One of my friends was stationed in Mosul, in the north of Iraq. He ran a railroad, a big one with a staggering logistical capacity. Though there was constant danger, the general situation was then more peaceful than it later became. He and his troops actually got to know Iraqis, were careful not to refer to them as hajis, went to their shops and restaurants and came to respect them. The Americans were fascinated to see that university students had discovered Skoal, the smokeless tobacco, and had even perfected the shake of the can. And they picked up local gossip, including the belief that the new wraparound sunglasses afforded the soldiers X-ray vision. As a result, the sunglasses became obligatory for all whenever they took out a convoy. And his entire unit returned safely from Iraq, with their lives and their sunglasses.
Our Christian family war stories have no elements of humor. And from the same city of Mosul come tales of persecution, emigration and death.
The Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, painted a dark picture of conditions in his diocese. He recognizes that the U.S. forces are cleaning up in the south of the country; but that has forced the terrorists to move north, and now they are concentrated in Mosul.
He blames the deplorable state of international politics and the ambitions of Iraqs neighbors for the chaos. They dont want a free and independent Iraq because it would be too strong. United we would constitute a great intellectual and economic power. By keeping the country weak and divided, it is easier to dominate it. Though Christians in Mosul are only 3 percent of the population, they represent 35 percent of those with higher education; and doctors, lawyers, professors, clergy and journalists are the prime targets of terrorism. Many choose to flee.
In Baghdad it is almost as bad, according to Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest who ministers to a diminishing community there. Canon White estimates that 90 percent of Iraqi Christians have fled or been murdered. Churches had to close in the city during the worst violence, and Christians were reluctant to seek protection, lest they be accused of collaborating with the U.S. military. Their prudence did not do much good, and Canon White estimates that the situation for Christians in Iraq at present is the most difficult in history.
But even for those who have managed to flee, life is far from easy. Antoine Audo, S.J., the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo in Syria, where there are 50,000 Chaldean Catholic refugees from Iraq, spoke recently of their plight. They left behind danger and instability, sometimes forced from their homes by Islamic jihadis. With few material resources and facing the scarcity of jobs in Syria, poverty and survival have forced many into prostitution. Christian relief organizations and overseas relatives provide some help, but more is needed. Bishop Audo also warned that in addition to the refugee crisis, there is also danger that Islamic jihadism will spread from Iraq to Syria and other neighboring countries.
Clearly there are limits to what relief organizations can do to ease the plight of Iraqi Christians in their own country or in the countries where they have sought refuge. It is equally clear that there are limits to what governments and military forces can do to restore even a semblance of peace and security, even when and where goodwill is present. And it is not clearly present in this maelstrom of horror and suffering. Of course we can pray, give alms, pressure politicians, become active in peace building groups; but there remains a pervasive sadness about how terribly people treat one another.
My officer friend with the railroad and sunglasses is, by coincidence, from Michigan, and Michigan is the center of a vibrant and generous Chaldean Catholic community of Iraqi Christians. May we, with them, dare hope for peace and prosperity for all in Iraq, in Gods providence, though it may take decades. We repeat the prayer of Archbishop Paulos: Like Christmas in the past, this time the main message of our prayers shall be for peace, which is what we wish uppermost and which we are trying to achieve.