Christians in Iraq ten years after the fall of Saddam Hussein – An interview with Archbishop Nona

By Oliver Maksan
Q) Your Excellency, ten years after the American-led invasion of Iraq many Christians are saying: Saddam was definitely a dictator, but the situation under him was better than the chaos we have experienced since. Do you agree?

Archbishop Nona: “The present situation in Iraq is the result of what has been sown over the past forty years or more. So it isn’t easy to explain what is happening in our country. In order to do this you would have to go back in history to know what the social, political and religious factors are that have shaped the personality of present-day Iraqis. You can’t justify the situation of Iraq under Saddam simply in terms of security, however. Rather you have to know the whole situation he created to judge whether it was better or worse.”

Q) Do you now believe that the situation of the Church is beginning to stabilise after years of chaos?

Archbishop Nona: “The situation of the Church depends to a large extent on the situation of Iraq as a whole. It is well known that the situation ten years after Saddam’s fall is far from stable. Apart from this, all the persecution and pressure the Church has been subjected to over the years have ensured that there is still no clear vision for the future. All this, combined with the continuing emigration of Christians, prevents the Church in Iraq as a whole from finding normality and stability. This has been achieved in a number of dioceses and parishes in certain areas, but as a whole we still need time to stabilise.”

(Archbishop Nona © Aid to the Church in Need)

Q) But do you believe there is a possibility of putting a stop to the Christian exodus?

Archbishop Nona: “The exodus of Iraqi Christians is a fact rooted in a variety of motives, and cannot be reduced to a single one. We therefore can’t speak of only a single possibility for stemming the exodus. Rather we have to discuss different ways of stopping it. There are a wealth of problems here: the general situation in the country, the lack of security and the economic situation. Furthermore there are the changes in society, such as the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. None of this helps in stemming the Christian exodus.”

Q) How many Christians have left the country?

Archbishop Nona: “It’s difficult to say. I estimate about sixty per cent, if not more.”

Q) Is the Iraqi government aware of the difficult situation facing Christians?

Archbishop Nona: “What one hears from those responsible in the Iraqi government about the Christians is always good, but there is no real solution to our problems.”

Q) Could the West perhaps help here? For example by exerting diplomatic pressure?

Archbishop Nona: “I think the West can do a lot. But it’s essential to define more precisely what one means by the West. If one means Western policy, then I don’t think we can expect a lot. If by the West we mean the society there, then a lot can still be achieved, by helping the Christians in Iraq through projects in secure areas for example.”

Q) You mentioned a growing Islamic fundamentalism. Where does this come from? Is it due to external influences?

Archbishop Nona: “Iraqi Islam was never fundamentalist. But after 2003 a radical and fundamentalist Islam arose throughout Iraq. And once there, it’s very difficult, not to say impossible, to eradicate it again. But the problem is not fundamentalism, but the islamisation of society. Iraqi society has changed a lot. It has become more Islamist and more radical. This is the result of all these fundamentalist groups and a policy which exploits religion to achieve its objectives. Fear is a major element in the islamisation of society. The greater the fear, the stronger the fundamentalism.”

Q) Perhaps in no other town have Christians suffered so much under Islamic fundamentalism as in Mosul, where you are Archbishop. What is the situation at present?

Archbishop Nona: Mosul still represents a danger for Christians, even though for two years now we have not had any further attacks aimed directly at the Christians. But fear persists because the situation in the city has not improved in general.

Q) In your view, has the faith of the Christians been strengthened by the persecution or has it suffered?

Archbishop Nona: “Persecution strengthens faith. And this has also happened here in Iraq. But I don’t believe we can say that faith deepens today without the intervention of the Church. It is essential that we awaken the sense of faith and the importance of Christian witness today. Otherwise, when we have finally overcome the present situation, we will still have difficulties in convincing today’s new generations of the importance of faith for life.”

Q) The Year of Faith proclaimed by the Holy Father Benedict XVI serves precisely this purpose. Does it play a part in the pastoral work in Iraq?

Archbishop Nona: “In my estimation it is being well received. But it depends on the individual diocese. In ours we are doing a lot, both on the parish and diocese level, to deepen the faith of the believers.”

Editor’s Notes

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