Bishop’s fear for Iraqi Christians

suttonc200812230816141.jpgThe Bishop of Norwich, the Right Rev. Graham James: speaking out on plight of Iraqi Christians

The Bishop of Norwich last night launched a thinly veiled attack on the government’s pursuit of war in Iraq claiming it had led to the persecution of fellow Christians in that country.

Wading into a potential clash with ministers, the Rt Rev Graham James said an overwhelmingly secular mindset at the heart of government, and a poor understanding of faith in other parts of the world had fuelled a policy which had left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians in greater danger than ever before.

For centuries Christian groups have been tolerated in Iraq and even Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Tariq Aziz was a Christian.

But since the fall of Saddam, five years ago, more than two-thirds of Christians, around 300,000 people, have either fled the country or faced persecution or torture because Iraqis wrongly believe they are linked to western governments.

On the eve of Christmas, Bishop Graham said both Britain and America were guilty of a “religious illiteracy” which had led to a lack of understanding about the fallout from the occupation, adding that it was tragic that two western powers with a strong Christian tradition may have almost eclipsed one of the longest surviving churches in the world.

And they had failed to do more to protect Christians and other minority groups.

“The consequences of the war have been terrible for the Christian community in Iraq, there’s an irony about this,” he said. “There have been examples of hostages being taken and churches being looted and burned. The thing that people do not always recognise about Iraq is that it has one of the oldest Christian churches in the world that’s been there since before Mohammed was born. These churches have always been recognised by the majority muslin population.

“There is this mindset which tends to see religion as something of private significance to people,” he added. “I don’t think that the majority of the advisors to the British and American government had any idea of what the consequences would be. That suggests to me that religion and its place in the world isn’t taken seriously enough.”

It is the second time in the last week where a senior Church of England cleric has been critical of government policies. Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams clashed with Gordon Brown after stating that the government’s plan to stave off the recession by boosting spending and borrowing were like “an addict returning to the drug”.

Bishop Graham said he decided to speak out because he was disappointed that the Prime Minister had failed to mention the plight of Christians in Iraq when he set out a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq last week. He said the issue had also largely been ignored by the media.

Last week he also raised the issue during a speech in the House of Lords when, in addition, he pressed ministers for assurances that measures would be in place to help returning servicemen cope with the psychological effects of the war.

“It would seem very strange to me if a Christian bishop did not speak out on behalf of Christians in other parts of the world where they are suffering,” Bishop Graham added. “While nothing much to do with the western church one of the by-products of the war is to be treated with suspicion.

“A significant minority of the Iraqi population were Christian. There’s been at least two-thirds that have either left or been marginalised and in some circumstances killed.”

Bishop Graham said he had contact with one of the churches, St Georges in Baghdad, where he had learned of the persecution faced by Christians. One of the worst acts saw the murder of the Archbishop of the Chaldean Church in March.