Bishop-Elect: This May Be Our Last Chance to Stop the Exodus of Christians in Iraq
Chorbishop Felix Dawood Al Shabi, who will take office as bishop of Zakho as soon as Covid-19 restrictions allow, discusses the challenges presented by his new mission in a strategic area of Iraqi Kurdistan.
For the first time in a decade, the city of Zakho, in Iraqi Kurdistan, will have a bishop again. By decision of Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, the patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, this eparchy will be separated from that of Amadyiah-Duhok, to which it was united in 2013.
The eparchy had initially been entrusted to the Diocese of Erbil after the death of Bishop Petros Hanna Issa Al-Harboli in 2010.
The new eparchy will be run by Chorbishop Felix Dawood Al Shabi, appointed with Pope Francis’ consent on June 27. Born in Karemlash, in the Nineveh Governorate of northern Iraq, on Jan. 19, 1975, he was ordained a priest on June 29, 1998, in Baghdad. He left Iraq in 1999 and settled in the U.S. where he served in several parishes until 2018.
Located between the Syrian and Turkish borders along Little Khabur River, Zakho is a strategic region. The surroundings of the city — which is essentially populated by Kurds and Chaldean Christians — have recently been the scene of Turkish airstrikes targeting bases of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party), arousing terror among local populations. The Turkish government regards the PKK, a political and military organization that is active in both Turkey and Iraq, as a terrorist organization.
While discussing the sensitive context of his new mission with the Register in Rome following the announcement of his appointment, Bishop-elect Dawood Al Shabi called on Western Christians to maintain and strengthen their support of their Iraqi Christian brothers, under pain of seeing them reduced to a mere historic symbol.
You’re going to take office in a very delicate moment for the city of Zakho and its surroundings, which have been undergoing Turkish bombing over the past weeks. How is the situation now?
The situation right now is a little bit better than two weeks ago. Because these bombings are not constant, the Turkish troops attack and then they withdraw because Iraq is a sovereign country. It already happened in the time of Saddam Hussein. But a lot of people suffer on the ground because the troops don’t distinguish between those who are militants and the innocent people that are on the street just to go to work. Many civilians are suffering, innocent people are being killed.
One of the cemeteries of our diocese was also hit by a bomb or very near to it from what I heard.
The situation between Kurds and Christian faithful in Northern Syria is reportedly complicated. How is the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan?
I’ve never lived in Zakho yet but from what I am told by my Christian brothers there, the situation is better with the Kurds than with Islamist groups. The fact that Iraqi Kurdistan is a mountainous area prevents this kind of general terror to settle. It is easier to handle for Christians.
The current leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan have a certain openness to the Western and Christian world, so I am expecting a more constructive collaboration with our Church, at least with regards to religious freedom for Christians there. We must maintain our rights.
In Iraq, the Kurdish government has been stable since the Kuwait war in the 1990s. It is almost a real government and they are more flexible. They have diplomatic channels and they want to maintain good relations with the rest of the world.
It is more complicated at a national level as the Constitution is now based on the Quran. I remember that, when I was young, before leaving Iraq, the former constitution was closer to the French Constitution, based on Human Rights.
How do you explain such a shift in the country?
The Gulf War in the 1990s changed a lot of things and favored the rise of terror groups. It was like a turning point and it has continued this way until recent years with ISIS.
The fact that the Quran is now the foundation of our Constitution makes the situation very complicated for minorities. We are second-class citizens.
But even before the advent of terror groups in recent years, Christians have been suffering bad treatments from Muslim groups for so many decades, it was already like that in the 1950s, it is a rooted mentality. Coexistence is not easy. As long as we have a weak government, the situation will remain the same and Christians will continue to flee.
What about the Christian presence in Zakho?
Even after the disaster caused by ISIS in 2014, people have continued to arrive from the south, from Nineveh Plains and Baghdad. But there is still the desire to flee Iraq, and many people go to Zakho with the aim of crossing the border to Turkey, hoping that through the United Nations, they can ask asylum in Europe and find a country where they can live in peace.
This is the major risk we are facing in the whole country: the disappearance of the Christian community would make them become symbols only, without any significant presence.
Do you still have relatives in the Nineveh Plains, one of the regions that were most violently attacked by Islamic State (ISIS) jihadis?
