Saturday, June 23, 2007

Christian suffering continues in Iraq.

For a while I've been meaning to publish a post with an update on the situation of Iraqi Christians. Those who share my concern for the future of the Middle East's ancient Christian communities don't need to go to this blog for information, but I suspect that most of my regular readers don't get much news about a humanitarian crisis that has received very little attention from the world media. Hence my periodic updates on Christianity in Iraq. I've been meaning to post this particular update for several days, but the demands of my work at Catholic Charities - about which I hope to write more in the coming days - have left me with little time or energy for blogging. With apologies for the delay, here's a brief update on the situation in Iraq as reported by the ever-faithful AsiaNews.

The first story comes from the beginning of the month; I'm not sure how much attention it received at the time, as I was on retreat and wasn't reading the newspaper or checking the Internet. On June 3rd, 34-year-old Chaldean Catholic priest Father Ragheed Ganni and three subdeacons were shot and killed after the Sunday liturgy at a church in Mosul. Father Ganni and his companions were immediately hailed as martyrs by Iraq's Chaldean Catholic bishops. The funeral liturgy for the four men was attended by Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly and Chaldean bishops from throughout the country and abroad. Subsequent reports indicated that the assailants who murdered the four clerics first presented them with a brutal choice: convert to Islam or die. Many other Iraqi Christians are facing similar threats, as AsiaNews reports in a story on the Christian families who are continuing to flee Baghdad.

The second story I have to report is a sadly familiar one: Iraqi Christians continue to be targetted by kidnappers. A young Chaldean Catholic priest who was escorting five young men on a visit to the Chaldean minor seminary in Baghdad were abducted in early June; the five youths were released the following day, but the priest was held for almost two weeks before being released unharmed. Just last week, a group of eight Christians - five students returning home after taking university entrance exams and three of their teachers - were abducted near Mosul. These hostages were released after a couple days, but their brief captivity was enough to persuade local Christian leaders to discontinue a daily bus service running between Mosul and nearby Christian villages. Intended to help Christian university students commute to school, the service instead became an easy target for terrorist groups eager to intimidate Iraqi Christians.

The third story I'd like to call to your attention is the continued debate over the so-called "Plains of Nineveh" project to corral Iraqi Christians into a small region in Northern Iraq where they would allegedly enjoy greater security and protection. This plan to create a semi-autonomous "Assyrian enclave" enjoys the support of many in the Iraqi diaspora and some non-Christian politicians in Iraq, as AsiaNews reported earlier this month. However, many articulate representatives of the Christian community remaining in Iraq have voiced strong opposition to the plan. A lucid and succinct summary of some of the many flaws in the so-called 'safe zone' plan may be found in this article by Father Saad Hanna Sirop, a young Chaldean Catholic priest who spent nearly a month as a hostage last August. As previously noted on this blog, one of the most outspoken critics of the "Plains of Nineveh" project is Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk. Archbishop Sako reiterates his principled - and, to my mind, very wise - opposition to the proposal for a Christian safe zone in two articles posted on the AsiaNews website this month.

In his first article, Archbishop Sako calls on Iraqi Christians "to abandon this risky ghetto project. As Christians, we must have a presence everywhere, to witness our identity among others." Rather than embrace ghettoization, Sako argues that Iraqi Christians should unite across denominational lines to work for peace and reconciliation in their country. Instead of offering "propaganda" in favor of the safe zone proposal, Iraqi Christians in the diaspora should focus on providing material aid to recent refugees as well as assistance to Christians remaining in Iraq. In his second article, Archbishop Sako looks more closely at the safe zone proposal and finds that the proposed enclave lacks the infrastructure to support the thousands of Christians who would presumably flock there. Furthermore, he notes, the putative safe zone may actually leave Christians more vulnerable to attack. Expressing concern that adoption of the safe zone proposal might establish a precedent that would adversely impact Christian communities in other Middle Eastern countries, Sako concludes by repeating his insistence on the critical role of Iraq's ancient Christian community in preserving a pluralistic society. "The problem is not between Christians and Muslims," he writes, "the problem is fundamentalism which excludes others, [and] annihilates them for religious or ethnic reasons. The solution is to encourage a culture of pluralism, [and to] help people acknowledge one another as humans and recognise in each other an absolute value... Creating closed 'cantons' for Christians or other communities would be a catastrophe for our world."

I believe that Archbishop Sako is absolutely right - but I fear that very few are listening to voices like his. In a time of great despair, Sako offers a hopeful vision of a better future for all of Iraq's religious communities. I pray that his voice will be heard, and I pray for the people of Iraq. AMDG.


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