John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need discovers unexpected signs of hope during a perilous visit to Iraq’s Christian community
Fresh-faced and cheerful, the young priest suddenly frowns: “I recently received a letter at the presbytery. Inside was a bullet. I knew at once what it meant,” he says: “I was a marked man.”
At just 27 Fr Bassman Fatoohey has taken over as Patriarchal Vicar of Mosul in northern Iraq. Barely two years into his priesthood, he has filled the vacuum left by Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul, who died in captivity last March, two weeks after being kidnapped outside his cathedral. With other clergy suffering a similar fate, Fr Bassman is one of the only clergy now left in Mosul. I soon discover that the man sitting behind the young priest as we talk in the calm of Karamles, near Mosul, is in fact his guard. Except he carries no weapons. “There’s no point,” says Fr Bassman. “Any attacks against us are so well organised that if it happens, we know there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
The case of Fr Bassman represents everything that is so seemingly hopeless about the future of Christianity in Iraq. And seeing such sufferings up close brought home the depth of the crisis, the seemingly intractable nature of the problems the Christians face. But, as we were to discover, paradoxically their vulnerability holds the key to their strength and a renewal of hope.
And in tracing the causes of the crisis facing a Church that dates back to the first century AD, Mosul is a good place to start. This city, for so long a centre of Christian life and culture, has witnessed a dramatic exodus of the faithful – a decline from 25,000 to 5,000 in just four years, according to Fr Bassman. But beyond the widely reported figures lies the little-known stories of suffering and fear. One such involved Sr Hayat, who I also interviewed in a village outside Mosul. The 25-year-old, who is based mostly in Mosul, said that since 2004 several bombs had gone off close to the convent. Now, only very rarely do the Sisters venture outside. Trying to put a brave face on things, she said: “There is no need for an alarm clock; we wake to the sound of bombs.” Once she narrowly escaped death when a man standing near her was killed. Her clothes were splattered with blood. “If you want to see blood,” she said trying to smile, “come to Mosul.”
Close to the region controlled by the semi-autonomous government of Kurdistan, Mosul stands apart, the greater part of it under the control of Islamist militants. In the nearby village of Qaraqosh we heard that the Church was forced to stop funding a bus service for 1,000 students at Mosul University after eight were kidnapped. Young people feel they have no choice but to start a new life elsewhere.
This is not a minority view. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have already fled Iraq, and there are countless more anxious to leave. Welcoming us to Qaraqosh, Archbishop Georges Casmoussa began by saying that he was constantly besieged by people requesting copies of marriage certificates and other documentation which they hope will guarantee them an all-important visa. Reporting how in the past 10 days he knew of more than 100 Christians making for Turkey from Qaraqosh and another village near Mosul, he said: “We belong to the land, here in Iraq, but how can we be expected to continue here?”
Nor is this the case just in the region immediately around deadly centres of violence such as Mosul. The wish to emigrate and start a new life outside the country – preferably in the West – was to become a persistent theme among the many people we met, including those in the mountainous regions in the far north close to the border with Turkey and Syria.
For the religious leaders the number one challenge is to convince the people to believe there is still a future for Christianity in Iraq. Would-be emigrants are not aware that accommodation for asylum seekers in Turkey, Syria and elsewhere consists of a small room shared between six. Nor that new arrivals in such countries are refused visas to the West.
Against the odds there are people willing to take on the seemingly impossible task of keeping Christianity alive in Iraq. Chief among them is Archbishop Louis Sako. Not without risk to our safety, we went to visit him in Kirkuk, a city at the centre of a land dispute between the Baghdad government and the Kurdish authorities. Kirkuk is a city where Christians have dwindled from 30,000 to 7,000 in under 40 years. Determined to stem the flow of emigrants, the pint-sized archbishop is doing everything in his power to encourage his faithful to stay. Undaunted by a January 2007 bomb that destroyed a perimeter wall just behind his cathedral the archbishop has built up – with Aid to the Church in Need’s help – a complex of facilities for his faithful: computer rooms, a clinic, conference room and a hall, which as we entered was echoing to the sounds of a well-attended engagement party.
“Iraq is the place for us to be,” said Archbishop Sako. And it seems to be working. Among the people we spoke to after a packed Sunday evening Mass, some 1,000 strong, was an engineer recently returned from a training scheme in Folkestone, Kent. He said: “I have absolutely no intention of leaving. We have a duty to stay.” In their favour are advantages that make Kirkuk special, not least job opportunities with petroleum companies. Kirkuk is oil-rich, as was evident immediately we neared the city and saw giant flames leaping up into the darkening skies.
Elsewhere there are signs of hope of wider significance. Across the mountainous regions in the extreme north new villages have sprung up to replace those ransacked during Saddam’s campaigns against the Kurds. A massive building project with seemingly countless numbers of three-or-four-room bungalows has provided shelter for Christians fleeing persecution. As well as receiving new homes, they receive a basic allowance. This act of generosity by the Kurdish Regional Government baffles many Church leaders uncertain about the pay-back the authorities may require in the future. But at a time of crisis they are reluctant to decline a gift. And while for many former Baghdad and other city dwellers starting afresh in a completely rural environment is a wrench from everything they have known it gives them new opportunities and new hope. With many basic humanitarian needs now met, ACN’s priority is to help bishops such as Rabban al Qas, Bishop of Amadiyah, to rebuild the community of faith with catechetical centres, children’s Bibles and seminary formation. And there are many willing to help to shoulder the burden.
In one village we met a catechist called Batul who had fled the persecution that swept the Baghdad district of Dora. When church after church fell victim to attacks and Christians were forced out, she earned the respect of even the most fanatical Muslims by searching out the dead among the ruins and burying them. Now back in the village home to her family for years she works with hundreds of young people singing and teaching Christianity in a centre built in 2002 with ACN funds. Many of her family have left for Sweden and other countries in the West but she believes her mission is to stay. She said simply: “It is not possible to do anything without faith.”
That faith has been sorely tested over many generations but rarely as much as in the last few years. The instinctive response of so many Christians in Iraq is to leave everything they have ever known and start again in the West. But those they leave behind have a brighter future than many thought possible. They are looking for leadership. And in their darkest hour, the example of courage and determination comes from those whose suffering is greatest. The most moving moment of my encounter with Mosul’s Fr Bassman was when I asked him if he was scared. He replied: “If there’s any point at which I am afraid, I will leave. Despite being tired and exhausted, I am happy and satisfied in what I am doing.”
Aid to the Church in Need is hosting an event at Westminster Cathedral this Saturday, September 27, to focus on Iraq, where Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad will be principal celebrant at the 10.30am Mass. For more information visit www.acnuk.org