John Pontifex and John Newton
AN Iraqi bishop close to the scene of some of the worst persecution against Christians in modern times is to visit the UK to tell his story.
Archbishop Jean Sleiman is flying to London from Baghdad where he ministers to a dwindling Christian community who are fleeing the region in their thousands.
The Iraqi capital has suffered especially badly with Muslim extremists pressurising Christians to convert or face retribution such as eviction from their homes, massive fines, abduction and sometimes torture.
Offering a key insight into the crisis, Archbishop Sleiman will be guest-of-honour at the Aid to the Church in Need Westminster Event on Saturday, 27th September.
The Carmelite, who ministers to Iraq’s Latin-rite Catholic community, will preside at the 10.30am sung Mass at Westminster Cathedral and afterwards will give the keynote address in the afternoon of talks being staged in the cathedral hall.
In interviews and other reports, Archbishop Sleiman has repeatedly highlighted the plight of the Christian community in Iraq, which since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has dwindled from 800,000 to perhaps only 300,000.
Warning that “everything points towards the death of Christianity in Iraq”, Archbishop Sleiman has said: “Even though you find friendships among Christians and Muslims, Christians are facing attacks from a minority of extremists from all sides Â Sunnis and Shiites.”
Archbishop Sleiman’s address at the ACN Event will be followed by a speech by Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad, in Pakistan, a country where beleaguered Christians are suffering an upsurge in persecution.
Bishop Coutts, who has received death threats in the past, is expected to describe how, despite the problems, the Church is able to work towards peace and justice for all religious communities.
Islamic extremism has mushroomed in Pakistan and the country’s 2.5 million Christian population is under threat from the so-called Blasphemy Laws which put non-Muslims at risk of imprisonment or death for alleged offences against the prophet Mohammed and the Qur’an.
Expecting a “sell-out” attendance at the event, ACN UK’s National Director Neville Kyrke-Smith said: “Pope Benedict has called on Aid to the Church in
Need to make the Middle East a priority for our work Â as the Churches in there are threatened in their very existence. It is therefore a privilege and encouragement to ACN’s benefactors that Archbishop Sleiman will be among us.
“As Christians in Pakistan continue to face intimidation, difficulties and oppression, we also look forward to hearing a message of hope from Bishop Joseph Coutts. It is bound to be a fascinating and inspiring day.”
Mr Kyrke-Smith will also address the conference, reporting on the Church’s struggle in the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. ACN’s John Pontifex will also give a talk.
Aid to the Church in Need’s Westminster Event on Saturday, 27th September 2008 begins with Mass at Westminster Cathedral at 10.30am. Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad will preside. Afterwards both Archbishop Sleiman and Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad, Pakistan, will give addresses in Westminster Cathedral Hall. The talks begin at 12 noon. Tickets are Â£5 each. For information, visit www.acnuk.org or telephone 020 8642 8668.