Iraqi Christian Leaders View U.S. Troop Departure With Uncertainty and Hope

iraq_church_p-255×2551.jpgIn the wake of the American-led invasion, the Christian population has been cut in half.
ENDANGERED SPECIES? An Iraqi police officer stands guard outside of St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad following a Sunday liturgy on July 24. Forming one of the oldest Christian communities of the Middle East, Iraqi Christians have been targeted for attack since 2003, with numerous abductions, murders and threats for them to leave Iraq. In 1980 Iraqi Christians made up over 7% of the population and have now declined to below 3%. St. Joseph, which was established in 1959 and which once had as many as 1,200 families in its parish, now has only 150 to 200 families left.

– Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Amid President Obama’s announcement that the United States will bring home the remainder of its troops from Iraq by the end of this year, Church leaders in Iraq said the situation for the country’s Christians remains unchanged. Yet they expressed hope for their future.

“Even with the American presence here, we have had problems — explosions, kidnappings, murders, attacks on Christian churches,” said Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, a flashpoint in the conflict.

Since the American-led invasion in 2003, Archbishop Sako said, violence has claimed the lives of 905 Iraqi Christians, including one bishop, five priests and a number of sub-deacons. Despite the U.S. presence in the country, 54 churches have been bombed, mainly Chaldean. Prior to the invasion, Christians in Iraq numbered 800,000 to 1 million. Now just 400,000 to a half million remain.

“The situation is still fragile and not stable. We don’t know what will be next with the pullout,” Archbishop Sako said.

“We are worried about the security, about our borders and the unity of our country. Who will watch them and protect them? Who will guarantee the unity of our land with the new sectarian mentality? The Iraqi army and police are not well trained. They don’t have the appropriate weapons.”

Archbishop Sako said there still has not been any reconciliation between the country’s various ethnic, political and religious groups, nor with the members of the old regime. “Not all of them were criminals,” he said.

‘We Have Learned Much’

The Iraqi government is still not completely formed, the archbishop reported.

“We have fears, but we also have hopes that the Iraqis will take seriously their responsibilities, make a real reconciliation. They have to forget the past and to prepare a better future. They should forgive each other for the benefit of the country and not [seek to] take revenge,” he added.

“Emigration is continuing, and, also, there is no real vision for the future. We Christians can be attacked at any time.

“The only way to live together in harmony and peace — not just for Iraq, but for all the countries in the region — is to have a good army, security and a constitution, based on human rights and not based only on the consideration of the religion and ethnicity of the individual. The priority should be that all Iraqis are citizens. The government should not make the distinction of individuals based on their religion and ethnicity and give them privileges for that. The Muslim majority and other religious minorities should have the same dignity, rights and also responsibilities,” the archbishop stated.

Bashar Warda, the 42-year-old Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, is counting on all religious and ethnic groups represented in the country to work together to forge a future.

“I am trusting that the Iraqis will work together, whether the American troops are here or not,” said Bishop Warda, who was installed last year.

“The pullout is a big challenge for all Iraqis to examine themselves, that they are willing and able to make a good future for all Iraq,” Bishop Warda said.

“I am an optimist that things will work for the good, not because of the pullout, but because of the awareness of the Iraqis about so many issues concerning our living as Iraqis and the development of our life. I think we have learned so much — about dialogue, politics, health care, development of our country.”

Sad Anniversary

Mosul’s Chaldean Catholic Bishop Amel Nona took a darker view of the evolving situation: “There are many Christians leaving, because they don’t see hope for their future.”

During this extended period of crisis, Bishop Nona has urged Iraqi Christians “to go deeper into our faith. If we live our faith like true Christians — like Christ — we can better support our hardships,” said the 44-year-old bishop, who was also installed last year.

Shlemon Warduni, curial bishop of the Chaldean Catholic patriarchate in Baghdad, said: “We have been harmed too much: our Church, our Christians. More than half of our people [Christians] have gone. … This situation caused too many people to emigrate from Iraq, especially Christians, because there is no work for them because there is no peace and security. This is the problem.”

“I am not a politician, but the least I can say is that I just want peace and security for my country,” said Bishop Warduni, who was recently appointed president of Caritas Iraq.

“So, whether the American troops stay or go, we want peace, just as everyone wants peace for their country. … We need peace and security and justice for our people.”

In Baghdad, Yousif Mansoor Abba, installed in April as Syriac Catholic bishop for the diocese, is preparing for the Nov. 1 memorial Mass at Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, which came under siege during Sunday evening Mass on Oct. 31 last year.

By the time the military raided the Baghdad cathedral to free the hostages, 45 faithful, including two priests, had been killed and more than 100 were wounded. Pope Benedict XVI condemned the “savage” attack on the cathedral, saying, “I pray for the victims of this absurd violence, even more ferocious in that it has been inflicted upon defenseless people gathered in God’s house, which is a house of love and reconciliation.”

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan will travel from Lebanon to celebrate the memorial Mass. In praying with his flock there, the patriarch said he hopes “to inspire in them hope and courage to stand up against terrorism and violence.” Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai is also scheduled to participate.

“We will pray for the martyrs and ask God to give us peace,” said Bishop Abba of the upcoming memorial Mass at the cathedral, which is still under renovation. “We ask for prayers for peace.”

Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon

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