Iraqi prelates comment on US pullout, foreign missionaries

In an interview published Wednesday in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Archbishop Louis Sako, who has led the Chaldean Catholic See of Kerkuk (a city more commonly spelled Kirkuk) since 2003, called for efforts to strengthen the Christian presence in Iraq and commented on the prospect of a pullout of American troops.

Commenting on the Status of Forces Agreement, which permits US forces to stay in the nation as late as the end of 2011 (depending upon the results of a mid-2009 referendum), Archbishop Sako said there are “positive aspects and others that could create some problems.” “Iraq risks sinking in the abyss,” he warned, and “a civil war difficult to control could explode” with the withdrawal of US forces. “The country is still deeply divided internally. It cannot be spoken of as a national unit.” Each group, he says, “tries to obtain greater influence in its own territory, and also Baghdad …. in reality is subdivided into areas in which a specific faction predominates. It is necessary, instead, to converse and to plan in a civil way the future of the country… We Christians are accused of being assimilated to the United States, but this is not true. We try, instead, to help the government and the Iraqi parliament to redesign the country.”

In an interview earlier this week with the Italian news agency SIR, Bishop Shlemon Warduni, who has served as Chaldean Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad since 2001, lamented the threat the US and British Christian missionaries pose to the Iraqi Christian population. “Since the fall of Saddam, we have witnessed a proliferation of [sects]. They have money and transport[ation], which they use to pick up children and young people, they offer them food and money. Most of them are of English and American descent. There are also some who baptize Christians for the second time.” This missionary activity, he says, “exposes us to charges of proselytism from Islam, even if Muslims are well aware it’s not us. This phenomenon is more widespread in northern Iraq, where there is more freedom.”

Bishop Warduni lamented that “there’s no security, stability, there’s certainly been some progress in these areas, but a lot remains to be done, and people are scared. So, in Baghdad, Midnight Mass and the main Christmas liturgies will all be celebrated by day, while indoors, at home, the families will gather for the festivities to exchange cakes and give presents to their children.”