BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Leaders are calling for Americans to come to the aid of the Church in Iraq in the face of continued violence targeting Christians. Two Christian men were killed Oct. 4 in Mosul, contributing to a “climate of panic” among the small community there.
Hazim Thomaso Youssif, 40, and Ivan Nuwya, 15, were both killed in the Iraqi city, contributing to a long list of attacks against Christians in the war-torn country. Youssif was ambushed in front of his clothing store, and Nuwya was shot to death in front of his home located near the local mosque of Alzhara.
A source for Asia News in Mosul reported that there is a “climate of panic” among the Christian community there and that the city “has become the holocaust of the Christians.”
Father Ninous Ibraheem knows about that panic.
He remembers how two years ago, having made the precarious journey from Syria to Iraq without incident, he prepared to offer Mass in Dora, the Christian area in southern Baghdad.
Immediately after Mass, Father Ninous walked into the church’s courtyard to the blast of a car bomb. Another was detonated moments later as it rolled through the fleeing congregation. At the same time, another church within walking distance suffered the same terror.
It’s a risk Father Ninous takes every time he returns.
The next time he went back, in February of this year, only one church of the original 13, St. Shmoni, remained. “One of them was turned into a mosque,” he said through a translator, his voice full of exasperation. “It became routine that people thought there was no one doing services.”
Forty-seven Christians were killed in Iraq in 2007, including three priests. Among them was Father Ragheeb Aziz Ghanni, who was killed with three subdeacons June 3 while leaving church after Mass.
The Christian community has already dwindled to less than half its number from five years ago. Some 1 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003; today that number is barely 400,000.
Father Ninous reported that more than 45,000 Chaldeans have immigrated to Syria, where he has served for the past two years. Every time he returns to Iraq, he finds the situation in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood a little more secure, yet in need of more relief. “The last time I went to do services,” he lamented, “I had to go door to door just to get people to come out.”
The October violence in Mosul, in northern Iraq, shattered the calm impression left from recent statements by Bishop Andreas Abouna, auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean Church in Baghdad, who reported an improvement in conditions for Iraqi Christians.
“The situation is much better,” he told the Register recently, on a visit to London. “Over the last three months it has been improving … You can go anywhere.”
“Bishop Abouna lives in northern Baghdad, and the situation in central Baghdad is very different,” Father Ninous explained. “We don’t have water, churches, bishops ... nothing.”
Those Christians remaining in the Dora area of Baghdad, Father Ninous said, stay by choice because they do not want to be refugees. “The only way those Christians survived in Baghdad is because of the assistance that’s coming from outside,” he said. “Those who returned did so because they could not afford to live elsewhere. Their life is miserable: no water, food, medicine or doctors.”
Conditions are especially difficult after dark. “If someone gets hurt or killed in the middle of the night, no one dares to go to the hospital,” Father Ninous noted. “They’re afraid they’ll be attacked by the police, or that their car will be detonated. If they stay alive through the night, they do, but there’s no one to assist them.”
Such oppression has hit the economy, too, with price gouging running rampant, according to the priest. “Every family needs $1,000 a month just to survive,” he said. “There are generators outside on the streets, and they have to purchase electricity on a monthly basis. They need $20 daily for gas to pour into the generators. The water that comes every two weeks — sometimes once a month — is so dirty that not even the flies and ants will go in it.”
Ancestral ties, however, run very deep. “They don’t want to leave their ancestral homeland,” said Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, based in Chicago. “This was the first nation to convert in light of the Gospel, and the people still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Many Iraqi Christians want to return; they don’t want to be refugees. But in order to return, they need basic necessities.”
Taimoorazy thought it crucial to mention that most Muslims do not show hatred toward Christians. “In fact,” she emphasized, “there have been cases where Muslim neighbors have come to the assistance of Christians under attack.”
Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee and a practicing Catholic, has heard of these conditions from his constituents. “The Chaldean community in America is painfully aware of this because of their familial and community ties,” he said. “More than half of the community is displaced, and there’s trouble getting in humanitarian relief.”
He expressed his concerns in a fax to Pope Benedict XVI before the Holy Father’s meeting with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in July. “The Pope did raise the question,” McCotter confirmed, “but we’re not seeing any constructive steps being taken yet. The Prime Minister needs to step up to the plate and allow his people the God-given right of the free exercise of religion. So many Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice to bring that God-given liberty to Iraq.”
Promoting liberty, said McCotter, is the core, the bedrock, of American foreign policy: “It is a moral good. Doing the right thing leads to the right results. We don’t want to give the impression that this is something that can be put off to the next presidency.”
Bishop Bawai Soro, of the Chaldean Catholic Church in California, also exhorted Christians to act quickly.
“American Catholics truly need to know about the plight of their sisters and brothers in Christ in Iraq so they can help them,” he said. “They have been persecuted, kidnapped, and murdered by Islamic fundamentalists so much that almost half of their population has left Iraq already. The Maliki government … has not been able to provide any security for this 3% to 4% segment of the general Iraqi population.”
Bishop Soro, known among Chaldeans as Mar Bawai, pointed to an initiative by Bishop Sarhad Jammo: a formal plan for protecting Iraqi Christians, which both of them presented to the National Security Council in July.
“The initiative has had a lot of support among certain U.S. government departments, but obviously not all,” he said. “The majority of Iraqi Christians are agreeing with his initiative.”
The initiative formulates the rights of Iraqi Christians, elevates the status of the Chaldean, Syriac and Assyrian Christians to an equal footing with that of the Iraqi Arabs and Kurds (Muslims), grants them the right to autonomy (both moral and territorial), and establishes a “fair system” for distribution of funds needed to complete projects and other demands of Christians.
Mar Bawai is hopeful about the initiative, but knows of the great task ahead. “Given the severity of the damage already done to the soul and psyche of the Christian community,” he said, “it is not even expected that the fulfillment of such a brilliant plan … will fully succeed to secure and protect Christianity in Iraq and preserve it in the Middle East.”
The bishop, who recently came into communion with the Catholic Church, along with almost 3,000 members of his formerly Assyrian Church of the East congregation, made one final appeal to Christians worldwide: “The future is truly bleak, but as Christians, we thank the Lord for every attempt people make to save it. Please do your best to help.”
Stephen Mirarchi writes
from Tampa, Florida.
Some organizations assisting Iraqi Christians:
• Catholic Near East Welfare Association: CNEWA.org
• Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land: FFHL.org
• Iraqi Christian Relief Council: IraqiChristianRelief.org
• Assyrian Aid Society of America: AssyrianAid.org