It has been eight years since the invasion, and one year since the gravest attack on Christians, have things improved or have the media just stopped reporting cases?
The situation is ongoing. It depends on the cities. In
Baghdad the situation has improved, but in Mosul and we have had cases. In September two churches were attacked in Kirkuk Kirkuk, but also many Christians have been killed in Mosul and kidnapped in Bagdad, Kirkuk and and only released after payments of large sums of money. Mosul
People unfamiliar with your history might wonder what several hundred thousand Christians are doing in a Muslim country…
We have been Christians since the end of the first century. We are the roots of ancient Christianity. There were many jews in what was then
Mesopotamia and the apostles went to preach the gospel to the jews in the diaspora. The community is judeo-christian, even the liturgy is similar. In the 7th century we had about 200 dioceses. Our forefathers took the gospel to China, to India, to and all over the region. When the muslims came in the 7th century we were a majority, but Islam forced many people to convert because they believe that Islam is the completion of religions, the religion of God and the Koran is the only true book and Muhammad is the last prophet. Many others were killed and the others paid the tax, Jizya, and because of their qualifications they helped to develop Islamic society, many Christians translated the scientific and philosophical books from Greek and Latin into Arabic. Turkey
In the former regime we were about 1 million, but now, with the lack of security, we are about half a million.
Who is behind the attacks on the Christians?
There are three groups behind the attacks on Christians. Fundamentalists, most of which came abroad from countries like
Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, . The Fundamentalists don’t accept others, especially Christians, and they want to build an Islamic state according to Islamic law as it was in the time of Mohammed. For them Christians are infidels and associated with Americans because they are also believed to be Christians and to be leading a crusade against Islam. Saudi Arabia
Then there are the criminals, mafias out to make money. They kidnap Christians and demand large sums. Last month three Christians were kidnapped in
and released in exchange for 50 thousand dollars each. Kirkuk
When the victims know the kidnappers then they are killed, so that they cannot reveal their identities later on.
The third group are politicians. Two big political groups want the Christians with them so they attack them saying that they will not be safe without them.
Do you miss the security you had during Saddam’s regime?
In those days we had security but no freedom, everything was controlled. Today we have a lot of freedom and we appreciate it. We have everything now, the economy is flourishing, but the only problem is security.
Over the years you have witnessed so many attacks and episodes of persecution, are there any which stand out?
The attack on the church in
Bagdad last year. We watched it on television. We were really shocked, because Christians were praying for stability in when they were killed. The two young priests had studied under me in the seminary when I was rector, so I suffered a lot as I saw that. But there are other cases in Iraq . A deacon was killed, so was an altar boy, days after the Holy Father’s speech in Kirkuk . We also have cases of people who were kidnapped and tortured. A doctor, last year, tortured for two months, but he never lost his hope and his faith. He was left in the street, half dead, but recovered. He was a confessor. We live that each day. There are many cases, many difficulties, but we feel that we are supported and these problems deepen our faith and give us hope and trust. Regensburg
You are here at the invitation of Aid to the Church in Need, what have they done to help you?
Siometimes we are disappointed, we hear statements here and there condemning the attacks but this is not enough. What we need is solidarity. Aid to the Church in Need visit us many times in Iraq to be close to us, they come during the mass and speak to people to encourage them to stay and persevere, but also to support small projects such as roads and water, generators, kindergartens, for the new villages in the north.
What can western Christians do to help?
The international community should pressure the Iraqi government to respect human rights. And they should also push for reciprocity. There are Muslims living in
Europe who have all the same rights as the locals, sometimes more. And here we are in and we have no rights, even though we are indigenous. I think there should be reciprocity for Muslims to respect Christians and their rights. Also we need solidarity for local churches. We belong to the same body of Christ, here they are Roman Catholics, we are Chaldean Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholics, but it is the same universal church. Visiting delegations from bishops’ conferences support us greatly when they come to stay one week, visiting churches, speaking to young people, these are concrete actions. What we need today, because of the displaced people, is housing, jobs, services, charity should be lived out in deeds, not only in words. Iraq
Does the division amongst Christians make life more difficult?
No, we feel we are one church and ecumenism is lived in truth. The denominations are different, but in reality we are sharing with each other. Orthodox come to our churches. On Monday we had a mass for the anniversary of the attack in
Bagdad. All priests came to our church, including Orthodox and Protestants.
We don’t feel separate, only in name, I don’t know why we are not united. We want a future for us in the
Middle East, if we remain small churches we have no future, but if we are united in one strong church then we will have a good future and we can witness our faith.
The denominations are linked to the culture and history. Sometimes Muslims are shocked and do not understand the differences, we tell them we are just like them, they are also divided amongst Shiites, Sunnis and so on. This is human.
Does the fact of being Catholic make the situation worse, or better?
They don’t distinguish, we are all attacked, but because we are the majority we suffer more.
