“In a climate of insecurity and lawlessness in Iraq, the Christian community is suffering. To all Christians around the world we say: Do not abandon us.” This is the heartfelt appeal made by Bishop Shlemon Warduni, Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad, recently visiting the Vatican for a meeting with Benedict XVI. In his trip to Europe, Bishop Warduni is asking for solidarity and material support from Christian institutions for the reconstruction and renovation of churches and pastoral buildings in Baghdad, damaged by the attacks in recent months.
What is the current situation of the Christian community in Iraq?
Our situation sparks concern and pain. The context is well-known: for years, Iraq has been ravaged by internal and external wars that have robbed the people of peace and basic social services like health and education. The consequences of the last war and military occupation are tragic. The political instability and anarchy has generated misery and destruction. This is why many Christians – along with thousands of other citizens – have had to leave the country. We have lost about a third of our community. It is a tragedy of vast dimensions, which is witnessed by the world.
Have you noticed improvements in the last year? What do you hope from the new elections?
What has occurred is that the lack of political planning has led to the proliferation of terrorism, which today has its own agenda and destabilizes the country. Legality and security are lacking, the government is weak, and the elections (not yet established with certainty) will have to address these urgent needs, otherwise they will be useless. Meanwhile, attacks on churches and Christians continue: in the last two weeks there have been explosions in three churches in Mosul, not to mention in Baghdad, where three months ago a car bomb outside a church killed two young people and wounded 30, causing great material damage. [For us], tranquility is a small break between two attacks.
How do Iraqi Christians think and feel about the situation?
These episodes have a very negative effect on Christians. They sow fear and rob us of hope. It is not a question of “ethnic cleansing,” but looking at the overall situation there is a plan that intends to hurt us. Placing ten bombs in churches on the same day has a precise intention of intimidation. The fear and discouragement that circulates in the community leads to the flight of the faithful who fear for their lives and their families, rightly so.
What does Your Excellency think of the proposal to gather all Iraqi Christians in the Nineveh Plain area?
It is absurd and senseless. It would mean reducing the Christians to a ghetto, putting them in a cage, crushing them in the conflict between Arabs and Kurds. Christ told us to proclaim the Good News to the whole world: we are called to be salt, light, and leaven for the nation. They cannot be confined to a single territory on the grounds of religion.
What do you and your people wish to request from the government?
We ask the government to identify, pursue, and prevent terrorist attacks. We seek protection. We simply want our rights. Iraq is our country, we are Iraqi citizens just like the others. We have been in Iraq since the first century AD, when St. Thomas went to preach in our land. We were in Iraq for 600 years before the Muslims. We do not demand any special treatment, only respect for our dignity, for our freedoms and fundamental rights: to live in peace, proclaim the Gospel and help build our nation.
What appeal do you make to the international community?
We ask the international community to offer stronger and more decisive aid. Strong pressures are needed from Western governments to stabilize the framework of Iraq and restore legality and safety. The governments that promote democracy and human rights, who are ready to defend their economic interests in Iraq, should also work to eradicate terrorism and promote peace and legality in Iraq.
How are you preparing to live Christmas?
Christmas will be a critical time. It is during all the major Christian festivals when attacks occur and the climate of intimidation increases. Our Catholic community is a fervent one, but people are afraid to come to church. We hope that God will grant us peace and help us to celebrate the feast of Christmas with courage.
What do ask from the Pope and from all the Christians in the world?
To support us, to not leave us to our own devices, to raise their voices to defend us in the international community. To all believers in Christ in the world, we say: pray and help the victims of violence, war, and terrorism. Remember the suffering people of Iraq, who have suffered for so many years. The Holy Father, whom I met with yesterday, has assured me of his prayers and support for Iraq and all Iraqis.