Despite Improvements, Hope Comes Hard in Iraq

During a brief visit to London, Auxiliary Chaldean Bishop of Baghdad Andreas Abouna talked to Greg Watts about the future for the estimated 800,000 Christians in Iraq.

How will the constitution protect the rights of the Christian minority?

This is the first time in Iraq that the people have had the opportunity to discuss their future. At the Chaldean synod of bishops in April we spoke about the new constitution and what we wanted from it. The constitution should represent all the people of Iraq and provide for freedom of religion, education and social life and respect for human rights. We don't want special concessions for Christians. We don't want any religion or part to dominate Iraq. We have focused on the word citizenship. Religion and politics should not be mixed together.

Have you had meetings about the constitution with Muslim leaders?

Yes, and many agree with us that religion and politics should be separate. There are many secular parties. But some Muslim parties want Shari'a [Islamic] law to be the only source of law. The Koran should only be one of the sources of law. Along with the other Chaldean bishops, I have met both the Iraqi prime minister and president to congratulate them on their posts.

What was it like returning to Baghdad after being chaplain to the Chaldean community in London for 12 years?

It was a shock at first. Insurgents from outside are now everywhere in Iraq, especially in Baghdad.

What is life like on a day-to-day basis?

The electricity stations have become targets. Most people only have electricity for a few hours a day. In the patriarchate, we have a generator, so we are lucky. When you don't have electricity, you have problems with water and petrol stations. If there is no electricity, you have to queue for a long time. Often at night you hear a lot of explosions across the city.

People don't stay out late. Baghdad is a big city, and some parts are safer than others.

How do you travel around Baghdad?

I usually drive. You can't let fear overcome you. But I try and make sure that I am not driving near American Army vehicles, as that is very dangerous. I feel God is with me. I could die anywhere, not just in Baghdad. I don't feel frightened.

Have you seen any bombs or serious incidents in the streets?

Yes, in front of the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Mansour, where I celebrate Mass every day. We had about 100 children there for catechism. After the class finished, they went outside to play in the courtyard. It was about 12:30 p.m. I don't know why, but I told them to get into their buses and go back home. Usually, it's at 1 p.m. “Oh, Father, we have plenty of time. We want to play here,” they said. “No, it's time to go,” I said, and they got into the buses. I left the church and then, suddenly, I heard a huge explosion behind me. A bomb had exploded at the government building next to the church. I ran back, because there were around 50 young people still inside the church. I thanked God that the young people were unharmed. There were pieces of shrapnel strewn across the garden of the church.

But worst of all was seeing the head of the bomber lying on the floor. It was all burnt. A policeman had also been killed.

I still don't know why I told the children to leave before the usual time. Maybe it was God who told me to do it.

Have there been many attacks on Christians?

The attacks aren't aimed specifically at Christians. They are aimed at everyone.

When you walk through the streets, you don't know who might be there. Mar Elya's church was badly bombed last year. One of the young men there was killed.

He went up to a car parked between the church and the mosque and then the bomb exploded. It was very sad. The bombers targeted the church, but ended up also killing the mullah at the mosque. But the church has now been repaired.

The church beside the seminary was bombed and half of the seminary destroyed. One time, I was at the seminary when someone shouted that there was a bomb beside the wall. I immediately called the Army, who came and disabled it. If it had gone off, it would have destroyed the building.

How big a problem is kidnapping?

Kidnapping is a problem for everyone. Nobody can control it. But there are less kidnappings than last year, but killing is a bigger problem.

Kidnappings are carried out for money. The Syrian archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped last year, but was released.

How good are relations between Christians and Muslims?

Despite the situation, the bonds are still close between Christians and Muslims.

Last Christmas, a Shia and Sunni representative came to the patriarchate and gave us a Christmas tree. I was so happy. “Where are the decorations?” I asked jokingly. “I forgot,” he replied. “Don't worry, you can bring them next year,” I said.

Have you had much help from the Church around the world?

We have received a lot of aid from Europe. The Italian bishops provided us with funds to build an extension to St. Peter's seminary. And we have received support from the English and German Catholics for our orphanages, including the one in Karada run by the Missionaries of Charity.

Has anything changed for the better since the invasion of Iraq?

There are a lot of positive things happening in Iraq. The salaries are very high now. And even retired people get good salaries. But people are very frightened. When they leave to go to work in the morning, they don't know if they will come back home safely. Al-Dora, where Babylon College is located, is a very dangerous area of the city. It's much safer in the north because the Kurds control it. Five-star hotels are being built around Arbil.

Christians are treated well there. Five Christians were elected to the assembly.

What about the media in Iraq?

There are many Iraqi TV stations now. But the media must be responsible.

It can help to promote violence or peace. They often only mention killings and bombs and ignore the good things that are happening.

Do you see any signs for optimism for the Church?

The faith amongst Christians in Iraq is now stronger than before. All the churches at Easter were packed, and since then more and more people have been coming each week. At Our Lady of the Assumption, so many people turned up that they had to stay outside. Vocations are on the increase. At Babylon College this year we will have 52 Chaldeans, 17 Syrians and 10 Assyrians.

And the college now has professors from Syria and Lebanon. The hope for the Church is with the youth. Most of the 40 Chaldean priests in Baghdad are young. Last year we had six priests ordained in Iraq.

What is the Church doing for the youth?

Each church has its own groups of young people. We are currently looking for a place where they can all meet together. Once we have a donor, we just need to find a safe area in the city and then we can build a large youth center. Around 1,000 young people turned up for a conference we held to coincide with World Youth Day in Cologne.

What would you say is the priority for the Church?

Education is one of the most important things. We want to start Catholic schools again. A primary school is being built in the parish of Mar Elya.

It won't just be for Catholics. It will be for everyone. It is through education that the Church can influence Iraqi society. Our problem is not finding buildings but the salaries for teachers.

How optimistic are you about the survival of Christianity in the Middle East?

The situation for the Christians in the Middle East is very serious. In 20 years there might be no Christians left. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has said this. We hope that once peace and stability comes to Iraq the Christians will stay. The big danger for Christianity is emigration. Many Christians are leaving, especially the young. But some might come back if the situation in the country improves. We have to have hope.

Greg Watts is based in London.