Â When Iraq’s new ambassador to the Holy See presented his credentials to the Holy See recently, Pope Benedict XVI stated unequivocally that the Church there was engaged in a struggle for its very survival. At the meeting in July 2010 with Habeeb Mohammed Hadi Ali al-Sadr, the Holy Father outlined the scale of the crisis now facing a Church which may date back as far as the 1st century AD. Stressing his concern that “Iraqi Christians should remain in their ancient homeland”, Pope Benedict alluded to the mass emigration of Christians in a country which, he said, needed “to give priority to improved security, particularly for the various minorities”.
The Pope’s statement comes as statistics showed that Iraq’s Christian population had plummeted from 1.4 million in 1987 to barely 200,000 today. The widespread emigration of Christians from Iraq dates back many years but after 2003 it sped up drastically thanks to a combination of violence in general and anti-Christian attacks in particular.
Initially, after the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, there were high hopes of a renewal of Christian life and inter-faith exchange. But everything changed on 1st August 2004 with coordinated attacks on five churches in the capital, Baghdad and Mosul, in north-west Iraq. Tens of thousands of Christians began fleeing Iraq’s borders amid reports of continuing attacks on churches and faithful especially in Baghdad, Mosul and the eastern city of Kirkuk.
The rise of extremist movements – both Shia and Sunni – putting pressure on Christians to convert was yet another factor forcing a mass migration of faithful to neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Turkey.
As well as helping stricken Christians massing, especially in the Kurdish north of the country, Aid to the Church in Need provided emergency support for refugees struggling for basic necessities, including food, housing and medical aid.
The symbolic peak of the crisis came on 3rd June 2007 when 35-year-old Iraqi priest Father Ragheed Ganni was killed soon after celebrating Mass in his parish church of the Holy Spirit, Mosul. According to an eye-witness report, a gunman who ambushed Father Ragheed’s car shouted at him: “I told you to close your church. Why didn’t you do it?” Father Ragheed replied: “How could I close the house of God?” With that, he was shot dead.
Less than nine months later, his Archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul suffered a similar fate. Kidnapped outside his cathedral where he had led a Way of the Cross service, the Archbishop died in captivity, his body discovered dumped in a shallow grave in the city to which he had dedicated his life.
In the autumn of 2008, a spate of attacks in Mosul climaxed with half the Christian population fleeing for the neighbouring Nineveh plains. Although by degrees the faithful returned, their security was always in doubt amid further attacks, most notably in spring 2009. And yet, even in these times of acute crisis, priests, Sisters and lay people have responded to the call of the Gospel in acts of courageous faith.
In January 2010, the then Father Amil Nona became aged 42 the youngest Catholic archbishop in the world when he replaced Paulos Faraj Rahho to became Archbishop of Mosul. That title quickly passed to the then Father Bashar Warda who aged just 41 was ordained Archbishop of Erbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq. Today, they lead a church with a growing number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life and consistently high Mass attendance.
The long-awaited general elections of 7th March 2010 held out the promise of a more moderate government but the tight contest prompted many Iraq observers to claim that the country has continued to suffer from the lack of strong and undisputed leadership.
Among the long-standing points of tension are the apparent contradictions implicit in Iraq’s 2005 constitution which on the one hand upheld freedom of religious practice as an inalienable human right but also enshrined Islamic sharia as an essential tenet of law and government.
In his comments to the new Iraqi ambassador in July 2010, Pope Benedict underlined: “The rights to freedom of religion and freedom of worship are paramount,” before adding: “I therefore hope and pray that these rights will not only be enshrined in legislation, but will come to permeate the very fabric of society – all Iraqis have a part to play in building a just, moral and peaceable environment.”
Given the tragedy of Iraq’s recent past, it is far from certain that such an “environment” will emerge in the short term. But, thanks to their youthful determination, today’s Iraq’s faithful may yet turn the page to write a very different chapter in the story of a Church which down the centuries has withstood vicissitudes without number.