Iraq: US Catholic bishops visit tomb of martyred priests

Two Roman Catholic bishops of the United States visited Iraq and conferred with their colleagues. Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, and Bishop George Murry, SJ, of Youngstown, Ohio, visited Baghdad, October 2-5, at the invitation of the Catholic bishops of Iraq. They stayed with the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, and visited churches, convents, schools and hospitals in the city.

Bishop Kicanas and Bishop Murry are the chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), respectively. They made the trip as representatives of the USCCB and visited the four Christian communities in Baghdad, the Chaldean, Latin, Armenian and Syrian Catholics.

“The Christians in Baghdad have suffered greatly; their faith has been tested,” said Bishop Kicanas. “One of the most moving moments in the visit was praying with Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka, archbishop emeritus of Baghdad, in the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance where so many were killed in the bombings and shootings that took place there on October 31 of last year.”

The bishops prayed at the tomb of the two priests killed in the siege and viewed the damage done to the Church by four suicide bombers.

“Because of religious tensions, Christians in Iraq do not feel safe in their churches or their homes,” said Bishop Murry. “Many have emigrated to the north of the country or have left Iraq entirely, which greatly concerns the bishops there. One Chaldean priest told us the chilling story of his kidnapping and being held for ransom by two different groups. Many people had similar stories to tell.”

The bishops also celebrated Mass with Bishop Shlemon Warduni and the Chaldean Christian community of the Church of the Assumption, as well as Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman, O.C.D. and the Latin Catholic community, and visited the small Armenian community served by Archbishop Emmanuel Dabbaghian.

The bishops toured Caritas Iraq programs in Baghdad that serve Christian and Muslims. These included a well-baby program, programs integrating people with special needs, assistance for victims of violence, assistance for displaced families, and peace building and reconciliation programs.

“In every instance we were impressed by the great good being done by the Caritas staff and volunteers,” said Bishop Murry. “Large numbers of the poor have access to health care. Parents are assisted in caring for their children, including those with disabilities. Women have opportunities to learn how to cook, to sew and to use computers. There are opportunities for dialogue in order for people of different faiths to understand one another better. Volunteers are trained to use their talents to assist others.”

“In discussions with the bishops of the region, with others who serve the Church in Iraq and with Caritas staff as well as in visits around the city, we saw and heard the challenges and aspirations of the Christians in Iraq and of its other citizens,” said Bishop Kicanas. “Instability and the fear of violence permeate the city. People pray and long for peace. The sanctions, war, and occupation have taken a heavy toll on the people. The terrible condition of the roads, the concrete security walls around churches and buildings in the city reflect the fractionalization of the community and the dire situation that exists. So many have fled the country or are internally displaced. Many live in desperate situations. Christians will remain in Iraq only if there are opportunities to work, if greater stability and peace can occur.”

Bishop Murry and Bishop Kicanas will inform the U.S. bishops, the CRS Board, and the government of the United States on what they saw and experienced. “As the United States military moves to the planned withdrawal from the city in the next months, it is critical that a plan be in place for a peaceful transition and not one marred by more violence and the killing of innocent people,” said Bishop Murry.