Yes, I have family members here and there. Some of them returned after ISIS was defeated, but others are still in Turkey, afraid to come back because of the constant risk of invasion and war. Christians fear for their children’s lives, and prefer to live in a country that would welcome them and enable them to offer their children a better life. The political situation is so unstable, everything can change from a day to another. We must respect their choice but our role is to encourage them to stay and make sure they have the best conditions to do so. We encourage them to make more children, to enlarge our community and ensure its survival.
In my native village of Karemlesh, near Mosul, there were about 900 families before the ISIS offensive and now, there are about 300 families, so one third has come back since then. Bear in mind that houses haven’t been rebuilt yet, but churches are already being rebuilt. In Erbil, where half of the families flew in 2014, there are 120 Christian families from my village.
Why did Cardinal Sako decide to create an autonomous eparchy in Zakho?
Our patriarch decided to reinforce the Christian presence through the creation of episcopal sees. When the last bishop of Zakho died in 2010, the diocese was left without a head. The bishop of Erbil became the administrator of Zakho for about three years, and then they united it to the closest diocese of Amadiyah-Duhok because there were not enough faithful.
But people in Zakho felt they had no pastor anymore, while before they used to have their own bishop. The patriarchate wants that Christians can make their existence noticed. Because what remains is so precious. There is the feeling that it is our last chance to stop the hemorrhage of Christian exodus.
What will be your strategy in this sense?
I will refine my strategy once I get there. I want to hear people’s testimony first, to hear what they truly need.
The priority would be to create a deeper connection with the faithful, locate them and try to build a service team with local priests of our diocese.
We must understand what their needs are, apart from alternatives to emigration, the concrete things that would help them maintain their Christian faith and enable me to serve them in an efficient way. We must focus on the youth especially. We must support them, educate them. Luckily, we have a good Catholic school in Zakho, run by four Chaldean sisters and that offers class from kindergarten to high school. So, it is an important factor since it will enable us to offer a future to these young people.
You’ve made several public statements that Catholic education is fundamental in the battle to save the Christian presence in Iraq. Why would you say that?
Education is the corner stone of our presence, because it supports faith, which is the absolute priority for the survival of our community. One of my main goals for now is to root people’s faith by encouraging a higher Catholic education.
Obviously, there are other needs in life, like food, the everyday life, electricity … these are all needs that are not fully satisfied as the conditions of life are very precarious, people have electricity just a few hours a day.
However, even if one may be poor, if one has an education, one’s faith will stay strong and there will necessarily be new opportunities. And it will be easier to help him.
The knowledge of our Church’s beliefs is also a way to honor the sacrifice that our martyrs made, like my cousin Ragheed Ganni, who gave up his life to maintain his faith.
Moreover, Catholic education is all the more important that there has been a new Protestant penetration within the region, and it opened the door to several Christian cults as well. We must be careful about that. Zakho is a very important city for Catholics, many bishops and Church leaders were born in this city, and so is our current Patriarch Cardinal Sako. There currently are four or five bishops in Iraq coming from Zakho or that have relatives there. And countless priests and bishops have served and did a lot for the Church from there. It is a strong symbol that must be preserved and we have to do our best in order to prevent Christian cults to take control of our Catholic faithful, often thriving on their material misery.
What are the specific challenges expecting you in this new mission?
There will be so many challenges! For now, I am trying not to think too much about them and focus on what I can do for my people.
I know this will be no walk in the park. I am going to face a storm. But I am happy to go back to my homeland. I was born there and I feel I am indebted to the Church of my country that gave me everything. And people there are very happy to have a bishop back after 10 years. Many of them are already calling me, asking when I’ll get there, which is encouraging. And there also are many great priests to support me in this task so I won’t be alone to face difficulties, which gives me strength and hope.
Do you have a message for the Catholic faithful in the U.S.?
I want to remind them that Christianity in Iraq, or I should say in Mesopotamia, because it is more antique, is a profound and original Christianity. St. Thomas the Apostle founded this Church, which still has countless treasures of faith and culture. As a son of this Church, I feel this bitter feeling that it is dying and that it will be dead for good if we don’t do anything.
The Catholic Church — as well as some Protestant churches — sent food and other primary goods to Christians during the invasion of ISIS, when they were refugees in Kurdistan. It meant a lot, but they still need help, and this presence of the Universal Church should be strengthened. We need prayer above all as it is the first channel that unites us, and then all kind of support. One of my goals will be to provide young people with jobs but I will need support from outside the country. We will need the presence of the Western Church in the process.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.