Iraq archbishop: What we have to fear is fear itself

by John Pontifex and John Newton,

An Archbishop from Baghdad has warned of how fear is continuing to drive Christians out of Iraq – but went on to highlight new signs of hope.

In a very frank and forthright assessment of the crisis in Iraq given at Aid to the Church in Need UK’s annual Westminster Event on Saturday, Archbishop Jean Sleiman said a “paralysing fear” is still gripping the country’s Christian communities.

The archbishop of Iraq’s 5,000-strong Latin-rite Catholic community stressed that most Christians in Iraq still wanted to leave the country in spite of the decline in violence in and around Baghdad as well as the massive reconstruction taking place in the Kurdish north.

Continued emigration from Iraq spells disaster for the Christian community which has dwindled from about one million in 2003 to barely 400,000 today.

After a brief introduction by ACN UK National Director Neville Kyrke-Smith, Archbishop Sleiman quickly moved to his main theme.

He said: “Emigration remains the dream of most people. The hope of emigration – even when it is not realistic – represents a kind of salvation for the people.”

“Very real persecution” remains a huge threat for Christians in some areas, said the archbishop, who also explained that in other regions “co-existence under pressure” means that Christians are forced to adopt Islamic practices, including dress, and were encouraged to leave.

Listening to the archbishop in Westminster Cathedral Hall were more than 420 people – a record attendance for the ACN Westminster Event.

The archbishop re-iterated his message in meetings with senior government officials and leading UK bishops including Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster.

Archbishop Sleiman, who before his address in Westminster Cathedral Hall, celebrated a Solemn Mass for ACN in Westminster Cathedral, stressed that new signs of hope were coming with support from organisations and charities such as ACN.

After Archbishop Sleiman’s talk, ACN supporters heard the charity’s UK Head of Press and Information John Pontifex report back two weeks after returning from Iraq where ACN was called upon to help with a range of pastoral and some humanitarian projects.

ACN’s work – which prioritises help for formation and Mass stipends as well as food projects – comes amid reports of continuing Christian displacement from Baghdad, Mosul and other regions which Archbishop Sleiman said were still hot-spots of persecution and violence against minority groups.

The archbishop, who said it was unsafe for him to walk in Baghdad, warned of how growing Islamic extremism was reducing non-Muslims to second class citizens, with pressure to wear the veil and conform to other Islamic practices.

The Lebanese Carmelite’s comments came after the Iraqi parliament announced plans to scrap the quota of seats in provincial councils set aside for minority groups, including Christians.

The archbishop said those seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish north were suffering exploitation masked by acts of generosity and good-will seen in the regional government’s massive church reconstruction projects.

The archbishop told how Caritas’ general director thanked a Kurdish official for building homes for displaced people from Baghdad only to be told by the officer: “We did it for us [Kurds]. We know that you will leave and these houses will be ours.”

Archbishop Sleiman said that, instead of relocating Christians to the north, “the best way to protect, not only Christians but all the citizens, is to bring back the state of law in Iraq.”

He went on to slam plans for a so-called enclave for Christians around the ancient Nineveh Plains, dismissing the scheme as promoting “a ghetto”.

Also speaking at the event was ACN International Secretary General Pierre-Marie Morel and ACN UK National Director Neville Kyrke-Smith, who talked about continuing problems for Christians in former Soviet countries including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Georgia.