Iraq: Speaking with one voice

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acn3003_iraq1.jpgACN News / By John Pontifex
A LEADING archbishop from Iraq has received backing from the country’s president to set up a ‘Council of Christians’ to address key challenges threatening the Church’s survival in their ancient homeland.
Determined to shore up confidence among Christians after January’s wave of attacks on church buildings across the country, Archbishop Louis Sako is putting the finishing touches to a 30-member committee tasked with helping the faithful to secure their place in Iraq’s future.

Speaking from Iraq in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Sako said that as the council’s acting president, he had received express support for the plan from Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani.
With a remit covering Kirkuk, the northern city where Mgr Sako is Archbishop, the council breaks new ecumenical ground, bringing together representatives from five key Christian denominations – Chaldeans, Armenians, the Assyrians as well as Syrian Orthodox and Catholics.
Broken up into committees tackling key issues, the council will examine social, cultural and inter-faith relations, backed up by a press office to promote awareness of its activity and involvement from outside groups.
Archbishop Sako told ACN: “For too long, the Christians have struggled to get their views heard in the main debates of the day because so often they don’t speak with one voice.”
The Chaldean cleric, who discussed the plan with President Talabani during his visit to Kirkuk two weeks ago added: “The main purpose is that Christians should have a united front.
“If we have demands, we should present them together. We should not be separated and thereby enfeebled.”
The Archbishop said that a lack of unity compounded the problem of Christians living as a minority of just 12,000 in a city of one million.
But numbers of Christians in the region are being bolstered by new arrivals escaping poverty and persecution elsewhere in the country.
Archbishop Sako, an outspoken critic of a scheme to create a so-called ‘safe haven’ for Iraq Christians in the Nineveh Plains outside Mosul, said the Council would address topical issues in a way that complements the work of Catholics and Orthodox across the party divide.
Archbishop Sako, who said his council presidency was strictly temporary, went on: “The risk is that the political parties will not accept the council. They think we may try to replace them. This is not our goal at all.”
He went on: “The problem is that the Christians do not feel part of the political process – that their views are not being represented as well as they could be.
“They are tired. They feel hopeless and disappointed because they do not know how long it will take for the situation to be stabilised.”
Successive co-ordinated attacks on Church communities – the most recent in early January, when a dozen or more churches were targeted – have weakened the country’s Christian presence beyond recognition, with reports that at least half the population have fled abroad, leaving fewer than 600,000 behind.
Archbishop Sako said having a stake in the country’s future was key to the faithful rebuilding confidence.
He added: “We have good relations with so many groups of people in Kirkuk. They appreciate what we do. We need to realise that our presence is not about how many there are of us but how we are behaving and what we are saying.”
The archbishop said that he hoped the scheme would prove successful enough to be adopted across the country, leading to the creation of a national council of Christians.

Editor’s Notes:

Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.

Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An Outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 145 countries throughout the world.

The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 45 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide.

For more information, please contact the Sydney office of ACN on (02) 9679-1929. e-mail: info@aidtochurch.org or write to Aid to the Church in Need PO Box 6245 Blacktown DC NSW 2148. Web:www.aidtochurch.org