Vatican appointments could help persecuted Christians in Iraq

easter1.jpgBy Deborah Gyapong /Canadian Catholic News

OTTAWA (CCN) — Two Vatican diplomatic appointments involving Canada could play a role in raising awareness of the plight of persecuted Christians in Iraq.

That is the hope of Msgr. Michael Crotty, the Apostolic Nunciature’s first secretary, who leaves for Iraq July 20 after completing a three-year term in Canada. Though assigned to the Nunciature in Jordan as well, he expects to spend most of his time based in Baghdad.

Msgr. Luca Lorusso, the counselor (one diplomatic rank higher than first secretary) at the Jordan Nunciature has been assigned to Canada. Many Iraqi Christians have fled to neighboring Jordan.

“The international community needs to identify with the suffering,” Crotty said in an interview July 9 at the Ottawa office of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). “I think we have to support the Christians in Iraq in a sense of brotherly solidarity.”

According to United Nations figures, about one million Christians lived in Iraq prior to the first Iraq War in 1990. Before the second invasion in 2003, those numbers had dropped to about 750,000. Only 250,000 to 300,000 remain. Crotty described it as an “increasing humanitarian disaster.”

“We have reached a very critical stage,” said CNEWA Canada National Secretary Carl Hetu, who predicted that figure will continue to decrease as more and more families flee.

The recent assassination of Chaldean priest Ragheed Ganni and three subdeacons represents a dangerous escalation, he said. Christian persecution has intensified from “intimidation and harassment,” Hetu said, to “extortion and killing.”

They can’t go to the police, they can’t count on the state to help them, “so they leave,” Hetu said. “Christians have nowhere to go.” Extremists can “act with impunity.”

On June 3, militants related to Al Qaeda dragged Father Ganni and three deacons from their car in Northern Iraq and shot them. Crotty has a personal connection to the assassinated priest, having met him when he came to Rome in the late 1990s. “You have to look at how Providence is at work,” he said.

Ganni “impressed people as kind, and courageous,” Crotty said, noting he had last heard from him before coming to Canada in 2004. “When you know someone, it really brings it home to you what is going on there,” he said. “Innocent people are getting killed.”

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Christians in Iraq celebrating Easter.

Crotty said Ganni inspires him. “He offered a great example of heroism in how he lived his priesthood. Unfortunately, the people are now without him. They are at a crossroads as to what the future will bring.”

Crotty will work with Archbishop Francis Assisi Chulikatt, who has been the Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq and Jordan since 2006. “I feel very challenged,” said Crotty, who served in Nairobi, Kenya for three years before coming to Canada in 2004. “I wasn’t expecting to go to Iraq.”

Hetu pointed to several recent public interventions by Pope Benedict XVI on the plight of Iraqi Christians in recent months. Hetu was present in Rome June 21 when the Pope spoke to a gathering of humanitarian agencies working in the region and appealed for the protection of religious freedom and an end to discrimination.

“The Holy Father is saying the Holy See will put all its means and resources to help brother Christians in Iraq,” Crotty said. “I have a particular task to respond to that.”

Crotty explained that the presence of Vatican diplomats in Iraq “is a visible sign of the Holy Father’s concern,” Crotty said, explaining how those in the diplomatic service represent the physical bonds of the Petrine ministry to all the local churches.

He noted that the previous Nuncio to Iraq, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, was the only Western diplomat to remain in Iraq during the American-led invasion in 2003. On June 9 Filoni was appointed the Substitute for the General Affairs of the Secretary of State.

“The papal nuncio did not leave his post during the most dangerous moment,” Crotty said. Under the circumstances in Iraq, “it’s a challenge just to be ordinary.”

He added: “It should be the most ordinary thing to live in peace and harmony and not feel excluded. The international community needs to identify with the suffering and to help.”

He noted Canadian Catholics have a tax deductible way of helping Christians in Iraq through CNEWA Canada.

— Copyright Canadian Catholic News; no reprinting without permission.

July 19/2007