Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Iraqi Christians in The Tablet.

Having been busy with papers and exam prep the last couple weeks, I've missed a few articles that I otherwise might have brought to your attention. Hoping that it's better late than never, I'd like to point out an article I came across recently in the November 25th issue of The Tablet on an issue of special concern, the plight of Iraqi Christians. Written by John Pontifex of the Catholic relief agency Aid to the Church in Need (UK), the article is available online - but only to registered readers of The Tablet. For the benefit of readers interested in the situation of the Iraqi church, some excerpts from the article follow. If you're able to get your hands on a print copy of The Tablet or are willing to register for the online version, I think you'll find the rest of the text well worth reading. For now, here's a taste of it:

[J]ust who is bearing the brunt of the incessant fighting [in Iraq]? The media have given very full reports of the internecine warfare that has broken out between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Nor indeed is the Kurdish question overlooked, particularly as the debate intensifies over the possible break-up of Iraq into three groups.

There is nonetheless a fourth group who appear to have been airbrushed from the media portrait of Iraq. They are a people who, it turns out, have most to lose from this apparently never-ending conflict. Christianity in Iraq is staring oblivion in the face. A population of 1.2 million, mostly made up of ancient-rite Catholic Chaldeans, enjoyed some measure of protection under Saddam Hussein's regime, which was secular by Middle East standards. It is now clear that they have been rendered virtually defenceless in the ebb and flow of conflict, which over time has become ever more deadly, ever more driven by politico-religious zeal.

It was not always like this, or at least not if the Iraqi bishops are to be believed. Especially in the early days after the overthrown of Saddam, reports to charities such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) were full of optimism that the turmoil was by its very nature transitory. Indeed, Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk saw the time of change as an historic opportunity for the Christian community. He suggested that ancient-rite Churches had much to offer their Muslim neighbours, not just in terms of their own highly developed educational and professional skills, but also through introducing fresh thinking on the relationship between religion and society.

Now things could not be more different. That the total civilian dead could be as high as 150,000 - or 655,000 if The Lancet medical journal is to be believed - is sadly only one symptom of the crisis. A catalogue of disastrous events has unfolded, each one quicker in succession than the last. The fall of key parts of the country to militia control has gathered pace, each zone dominated by a "mini-Saddam," as one Baghdad priest put it to me.

If there was an all-important turning point for the Christians of Iraq, it took place last summer. The kidnapping and murder of three priests, Fr Saad Sirup Hanna, Fr Raad Washan and Fr Basil Yaldo, came as the militia stranglehold over Baghdad was reaching its zenith. The onset of ethnic cleansing under a religious banner, apparently so alien to the Iraqi way of life, had begun in earnest. According to priests close to ACN, the capture of the three men and the torture they suffered were seen by the faithful as the moment when the presence of Christianity in this, their most ancient home, was no longer tolerable. If there was no respect left for the priests, the people could expect no mercy either. As fellow Baghdad priest Fr Bashar Warda told me: "It was the sign that we had to leave the area altogether."
After detailing other atrocities against priests and laypeople - including the beheading of a Syrian Orthodox priest in Mosul and the crucifixion of a 14-year-old boy in Basra - Pontifex describes how a mass exodus has depleted Iraq's Christian communities and created a refugee crisis as thousands of Iraqi Christians seek shelter and safety in neighboring countries. As for those who stay in Iraq, "[t]he only forces holding back these remaining Christians from fleeing Iraq would seem to be extreme poverty, illness or the very real fear of kidnap. The hope of better times to come has vanished - at least for the time being. For most, they can no longer put off the day of their departure." Though "these blows to Christianity may turn out to be fatal," Pontifex writes, these tragic events "have failed to show up on the media radar, despite journalists' constant struggle to find a new angle on an old story." Church leaders outside Iraq are starting to speak out on the plight of Iraqi Christians - the U.S. Catholic Bishops, for example, have come out with an open letter on the issue - but it remains to be seen whether their intervention will do any good. As Pontifex writes:
Reports of these events, slow to catch the eye of the media, have a significance that has not been lost on the US Catholic Bishops' Conference. Determined to play their part in raising awareness of the near annihilation of Christianity in Iraq, they have written to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling for the creation of a safe haven for Christians. The creation of what the bishops call "an administrative region," governed by Baghdad but controlled by the Kurds, has, according to Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, the advantage of offering the Christians "greater safety and more opportunity to control their affairs."

But before Ms Rice or indeed President Bush leap on the US bishops' plans in a bid to restore lost faith, especially among the disenchanted conservative Christian Right of America, they should hear out the objections raised by Archbishop Sako of Kirkuk. For a start, he dismisses as "difficult and risky" the idea of the safe zone for Christians, which is planned for the Nineveh plains outside the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Bishop Antoine Audo went further, saying: "The Sunnis in Mosul will take this ['safe-zone' plan] as a pretext to attack the Christians. The Sunnis will say: 'Look, the Christians are asking for independence from us. We must stop them.' The Christian has to live with everybody else. That is the way it should be."
In a larger sense, vocal leaders of the Iraqi Christian community like Archbishop Sako question whether any plan from the United States - whether its initiative comes from within the Catholic Church or from the government - will help Chaldean Catholics and members of Iraq's other Christian churches overcome the distrust of their fellow citizens. Pontifex continues:
The religion shared by the Iraqi Christians and the US forces has for so long been a delicate issue. Archbishop Sako and the faithful have fought a desperate public relations battle with the Muslim majority to show that they are no fifth column in league with so-called latter-day Crusaders. It is difficult to know which part of the safe-zone plan Archbishop Sako finds more abhorrent - the content of the scheme, or the fact that it would be masterminded by the Americans. It is a sign of just how bleak things have become. Given the semi-religious zeal with which President Bush pursued the war in Iraq, it is ironic that the biggest loser in the whole sorry affair is the country's ancient Christianity, which stands on the brink of extinction.
I have nothing to add, except what I've said before. Pray for the Christians of Iraq, and tell others what is happening to them. AMDG.


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