Iraqi violence decreases but problems remain, says Baghdad archbishop

By Regina Linskey
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Although the situation in Iraq has improved recently, a Catholic archbishop from Baghdad, Iraq, said challenges for Catholics remain.

“The situation is improving generally … violence has really decreased … but for me, the problem is still there because the violence is still there,” said Latin-rite Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad, who met with U.S. church officials in Washington May 4.

Calling violence “the language of politics” in Iraq, the archbishop said many political problems — new and old — have not been resolved.

The relationship between Arabs and Kurds is tense, he said. Within the predominantly Muslim Arab community, the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites is tense, he said.

Christian churches’ new freedom since the fall of the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has been a source of conflict and confusion as well because “many Iraqi churches are not accustomed to freedom,” he said.

Before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, people were protected by Saddam’s regime when they stayed quiet, and “fear would keep away the truth,” he explained.

Now “we have freedom but we are not enjoying it” because Iraqi Christians “are not accustomed to it,” he said. “And we are threatened when we feel free.”

The relationship between a pastor and his priests has changed, and the relationship among Iraq’s 14 Christian churches has changed, the archbishop said.

The church’s role in Iraqi society also has changed, he said.

Under Saddam, schools were nationalized, but now the church runs 10 schools in Baghdad, Archbishop Sleiman said. For the first time, Catholics in Iraq are thinking about schools and education — all amid “confusion and violence,” he said.

Christian churches serve an important role in Iraqi society as social institutions, he explained. For example, the majority of the students in the Catholic schools in Baghdad are Muslims.

Archbishop Sleiman recalled when he was telling another church official that the “Jesuits were coming back to Iraq,” a Muslim woman overheard and said she was so excited because of the work they used to do in the country.

Catholics do not speak the language of politics with violence, he said, adding that Iraq’s bishops stay out of politics and are concerned with Iraqi society.

Although Catholic institutions welcome all faiths, it is difficult for Christians and Muslims to work together, said Archbishop Sleiman.

“It is easier for Christians to be open to Muslims than the contrary. … They (Muslims) have the psychology of a majority and do not understand the problems of a minority,” he said.

Archbishop Sleiman said emigration is the greatest challenge the local church faces. Officially, 5,000 Catholics are listed in his archdiocese, but he estimated that probably only half of that number remain in Baghdad. Iraqi Christians have fled by the thousands to neighboring countries and northern Iraq.

Families have left and now, for the first time, the elderly left behind have become a problem in the country, the archbishop said.

After the meeting, Archbishop Sleiman told Catholic News Service the church is limited in what it can do to prevent emigration.

“We have to respect the freedom of people if they want to emigrate,” he said. “We feel very poor and limited in what we can do.”

The bishops have tried to set examples to their flock by staying in the country and by developing new projects to provide for Catholics socially and financially, he added.