Iraq: Baghdad bishop tells of worsening security crisis for Christians

untitled-5.jpgBy John Pontifex

BAGHDAD’S Church leaders have joined forces in a desperate bid to protect their people from persecution – according to a bishop who has dared to speak out on the growing crisis engulfing the city’s Christians.
Amid signs of worsening oppression against Baghdad’s Christian community, Bishop Andeas Abouna said Church leaders from a number of different rites were now rolling out plans to find the faithful homes in safe places away from known hot-spots of extremism.
Speaking during a visit to London, the Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad said that his Chaldean community had linked up with Syriac Catholic and Armenian hierarchy in a rescue mission for thousands of displaced people.
During the interview, given to Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Abouna said: “It is not easy for our people – they are in need of everything. The Church is helping in any way it can.”
Describing the co-operation between the bishops as unprecedented, Bishop Abouna said the initiative was aimed at providing housing and emergency aid for more than 6,000 Christians forced onto the streets and in grave risk of kidnap or murder in a country with huge security problems.
He explained that the Christians had sought sanctuary in central Baghdad’s Al Jadida region having escaped Al Dora, in south west Baghdad, where militant Muslims had put an ultimatum to Christians demanding that they convert to Islam or face eviction from their homes.
Proud of Al Dora’s nickname of the ‘Vatican of Iraq’, the bishop said the people were determined not to lose their religion, retaining strong memories of the region’s high concentration of churches and other religious institutions.
Now, according to Bishop Abouna, reports suggest that the persecution in Al Dora is beginning to spread to other parts of the city – with the Karkh region, west of the River Tigris worst affected.
Iraq Church sources claim the number of priests in this area has slumped from 11 to three within just three years.
The emergency support initiative, centring on Baghdad’s St George’s Church, is on standby for a further influx of displaced Christians, helping them to find temporary accommodation in hostels or with relatives and friends of the Church.
With all seven churches in Dora now closed, and militants refusing to allow Christians back home there, Bishop Abouna said non-Muslims in the Karkh region were under increasing pressure to convert to Islam, as well as mandatory wearing of the veil for women.
The crisis, he said, explained why the exodus of Christians from Baghdad and other parts of Iraq was still high.
He said the mass movement of people meant reliable statistics were no longer available.
Reports show at least half of the 1.2 million Christians in Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein have now fled their homes.
With the humanitarian situation growing fast, the Bishop said that in the city clean water was scarce and that electricity was sometimes down to one hour a day.
The bishop described how the high risk of kidnappings and killings meant people were afraid to leave their homes.
But determined to strike a positive note, the bishop went on: “This is not the first time Christians in the ancient land of Mesopotamia have suffered. Despite all the difficulties of the past, Christians somehow remained in our country.”
He described making morale-boosting pastoral visits to Mansour, the region of south-west Baghdad where he is based.
“The families are very sad and upset,” he said. “They were promised freedom and democracy but nothing like that is happening.”
The bishop said: “In spite of the situation, we still hope that peace will come.”
He went on to thank ACN for offering key help and support. “What Aid to the Church in Need has given us is very important. We are so grateful.”
ACN last year provided over $200,000. for the Church in Iraq, much of it emergency aid in response to urgent appeals from the bishops.