As U.S. Troops Ready to Leave, Christians Pray
Share by Doreen Abi Raad
Amid President Obamaâ€™s announcement that the United States will bring home the remainder of its troops from Iraq by the end of this year, Church leaders in Iraq said the situation for the countryâ€™s Christians remains unchanged. Yet they expressed hope for their future.
â€œEven with the American presence here, we have had problems â€” explosions, kidnappings, murders, attacks on Christian churches,â€ said Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, a flashpoint in the conflict.
Since the American-led invasion in 2003, Archbishop Sako said, violence has claimed the lives of 905 Iraqi Christians, including one bishop, five priests and a number of sub-deacons. Despite the U.S. presence in the country, 54 churches have been bombed, mainly Chaldean. Prior to the invasion, Christians in Iraq numbered 800,000 to 1 million. Now just 400,000 to a half million remain.
â€œThe situation is still fragile and not stable. We donâ€™t know what will be next with the pullout,â€ Archbishop Sako said.
â€œWe are worried about the security, about our borders and the unity of our country. Who will watch them and protect them? Who will guarantee the unity of our land with the new sectarian mentality? The Iraqi army and police are not well trained. They donâ€™t have the appropriate weapons.â€
Archbishop Sako said there still has not been any reconciliation between the countryâ€™s various ethnic, political and religious groups, nor with the members of the old regime. â€œNot all of them were criminals,â€ he said.
The Iraqi government is still not completely formed, the archbishop reported.
â€œWe have fears, but we also have hopes that the Iraqis will take seriously their responsibilities, make a real reconciliation. They have to forget the past and to prepare a better future. They should forgive each other for the benefit of the country and not [seek to] take revenge,â€ he added.
â€œEmigration is continuing, and, also, there is no real vision for the future. We Christians can be attacked at any time.
â€œThe only way to live together in harmony and peace â€” not just for Iraq, but for all the countries in the region â€” is to have a good army, security and a constitution based on human rights and not based only on the consideration of the religion and ethnicity of the individual. The priority should be that all Iraqis are citizens. The government should not make the distinction of individuals based on their religion and ethnicity and give them privileges for that. The Muslim majority and other religious minorities should have the same dignity, rights and also responsibilities,â€ the archbishop stated.
Bashar Warda, the 42-year-old Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, is counting on all religious and ethnic groups represented in the country to work together to forge a future.
â€œI am trusting that the Iraqis will work together, whether the American troops are here or not,â€ said Bishop Warda, who was installed last year.
â€œThe pullout is a big challenge for all Iraqis to examine themselves, that they are willing and able to make a good future for all Iraq,â€ Bishop Warda said.
â€œI am an optimist that things will work for the good, not because of the pullout, but because of the awareness of the Iraqis about so many issues concerning our living as Iraqis and the development of our life. I think we have learned so much â€” about dialogue, politics, health care, development of our country.â€
Mosulâ€™s Chaldean Catholic Bishop Amel Nona took a darker view of the evolving situation: â€œThere are many Christians leaving, because they donâ€™t see hope for their future.â€
During this extended period of crisis, Bishop Nona has urged Iraqi Christians â€œto go deeper into our faith. If we live our faith like true Christians â€” like Christ â€” we can better support our hardships,â€ said the 44-year-old bishop, who was also installed last year.
Shlemon Warduni, curial bishop of the Chaldean Catholic patriarchate in Baghdad, said: â€œWe have been harmed too much: our Church, our Christians. More than half of our people [Christians] have gone. â€¦ This situation caused too many people to emigrate from Iraq, especially Christians, because there is no work for them because there is no peace and security. This is the problem.â€
â€œI am not a politician, but the least I can say is that I just want peace and security for my country,â€ said Bishop Warduni, who was recently appointed president of Caritas Iraq.
â€œSo, whether the American troops stay or go, we want peace, just as everyone wants peace for their country. â€¦ We need peace and security and justice for our people.â€
In Baghdad, Yousif Mansoor Abba, installed in April as Syriac Catholic bishop for the diocese, was preparing in late October for the Nov. 1 memorial Mass at Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, which came under siege during Sunday evening Mass on Oct. 31, 2010.
By the time the military raided the Baghdad cathedral to free the hostages, 45 faithful, including two priests, had been killed and more than 100 were wounded. Pope Benedict XVI condemned the â€œsavageâ€ attack on the cathedral, saying, â€œI pray for the victims of this absurd violence, even more ferocious in that it has been inflicted upon defenseless people gathered in Godâ€™s house, which is a house of love and reconciliation.â€
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan was planning to travel from Lebanon to celebrate the memorial Mass. Anticipating the time for prayer with his flock there, the patriarch said he hopes â€œto inspire in them hope and courage to stand up against terrorism and violence.â€ Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai was also scheduled to participate.
â€œWe will pray for the martyrs and ask God to give us peace,â€ said Bishop Abba of the memorial Mass at the cathedral, which is still under renovation. â€œWe ask for prayers for peace.â€
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.
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