The Forgotten: Is there a future for Christianity in Iraq?
The Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped on Feb. 29 following a celebration at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul. His driver and two deacons were shot and killed in the course of the kidnapping. Archbishop Rahho was found dead several days later. This was the most recent in a series of kidnappings and killings of priests and religious in Iraq—20 of them in just five years. Not all the kidnappings have ended in murder. In January 2005, Basile Georges Casmoussa, the Syrian archbishop of Mosul, was kidnapped but freed two days later, after a ransom of $1 million was paid.
Christians are a popular target for kidnappers. They are a small minority scattered in many places and are largely defenseless. Because they are not Muslims, they are often considered to be allies of the American troops. Also, kidnappings of Christians are useful propaganda, because they are extensively covered in the Western press. The size of the ransom demanded can vary: a Christian layman is “worth” about $100,000, a priest $500,000. A bishop is worth more than $1 million.
In response to the violence, Christians have fled by the thousands to northern Iraq or neighboring countries. Half of the Christians who were living in Iraq in 2000 have left their homes. There are about 200,000 Christians in Kurdistan, of whom 90,000 are refugees; 180,000 others have fled to Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The Catholic philosophy and theology faculties in Baghdad have moved to Erbil, and the Mosul seminary has closed.
What We Saw and Heard
In February 2008, a delegation from Pax Christi, the international Catholic organization for peace, traveled to northern Iraq, visiting 26 different communities, mostly in Kurdistan, but also in Karmah, Qaraqosh and Kirkuk. The aim of the trip was to express solidarity between the Christians in Europe and the Christians in Iraq.
In one village, we met a man who had been kidnapped for a week and given back to his family the very morning of our arrival in return for a ransom of $60,000. His kidnappers had demanded that he convert to Islam, but he refused. His Christian identity is much more than his personal faith. He is a member of a Christian community, a Christian family and a Christian culture. In his case conversion would have been a betrayal of his religious beliefs and would have caused a complete separation from the social system he has known his entire life. In large numbers, such conversions would destroy whole communities. Because of this, the kidnappings have a political purpose: the eventual expulsion of all Christians from southern and central Iraq.
In spite of the difficulties and the violence, we were received very warmly, with processions and songs. It was like a Palm Sunday welcome. We traveled about 1,200 miles through the plains and the mountains. After being welcomed at the entrance to each community, we would go to the church to pray briefly together, explain why we were there and listen to their stories. Everywhere we went, the people asked us to be their voice among the Christians in the West and to tell their stories when we returned home.
Time and again, the townspeople would return to three basic themes:
We are forgotten by everybody. The Christians in the villages, whether permanent residents or refugees, feel isolated and forgotten. They are seen as just a small part of a larger problem, a cog in a huge political, military machine no one really controls. While Kurdistan has welcomed the refugees from southern Iraq and has provided food and shelter, the situation is still precarious.
We were forced to leave. Many Christians have left Baghdad and the surrounding regions because they feared for their lives and livelihood. They also abandoned Mosul, which was especially difficult for them, given the area’s historical significance for Christians. Mosul, now governed by Islamic law, is a very dangerous place, and there are many stories of kidnappings and murders. At least 20 different terrorist groups have been battling for control of the city, while the U.S. military attempts to bring some security. The violence was so great that sometimes the Christians had to flee quickly, unable to take any of their possessions.
When the Christian refugees arrived in Kurdistan, some were returning to a land from which they had been forced a generation earlier by Saddam Hussein. Yet it is now a very different place. The refugees cannot find work and have to survive on food coupons. There is no industrial base, and land they owned before they were forced from Kurdistan in the 1970s is now occupied by Muslims, who refuse to give it back.
We are worried about the complete disappearance of Christians from Iraq. The refugees despair of the future, a future that seems totally closed, without any possibility of return to their homes in the south. Many hope to leave Iraq entirely and are awaiting visas to enter Western countries. So far only Sweden and Norway have welcomed them. Other countries, including the United States and many in the European Union, have effectively closed their borders. One further ominous sign is that the desire to leave is most strongly felt by the young people, so there may be little future for the Christians in Iraq. Yet what choice do they have? They can return to the south where violence and oppression await them, or they can remain in the north where there is no future. The Turkish invasion of northern Iraq in March reminded all refugees that their situation is very precarious. They are caught between the hope of stability in this region and the refusal of Turkey to accept a free and strong Iraqi Kurdistan just across the border.
Signs of Promise
The Christian refugees have received aid and support from two places. First, the church has been a powerful friend. The Chaldean and Syrian bishops and priests who decided to stay have been great signs of hope for the laypeople. And despite the violence and persecution, the church remains present and active as far as it can be. The Jesuits were expelled from the country in 1969, mostly because they were Americans, but Dominicans (belonging to the French province) still have a strong presence in Baghdad and Mosul, though they are now fewer in number. Even in the face of an uncertain future, churches are being built in many places; and a new seminary is being constructed in Qaraqosh. These are promising signs.
Further support has come from Kurdistan, where Christians have found refuge and peace. Sarkis Aghajan, a Christian who is Kurdistan’s minister of finance, has played an important role in the building of 10,000 homes in some 150 villages, dozens of churches and the seminary in Qaraqosh. This has been a huge effort, one that is essential if there is to be any reasonable chance of survival.
A Way Forward?
Amid this chaos many have proposed a solution: a federal Iraq divided into three autonomous regions: Shiite, Sunni and Kurd. But those who put forward this idea, some of whom are prominent Christians, completely forget the Christians who also live in Iraq. Aghajan wants Christians to settle around the Nineveh Plain and the mountains of northwest Kurdistan in an autonomous region. The City of Ankawa, near Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, has received hundreds of Christian families from the south, its population growing from 25,000 to 35,000 since the start of the war. For Aghajan, the presence of Christians in the Kurdish region is positive; it gives a good image to Kurdistan, and the Christians are hardworking and competent. But the refugees do not agree on the proposal for a special region. Some of them want the region as a refuge, but others reject the idea, especially people like Archbishop Sako of Kirkuk, because it might be seen as a surrender of their claims to their lands in the south. It is clear that any future discussion of a federal state for Iraq should include respect for the rights of Christians to control their lands and their destiny.
Why Focus on Christians?
Why should we focus on the plight of Christians when so many others are also suffering? This group is small, some may say, hardly 3 percent of the population of Iraq. Why are they so important? There are three reasons:
First, they are not just victims of a war, but also victims of religious persecution. At stake are the human rights of an entire religious minority.
Second, the Iraqi Christians are a sign of pluralism. As long as they are in Iraq, there is a chance that different religious faiths will be able to live together.
Third, they are part of the cultural and religious history of the region: Iraqi Christians have been there for centuries, a living sign of an ancient culture in the birthplace of the Bible.
Iraqi Christians are faced with a crucial dilemma. As a community they know that they should stay. This is the desire of many community leaders, including bishops like Archbishop Sako. But individually, they are ready to leave in order to save their futures and sometimes their lives. Who can blame them?
If Christians do decide to leave, they should be welcomed in foreign countries, especially the United States and Europe. They should receive help to settle. Students should be given visas allowing them to study. If they decide to stay inIraq, we in the West should lend vigorous assistance.
The question put to us by the plight of Christians in Iraq is bigger than whether to help a relatively small number of individuals with humanitarian aid and other support. At stake is the very survival of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Iraqi Christians should know that Christians everywhere will come to their aid.
From the archives, "The Jesuits of Baghdad: 1932-69."