Bishops: Situation Bleak for Christians in Iraq

 By: Edward Pentin

An Iraqi Catholic bishop has decried the silence of the international community in the face of ongoing Christian persecution in Iraq, while another has called on Pope Benedict XVI to hold a major church council to address the problem of Christians fleeing the Middle East.

The bishops, part of a delegation visiting the Pope at the Vatican, also expressed hope that President Barack Obama would not withdraw U.S.-led troops until there was peace and security in Iraq.

Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad strongly criticised the poor international response when, last October, more than 15,000 Christians living in Mosul were forced to flee for their lives after at least 13 Christians were killed in one month.

“We shouted, but nobody listened to us, either in Iraq, or in America, or in Europe,” he said. “This problem must be known about so the government will do something in the interests of all Iraqis.”

The Iraqi bishops said they were particularly concerned about the large numbers of Christians leaving the country because of the violence and poor living conditions. An estimated 5 million Iraqis have been displaced since the Iraq War began in 2003, of which 2 million have emigrated to other countries.

Bishop Warduni said that refugees usually want to come back to Iraq for the first 3-6 months, but after that they’ll “let go of the idea.” “They see a country where there’s no work, welfare, where some families don’t have enough to eat for supper,” he said.

“It’s a point of conscience for the world because not enough has been done so far to resolve this situation,” said the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, Luis Sako. He called on Pope Benedict XVI to hold a Synod, or major church council, to work on a strategy to prevent a continuing exodus, not only from Iraq but the whole Middle East. Christians are also leaving in large numbers Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, he said.

“It is urgent that the church takes a clear position in regards to the problems [of Middle East Christians] otherwise Christians will leave this land,” he warned. He said the refugee crisis is of particular concern because he strongly believes that Christians are a “force for stability” and have much to offer the region, and to Muslims in particular.

“We need to remember that the church is not only prayer and liturgy,” he said. “Even our Muslim brothers expect something from us, and we are there to help them understand pluralism.”

He pointed out that the number of Christians fleeing has increased sharply over the past 12 months because of a rise in violence. He referred to a spate of bombings on churches, the assassination of Iraqi Archbishop Faraj Rahho, the kidnappings of various religious workers, and the attacks in Mosul. As well as the archbishop, the bishops noted that over the past five years 500 Iraqi Christians have been killed, including four priests.

The Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Basile Casmoussa, said only if Iraqi Christians have schools, universities, work, equal rights of citizenship, and not just tolerance, will they return to their homeland. “We had problems before 2003 but now they are a hundred times worse,” he said, adding: “The problem is not the Americans, who will leave sooner or later. The problem in Iraq is the denial of the fact that the majority does not accept the minority.”

The bishops reported recent improvements, including a fall in the number of bombings and suicide attacks, but stressed that the future for Christians remains “very bleak.”

They welcomed President Obama’s words, given during his inauguration, in which he stressed the need to “responsibly” leave Iraq to its people. “That is what we want,” said Bishop Warduni. “Bring peace, bring security and then leave. [Take] the oil but leave us in peace, then we can live tranquil lives and enjoy our ordinary and human rights.”

“If the world and the major powers want to resolve the problem [of the war in Iraq] they can,” he said, but he stressed they must do so with the best interests of the Iraqis in mind and give complete control of Iraq back to the Iraqis.

For his part, Archbishop Sako said there will be no peace in Iraq while there is animosity between the various religions in the country