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BY Joan Desmond
When President Bush first signaled his intention to approve the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Pope John Paul II strongly opposed the action. The U.S. bishops followed the Holy Father’s lead and lobbied against it.
Eight years later, President Obama has announced the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq by the end of the year, and the bishops are scrambling to address an increasingly urgent problem: the plight of Iraq’s already diminished Christian minority, which has been cut in half since the U.S. invasion, primarily due to flight from military conflict.
During a press conference at the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore, two bishops focused on the unpredictable and destabilizing effects of the U.S. pullout, which comes at the same time that the Arab Spring has forced Christians in other nations in the region, from Egypt to Syria, to assume the status of refugees.
Bishop George Murray of Youngstown, Ohio, and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., recently returned from a trip to Iraq; they briefed members and the media at the Baltimore meeting.
Bishop Kicanus noted that the USCCB fact-finding mission consulted with the apostolic nuncio as well as representatives of all the Christian churches in Iraq, and he confirmed that the Vatican and its nuncios throughout the region are carefully coordinating efforts to draw public attention and respond to the needs of Christians.
“We visited the Church of Our Lady of Salvation, where the militants entered and killed the faithful, including two priests. One still sees bloodstained walls,” said Bishop Murray, who was deeply moved by the experience. The great concern now is the lack of stability in the country and fears about what could erupt when U.S. troops depart.
The two bishops said that Iraqi Christians face a thorny dilemma about their future. Christians want to maintain their presence in this ancient land, but they fear reprisals and general instability following the troop withdrawal.
Asked what the U.S. should do to assist Christians, they strongly encouraged the Obama administration to reinstate the Commission on Religious Liberty. Second, the U.S. should employ its considerable leverage with the Iraqi government to secure an orderly transition: “There is fear that when our troops leave there will be instability and violence. We need to assist the government to try do its work; the young need jobs, and we should help to provide opportunity for work.”
Bishop Murray said there was “a need for a modern-day version of the Marshall Plan, which helped to rebuilt Europe after the Second World War. Iraq is suffering from the results of the war.”
Noting that the troop drawdown will result in a massive decline in military spending, the bishops called on Washington to address the needs of Iraqi refugees, as well as providing foreign aid to Iraq for economic redevelopment.
How to sell this to the American public during a time of budget cuts?
Bishop Murray said it was important not to put Iraq out of our minds. “We talked about the liberation of Iraq from oppression. But we still need to give hope and opportunity to the Iraqis to live their lives with freedom and hope.”
One bishop recalled an Iraqi Christian’s remark: “We used to live in the Garden of Eden, and now we live in hell.”
Bishop Murray noted that the Vatican is approaching the evolving situation from a regional perspective. The nuncios and the Holy See are in conversation with all the governments to defend Christians.
Before the war, there were 100,000 Christians in Baghdad. Now there are 4,000 Christians.
The bishops stressed that some Church agencies are already in place to aid the needy: CRS can direct funds, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Dominican sisters are already working in Iraq.
I checked in with Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., to get her view of what was needed right now.
“The U.S. withdrawal will likely lead to a weaker overall security environment and more Sunni extremist attacks on the Christian minority,” she told me. “Islamist extremists aim to religiously cleanse Iraq of its non-Muslim minorities and create violent chaos that will alienate the population and the international funders from the Shiite government, both of which could be accomplished by targeting the Christians.
“The U.S. will remain an important ally for Iraq in technological, economic and defense areas. The U.S. government should make the protection and recognition of equal rights of citizenship for the Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities a redline for our alliance. We owe this to the defenseless and besieged minorities, and it is in furtherance of our own interest in seeing a tolerant and pluralistic Iraq.”