Iraqi Patriarch issues desperate plea for national reconciliation as IS militants kidnap 230 civilians

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by Katherine Backler
Islamic State (IS) militants have reportedly abducted 230 civilians, including at least 60 Christians, from the central Syrian town of Qaryatain. The abductions follow the group’s capture of the town last week, which helps link Palmyra to IS-controlled territory in Qalamun, further west.

A correspondent from the US-funded Arabic-language news outlet Radio Sawa has tweeted a photograph of a handwritten list apparently naming the Christian victims. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, 45 women and 19 children were among the kidnapped, many of whom had fled from Aleppo in northern Syria. The rest of the abductees are understood to be Sunni Muslims.

Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s researcher on Syria, on Friday said that Christian abductees were at the highest risk for summary justice or high ransom demands.

Meanwhile, Patriarch Raphael Louis Sako, leader of the Chaldean Church and President of the Assembly of the Catholic Bishops in Iraq, has called for “national and political reconciliation”, enacted in legislation, to modernise the state and put a stop to “extremist groups” such as IS.

In a statement addressed to the Iraqi Government on Thursday, Patriarch Sako asked legislators to help bring about authentic reconciliation based on “loyalty to Iraq” as “the united homeland of the whole people, and not just for individual persons or groups.” Such reconciliation, he claimed, would require ‘a review of the existing institutions and their relevance to our time” so that Iraq might become a strong modern civil state that is sustainable and representative of the best and most realistic ideals of its people.

Bashar Matti Warda, the Archbishop of Erbil, whose diocese has become home to more than 100,000 Iraqis displaced by IS, expressed regret that some Iraqi Christians were looking for opportunities to emigrate. “Our vibrant church life is dissolving in front of our eyes,” he wrote on Sunday. “The massive immigration (sic) that is now occurring is leaving my church much weaker.”

Mgr Warda said the church hierarchy in Iraq is “very often tempted to encourage our parishioners to stay, ‘keep the presence of Christ alive’ in this special land. But truly I and my brother bishops and priests can do no more than to advise young mothers and fathers to take all the necessary considerations into account and to pray long and hard before taking such a momentous, and perhaps perilous, decision. The Church is unable to offer and guarantee the fundamental security that its members need to thrive.”

The Church’s well-being “is no longer in our hands”, he said, and its future and the future of Iraq would depend on what sort of aid – “military or relief aid – arrived.