What would you do if a Muslim were to approach you and say he wanted to convert?
Officially it is not allowed, and it will create many problems. But as a bishop, as a Christian, I don’t have the right to refuse him, I have to find a way.
There has been talk of an independent or autonomous region for Christians in the Ninevah Plains, wouldn’t this be a good idea?
No. In that area, the
plains there are many villages but all together they are about 70 thousand people. This is a trap for Christians. We live all over the country, to be there as in a ghetto is very dangerous, and it is also against our nature and mission as a church. Nineveh
How about arming the Christians, forming militias to protect themselves?
It is not normal for a Christian to use violence. Even the Muslims are always saying that the Christians are peaceful, forgiving. I think this witness is highly appreciated.
Just decades ago there was a vibrant Jewish community in
, not it is all but extinct. Could that be where Christianity is heading? Iraq
If the situation continues in this way in the
Middle East I think Christians will leave. We are now seeing in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, who knows in Syria and , Islamists are taking over. But on the other hand, they are destroying Islam with this islamization. Islam should be integrated into modern society. I always ask why they are afraid of modernity and criticism. If they believe that their faith is from God, such as we believe of Christianity, then the others can criticize, attack, we don’t care. If it is divine then God can protect himself. There is no future for Islam if they keep up this kind of integralism. Iraq
How do you convince a young Iraqi to stay?
It is not easy. The problem is when members of the family already live abroad, they lure them and attract them to leave. But we try to educate them about the challenges of living in the West. If we compare, it is better to stay home. True, there are many risks, but if we are aware we can balance and stay. But if they come to the West they lose their family values, there is a culture of pleasure, everything is about the individual. In the
Middle East we have the family, the tribe, everything is collective, we cannot live without the family. The mentality, the culture, the language is very different. Many times young people think that the West is paradise, everybody is Catholic and goes to church… the reality is different. Our churches are full on Sunday, there is no room. When they get here they are shocked, but we try to educated them and when it is time for them to choose, they are free.
The Synod for Middle Eastern bishops took place just last year. Have there been any fruits?
I was the first to ask the Pope for a synod, during my ad limina visit I told him we are small churches and we need a synod otherwise we have no future. He said it was a good idea and it came to be. I admired the courage of the bishops who spoke very openly and courageously, but afterwards nothing was done. It is up to us to translate the message of the synod in our local churches. We are waiting for the exhortation, but I hope it will not just be a celebration of the synod, it should have an effect on our churches like the Arab Spring. A real spring, not just a formal spring.
It is up to us, but we need the help of the Holy See and the Bishops conferences in
Europe and the States, to help us because we need their support and experience, for us this is new. Our churches are still living in the past, our theology is classic, patristic, our liturgy is unreformed. We need to reform our structure, our dioceses, our liturgy and the formation of our clergy, and we cannot do it alone. We need priests and religious men and women to come and help us.
Speaking of the Arab Spring… Does it surprise you that the Syrian Christians seem to be backing the regime?
The problem with this Arab Spring is that the young people are launching slogans, but they need leadership. The leadership is Islamic. It is sad to say that. We are starting to see this in
. Egypt was very open, a secular country, but now the Muslim Brothers are ruling. I think that if these countries want to have a future, real progress, they should separate religion from the state. Tunisia
They are two different powers. Religion is about truth, politics is about interests and many times lies. Maybe we can have a positive secular regime which appreciates the religious values without imposing a particular religion. Things will change, we respect Muslims, they can pray and keep their values, but they have to respect others as well. Our universe is pluralist, we need each other.
The Patriarchs of the Christian churches have been claiming their support for Assad, even the patriarch of the Maronites said that Assad deserved a chance. Aren’t you afraid that if the regime falls the Christians will be punished for being too close to the regime?
I was in
Rome when I heard about that speech, and I was shocked about it, and the comparison of Syria and other countries to . They are totally different. The change in Iraq Iraq was imposed by a war from outside, in and other countries it came from the inside. I think the role of the Church is to support the demands of the population for justice, freedom and not a particular regime, otherwise if things change Christians will be ostracized, they won’t be partners, and this is very risky. Syria
As a Church we don’t support the violence, this is different. We are in favour of peaceful demands and demonstrations, for democracy. But what is democracy? Maybe we can help them understand. The democracy that they are asking for doesn’t work with Islam as a state religion. The official religion in all countries in the Middle East except
is Islam. Lebanon
Maybe the Church can help people understand what freedom is, democracy, and open regime, not a dictatorship. We are there to balance, in
we are balancing. They should do the same in Iraq Syria and , not support a particular regime. Egypt
I am calling on the Islamic authority [in
] to be aware, they need Christians there, with their qualifications and open mindedness. They should not associate us with the west, because the West is not Christian, in the West religion and state are separate. They have to distinguish between us. We were their before their arrival, it is to their benefit to keep Christians there, in their home. Egypt