National Catholic Register

Vatican

Holy See Strives to Support Iraq’s Christians

BY EDWARD PENTIN

Register Correspondent

January 30-February 5, 2005 Issue | Posted 1/31/05 at 10:00 AM

 

VATICAN NEWS

by EDWARD PENTIN

Register Correspondent

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II and the Holy See will be paying close attention to the situation in Iraq when the country’s people go to the polls Jan. 30 in their first election since the ousting of dictator Saddam Hussein.

In an interview with the Register Jan. 21, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, secretary for the Holy See’s relations with states, said the Pope “wants to be constantly informed about the situation” and that the secretary of state’s office of the Holy See is following “very closely all that affects the difficult daily life of Christians in Iraq.”

The Holy Father, whose concern for the Iraqi faithful was said to be one of his major reasons for opposing the war, spoke in December of his “great apprehension” over the situation in the country.

Iraq’s 700,000 Christians make up just 3% of the country’s population, meaning there are few Christian political parties taking part in the elections, mainly because they lack funds to campaign effectively. Of the 70 parties taking part, eight are identified as Christian.

Christians are also facing growing danger, and tens of thousands are reported to have fled the country after a spate of bombings targeted churches. Two religious and an archbishop were kidnapped in recent weeks.

An Iraqi Chaldean monk, Father Waheed Gabriele Tooma, recently spoke of his concern that Christians are seen as belonging to the same religion as coalition forces and therefore are considered an enemy in Iraq.

“Only in the last months, after the attack on the Christian churches, more than 50,000 Iraqi Christians have emigrated to Syria, Jordan and Turkey because of the threats received by Muslim fundamentalists,” Father Tooma told Fides news agency. “What is the offense? Being Christians — that is, of the same religion as the Western soldiers.”

Christians were generally left alone by the Hussein regime, but have since become a target as religious and political groups jostle for power. On Dec. 7, two attacks destroyed the Armenian-Catholic church of Mosul and the Chaldean episcopal palace in that city.

Those incidents were part of a series of attacks against churches that began in early August, when four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul were hit. Dozens of Christians died in the attacks. Violence against stores owned by Christians in Iraq started earlier.

Brave Nuns

In Mosul, the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation recently confirmed that the danger for Christians is such that many have been obliged to emigrate “to Syria or Jordan, and have left all their property to save their lives.”

The nuns’ house in the Iraqi city is located in an area between “the Americans, on one side, and the terrorists on the other,” which means constant danger that impedes them from leaving the convent for days, even to go to Mass.

Despite the problems, the sisters are not thinking of leaving, saying, “We are here, in this neighborhood, our neighborhood, and we will stay to witness to Christ crucified but risen from the dead.”

The congregation has seven communities in Iraq, in which some 40 religious work in education and run residences for young people, children’s homes and health centers such as St. Raphael’s Hospital in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, in the Dora monastery south of Baghdad, two Chaldean monks were kidnapped in early January and released two days later. The abductions preceded the kidnapping of Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa, the Syrian-Catholic bishop of Mosul, who was also released shortly after his capture.

However, the archbishop later said he did not think his abduction was “something anti-Christian” but rather an attempt “to get the Americans out of the country.” When asked what the international community could be doing to assist Iraqis, the archbishop replied: “It can put pressure on the U.S. to improve its policy toward Iraq and its people, as well as set a timetable for withdrawing its troops.”

The archbishop’s release praised the “instrumental” intervention of the Holy Father. “One of my captors said, obviously deeply impressed that the Pope had appealed for my release, ‘The Pope himself asked us to set you free,’” Archbishop Casmoussa said.

Archbishop Lajolo

The Holy See continues to take the threats against Iraqi Christians seriously. For Archbishop Lajolo, “the continued suffering of many Christians and the serious threats made anonymously against the bishops of the Church are indeed a cause of great concern: They are completely unjustified because Christians, just like Muslims, are victims of the current sad situation.”

On a practical level, the archbishop explained that the Holy See is trying to help the faithful through contacts with the Iraqi government in Baghdad and with Muslim religious authorities, both Iraqi and from other countries.

“Above all, the Holy See is present in Iraq through the apostolic nuncio,  Archbishop Fernando Filoni, who never left the country, not even during the military campaign,” Archbishop Lajolo said. “Through him, the Holy See remains in close and constant contact with the local Catholic communities, in order to assure them of the spiritual closeness of the Holy Father and also, as much as possible, to offer concrete help and assistance.”

When asked about his hopes for the future of Iraqi Christians, the archbishop said: “We must never abandon faith. In the words of our Lord, ‘I am with you always until the end of the world.’ We trust that, with the new political order in Iraq, the just freedom due also to the Christian communities will be recognized.”

The archbishop added that these communities of Iraqi Christians have a vital role to play as, since the apostolic times, “they have contributed to the culture and development of the country, especially through their educational and charitable activities.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.

(Zenit contributed

to this report.)