Archbishop Jean Sleiman, a native of Lebanon, lived through the U.S.-led coalition's bombing of Baghdad, Iraq, where he is the Latin-rite leader.
Now he is witnessing the country's reconstruction. Prior to his appointment as archbishop in 2001, he served in Rome for 10 years as the general assistant of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, the order to which he belongs. Previously, he was a professor of sociology at the University of St. Joseph in Beirut.
Register correspondent Doreen AbiRaad interviewed the archbishop in Beirut on his way home from Rome on Oct. 9.
It has been noted that Saddam Hussein liked the Christians in Iraq and often gave funds for Chaldean churches to be built in the Middle East and the United States, although he didn't want any conversions among Muslims.
You have the situation of a president who can be generous, who can be tolerant. However, there's the issue of freedom. The right to be free is a right and not a gift from a president. I think in many countries of the Middle East, as in Iraq, the right to be free isn't recognized as a right.
What is the status of life for Christians now in Iraq, and what is the outlook for their future?
They are still anxious. The situation of the war is still difficult, and so many of them are disappointed, and I think many of them are dreaming of leaving. Some have left, but it's difficult now, because they need passports, visas and money. I think Christians of the Middle East have to be resigned to their mission in the Middle East. It may be difficult now to live in Iraq, but it would be more positive for them if they stay. This country needs Christianity. Otherwise, it will be a desert.
Are the Christians in Iraq able to freely practice their faith?
We practice like before in our churches. But the fear is getting to the church, due to lack of security. People are afraid of becoming a victim of violence.
Is reaching out to the Christians different now for you and your order than it was before the war?
We have to be more helpful now, not only with spiritual help, but with social and economic help. Because the Church didn't suffer as an institution in Iraq, many people look for help from the Church to eat and to find work.
Bishop Andraos Abouna, an auxiliary bishop of Baghdad in the Chaldean Church, stated that the media are presenting a distorted coverage of Iraq to discredit the progress made by the American-led coalition. What are your thoughts regarding this?
I think he's right. The coalition is making positive steps, but it was late. And you still have the anarchy and insecurity. The formation of the Temporary Council of Government is a very positive step, and I think for many people the outcome has improved. But you still have a majority of society who is suffering, especially from the lack of security and financial problems.
What effect is the decreased role of the United Nations having on the situation in Iraq?
I think the role of the United Nations is a very important one. But the United Nations without an agreement of nations will be very inefficient. It's important that the United States and other countries, especially European countries, agree on a program for Iraq. And the United Nations is best suited to apply this program.
The American people are disturbed about the numbers of their young men and women in the military who have lost their lives in Iraq serving their country. What would you like to tell them?
I also am very sad. Because when I encounter these young people, I see many times that they are friendly people. Many of them would buy gifts for the children. They are good people, but now they are victims of a very complex situation. I understand the feelings of the American people and I share it. I am really sad when I hear that one soldier has been killed or wounded. So I hope that the United States can collaborate with other nations to change this situation.
What are some of the ways society is changing in Iraq as a result of the war?
I think Iraq has changed. Surely people now can express their opinion, and they are demonstrating. It was prohibited before. But even though someone is free to speak out now, it doesn't mean that he knows the situation well. Surely, after the war, freedom is a reality, but that freedom has been alienated by the anarchy and the violence.
What is the atmosphere for women now?
Women now are afraid, because we have groups of fundamentalists who are threatening women. I notice that many women don't drive alone. They wait for someone — their husband, a brother or a friend — to go with them when they have to go out. However, there are positive changes, such as the female attorney appointed to the Council of Government. But this attorney has been threatened as well.
You have just returned from Rome. What are the Vatican's views about the current situation in Iraq?
I cannot speak for the Vatican, but I think the Vatican is very close to the Iraqi people and to the churches in Iraq. I think the Vatican is still, as it was before, against violence and war. We are now in the period of the consequences of war, and one can notice the consequences, especially the physical violence and the increase in terrorist groups.
What message would you like to convey to Christians in the world, and in particular, to Christians in the United States?
I hope that all believers in Christ throughout the world will really be a testimony of Christ. I think the Middle East and other countries need Christ more today than ever before. I am sure that we are all a community of Christians as seekers of peace and builders of peace, and it's important to continue.
Doreen AbiRaad is based in Bikfayah, Lebanon.