destiny of the Christians? To escape to Kurdistan? Iraq divided would no longer be Iraq. It would be to think in terms of geographical areas of influence. The center-south is dominated by Shiites. Never forget that the Shiites, including the Iranians, look at this area as the cradle of their faith, with their most sacred places, Najaf and Karbala. They would love to be buried there while awaiting the return of the missing Imam. Then there’s the center, with broad areas sometimes under Sunnite predominance, sometimes Shiite, or mixed. Finally, the north-east (Kurdistan) is certainly more uniform ethnically but its boundaries are no less blurred (Kirkuk, ancient Assyria, Mosul). Then you have to take account of the ideologies, factions, territorial claims, vested interests, and national and international greed. That makes everything far more complex and difficult. The idea of dividing it up strikes me as simplistic. Good enough in the eyes of those who don’t know this country and all its complications. For the Christians, a minority doomed to decline still further, it won’t be easy. They’re concentrated in a small geographical area, the plain to the north-east of Mosul, ancient Assyria. I feel this fails to guarantee them a separate political entity. But their cultural-religious identity needs to be protected. Perhaps their economic identity as well, for the good of all Iraq.
What are the real, concrete relations like between Christians and Muslims?
Despite their small numbers, the Christians have always been a resource for Iraq. Some of them told me that Muslims have said, “Please, don’t leave Iraq. You are the force of moderation in the country!” I believe they’re right, and these feelings are shared by large sections of the Islamic population, those living in the suburbs of big cities, side by side with Christians. The political leaders I’ve met think the same. They always expressed sympathy and support, knowing quite well that the Holy See has no vested economic, political, or military interests to defend, and it really seeks the good of the people of the country. Remember that in the two Gulf Wars, the papal representatives always stayed in Baghdad, sharing the people’s sufferings. I think, despite all the upheavals, that relations between Christians and Muslims are still fundamentally good. But there are criminal groups, fanatics and terrorists who now see the Christians (especially professionals and merchants) as a source of easy money through kidnappings and blackmail. Recently, some priests have been kidnapped, and a bishop. They extorted money from them and let most go, but in some cases they were murdered.
Besides the tragic news from Iraq, for Christians there’s also the delicate matter of the Constitution. In the text it refers to the Sharia, though it also sanctions the principle of religious freedom…
The Constitution was approved in 2005, voted for by a large majority of the population. It embodies the desire of the Iraqi people to lead a normal life and live in peace. But it had a difficult birth. Before it could be voted on it was already being criticized by the same people who drafted it. A compromise was reached, to be revised after December 2005. Then it failed to guarantee the rights of religious minorities, considered victims of Islamic law. To guarantee religious freedom and then bring everyone under the Sharia is a blatant contradiction.
The Iraqi Christians are fragmented and have different interests. This weakens their power of concerted action when dealing with politics or institutions…
The Christians in Iraq had no experience in party politics. When the Saddam regime fell and a party-based system emerged, numerous Christians, including those who came back from abroad, wanted to create party formations. But, as I said before, the ethnic-religious fragmentation (Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syrians, Armenians, Catholics, Orthodox), and political and economic rivalries prevented them from really creating a formation where all Christians would feel represented. At present, there are only two Christian members of parliament.
At the same time, in Iraq there’s been a second “invasion,” by Protestant sects., The Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, H.E. Louis Sako recently stated that “they’re proselytizing aggressively among Catholics and Orthodox and in Baghdad alone they already have 36 new churches.” Doesn’t this risk increasing the difficulties Christians are already suffering from?
The sects arrived in the wake of the American soldiers. They’ve also been accused of favoritism and proselytism. Given the poverty in Iraq, people who can offer money and welfare have an easy time, and promises of emigration can be another lure. But it has to be recognized that the old established Churches in the country, Catholic and Orthodox, were unprepared to cope with the energy of the initiatives of pastors and their organizational skills. I really can’t tell how much Iraqi Christians are really convinced of the faith preached by the numerous sects, so different from what they’ve always practiced. Certainly, they’ve been able to attract hundreds of Christians and various young Muslims, and that’s upsetting the traditional inter-religious “peace.”
On a number of occasions, the Pope raised the alarm over the steady decline of the Christian presence in Iraq and the Middle East. Archbishop Mamberti, the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, recently issued a call “to support these communities, for their own sake and the part they can and should play.” How can we Christians in the West help these brothers of ours?
The Pope’s appeal is the same as that of the Iraqi Patriarchs and Bishops, who see their communities shrinking before their eyes. His appeal should arouse all Catholic Churches, all Orthodox Churches. As long as the guerrilla war and the terrorist attacks go on, there’s little to be done. Only peace will restore hope. Palliative measures might do some good. But for how long? By keeping its representative in Baghdad, the Church is openly encouraging the Christian community not to permanently abandon the land of Abraham, a land of many prophets and of a Christianity that has brought glory to the Church.
During the long years under Communist dictatorship, the Christians in Eastern Europe complained about our insensitivity, our indifference to their fate. Are we now, perhaps, acting in the same way toward our brothers in the Middle East?
The situation is different. The media are keeping us informed. The news comes and goes. But we have to avoid making what is happening in Iraq a war of religion. Pope John Paul II avoided it, and he was right. But the risk is always there, especially when we want to find some “religious” bond to seek to impose our ideas or our own political outlook. In this respect, the whole of the Middle East has features in common. As for Iraq, this country has had a harsh history. Its people have developed enormous powers of resistance. I believe one day they will learn to live together as a result of this resistance. But the way is still heartbreakingly long. It’s up to us to help them.