Iraq: Easter hopes in times of strife

0127iraq_archbishop-amil-nona-of-mosul1.jpgBy John Pontifex
A LEADING archbishop has spoken of renewed hopes for the survival of Christianity in one of Iraq’s most troubled regions after Easter celebrations passed off peacefully – with increased numbers attending the services.
(Archbishop Amil Nona of Mosul)

Archbishop Amil Nona said altogether up to 1,500 people attended Chaldean rite Easter Mass in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul – an increase on previous years.

Speaking recently in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the Archbishop of Mosul said the Easter celebrations gave “new hope”, especially after the all important 7th March general elections.

A spate of violence against Christians in Mosul ahead of the elections prompted an exodus of more than 3,500 faithful – up to half of the city’s Christian population – who fled mostly to villages in the nearby Nineveh plains. Many have since returned.

Archbishop Nona said the faithful now had “new hope”. He went on: “The people clearly feel more confident after the elections. They have faith that things will now improve.”

The Archbishop added: “The Easter celebrations went very well. I am really happy about the way it went and it was clear the people felt happy too.

“You had people coming to the church who had not come for two or three years.”

Archbishop Nona explained that security was high with armed men outside the four churches in Mosul where the Chaldean-rite Catholic services were held.

The Holy Week Triduum services went ahead as usual except that liturgies normally held in the evening including the Easter Vigil were brought forward to daylight hours to reduce the security risk.

But the archbishop said “it was too difficult” at this stage to say whether such hopeful reports would encourage a return of some of the thousands of Christians who fled Mosul in the years of anti-Christian violence and security breakdown following the fall of Saddam.

Since 2003, the Chaldean-rite Catholic community in Mosul has dwindled by two-thirds.

Archbishop Nona’s account was one of a number of reports of peaceful Easter celebrations in Iraq which come against a backdrop of violence in Baghdad where at least five people died and 140 were injured in six separate explosions.

Archbishop Louis Sako sent ACN a message describing peaceful Easter celebrations in the northern city of Kirkuk.

In his account, reported by Catholic news agency, AsiaNews, the Archbishop of Kirkuk wrote that a delegation of local government official and Muslim religious leaders attended the Catholic religious services in the city.

And in another sign of hope for the Church in Iraq, the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, also known as the Chaldean Sisters, provided Easter packages for 750 of the poorest families living in villages outside the ancient Christian city of Zakho, close to the border with Syria and Turkey.

The food hampers, which included sugar, rice, chocolate and eggs, were funded by Aid to the Church in Need, which has helped to provide Easter and Christmas hampers for Christians in the region since 2008.

Speaking from outside Erbil, the regional capital of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, senior Catholic priest Father Bashar Warda, who coordinates the food hamper project, said that the initiative was once again a great success.

He explained that, compared with last year, the number of items in each hamper was reduced to enable outreach to more families, many of whom face extreme poverty having fled their homes further south. Many are desperate to start a new life abroad.

Fr Warda said: “The people were very happy to receive their hampers. The situation for them is very difficult and they are very grateful for the help they receive.”

The signs of new hope for Christians in Iraq will come as a major boost for Archbishop Nona who at 42 became the Catholic Church’s youngest archbishop.

Ordained bishop in January, he replaced Archbishop Faraj Rahho of Mosul who was kidnapped outside his cathedral in February 2008.

He died in captivity two weeks later and his body was buried in a shallow grave not far from the centre of the city.