Bishop Bawai Soro was born in Kirkuk, Iraq, and ordained to the diaconate in the Assyrian Church of the East in Baghdad in 1973.
He left his homeland that year and continued his studies abroad. He was ordained a priest in Chicago in 1982 and consecrated bishop there in 1984.
He was involved in efforts leading to the signing of the Common Christological Declaration by Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV, patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, in 1994. He was in Rome for ecumenical work when he spoke to Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi on March 20 about the situation in Iraq.
When did you leave Iraq?
I left at age 20, in 1973. I was born and raised in Iraq. I then went to Lebanon from 1973 to 1976, in the midst of its civil war. In 1976, I came to the United States as a refugee. I can honestly say I have seen the difficult situation of war up close.
Tell me about the Christian Iraqi community in the United States.
There are a quarter of a million Christian Iraqis in the United States. One hundred thousand live in Chicago, 100,000 in Michigan and 50,000 live in California. Many Christians began to leave Iraq in the 1960s. There was a massive immigration outward. They still constitute a small minority in Iraq.
You are in favor of U.S. military action in Iraq. Why?
The Iraqi people have suffered tremendously. That is how I arrived at my position. It is a question about the right of the Iraqi people to find leaders with a paternal concern for them, as guarantors of human rights and the means to live in happiness, peace and freedom. There is currently an absence of these elements, which are basic to human existence. One develops a conscience that disagrees with how Iraq has been ruled for the past 35 years.
What factors have influenced your position?
My decision was shaped by two factors. First, my own experience as an Iraqi who lived in the country for 20 years, and then the rest of my life where I have had strong contacts with Iraqi groups and religions. As an Assyrian Christian Iraqi, I have equal love for Assyrians and non-Assyrian Iraqis, for both Christians and Muslims.
Through our suffering, deprivation and oppression, we have found a common bond that brings us to the same aspiration of freedom, justice and peace for everyone. These are the ideals of monotheistic religions. Iraqis live in deprivation. It does not matter what ethnicity or religion you are. It's about human rights.
Why have we not heard more about the human rights abuses in Iraq, particularly from those who strongly defend peace?
I am very disappointed to see, as far as some high officials in the Holy See are concerned, that their reasoning seems more pragmatic and political rather than moral and theological. I consider the suffering of the Iraqi people to be a moral issue. For me, it is of paramount importance in cases of such severity.
Followers of Christ must first speak in moral rather than pragmatic terms. For some, the concern is not to upset the Muslim people. How, then, can the world be against the United States if the last five wars that were fought by the United States were wars to protect Muslim people? The Kuwaiti War [1991 Gulf War], Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Iraq. These were all wars to protect Muslim people.
What are your greatest concerns for the near future?
My prayers and concerns are for various things: First, I want the suffering of the Iraqi people to be eliminated. Second, [I want] Iraqi soldiers and American military personnel to return home safely. Third, the weapons of mass destruction should be destroyed and eliminated. Fourth, there need to be plans and resources to address the inevitable humanitarian crisis in Iraq, before and after the war. Fifth, Iraq needs to become a free, just, peaceful and democratic country as a consequence of this war. Finally, the other serious issue that must be dealt with and resolved is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
On what basis can you as a bishop entertain the idea of war?
For centuries, Christian thinkers have struggled with the question of war in the context of developing their teachings about peace and justice. The universal consensus is that war is evil. However, this evil of war must be accepted when a greater evil of injustice, oppression and inhumanity can be stopped by an act of war.
I believe the minimal conditions for any “just” war must meet the following state of affairs: first, the existence of an unjust ruler; second, the war is to defend the innocent and eliminate the suffering of the people; (The United States wants to defend Iraqis. I don't know why people are not looking at that.) third, the intention to establish good after the war. (This would be the establishment of a free, democratic and just Iraq.)
Why do people say the United States is invading Iraq for the oil?
Well, let me ask a question: Why did the United States abandon Iraqi oil in 1991 when they had the opportunity to take the oil? They could have done it then but didn't.
What are your aspirations for Iraq?
Iraq is an extremely rich country at all levels: manpower, water, agriculture, oil, minerals, history, human civilization, culture, archaeology. Think about it: Why have we sunk to the level where we are today? In fairness to the civilized nations of the world in the 21st century, we can all agree that God has ordained governments to serve their people so prosperity, moral and material, individual and collective, will increase in society. This process would only happen within the context of a fair social system and moral polity. This is the basic role of government. Any government that does not facilitate such aspects and aspirations of tangible progress should come under the scrutiny of every moral society and integral person.
As an Iraqi, I know the potential of the Iraqi people is great. Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans and others are wonderful people. I feel it is unjust to see Iraq separated from prosperous nations not only in the Middle East but also in the world. It hurts me to see Iraq so limited.
What do you hope will happen with regard to this war?
I hope and pray the war will be extremely short, with minimal civilian casualties. I pray Iraqi soldiers and U.S. military personnel will be safe so they can return home to their families. In my opinion, a democratized Iraq will send affirming signals to the whole of the Middle East. So much so that a peaceful Middle East will not be a near impossibility, as it is today. Iraq can play a crucial role in contributing to progress in the Middle East.
What do Iraqis living outside the country think in regard to this war?
Some people who talk about Iraq do so on a theoretical basis. But if you speak to Iraqis not under the penalty of fear, what you sense is more experiential, not theoretical. That is why we are able to appreciate the American action — because it is a great charity toward the powerless in Iraq who desperately need someone to remove their cause of pain and suffering.
What do you think of President Bush?
I hope and believe that after the chaos of war, after the political rhetoric has settled down, people will see much more clearly the providential role Bush has taken in promoting the American ideals of freedom, liberty and equality for all — not only in America but also throughout the world.
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Rome.