Iraq Christians Better Off

Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad Andreas Abouna would like to see Christians from the U.S. come to the north of Iraq to meet the Christians there. He says it is important that they realize they have not been forgotten.

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Bishop Andreas Abouna is a Chaldean auxiliary bishop in Baghdad.

He was ordained a priest in 1966 and ordained a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

In 2005, along with other bishops, he expressed concern about parts of a draft constitution that might lead to discrimination against non-Muslims in Iraq.

The Chaldean Church is an Eastern Catholic Church.

When he visited London in August, Register correspondent Greg Watts interviewed the bishop to find out what life is like for Christians in Iraq.

What is the current situation in Baghdad?

The situation is much better. Over the last three months it has been improving.

Are there any signs of Christians returning to Baghdad?

Some Christians have come back. Not many, but at least it is a sign that things are changing. At the same time, many Iraqis want to leave. And many Christians have left Baghdad, either for the Kurdish area in the north or for other countries, such as Syria and Jordan.

What is daily life like?

It’s much better than before. You can go anywhere. But, of course, there are a lot of checkpoints, controlled by the Iraqi army and police. This means that you have delays when you travel, but it makes it safer.

How serious are divisions between different groups in the city?

We need reconciliation between Iraqis. There is a lack of trust among many Iraqis. Unless this happens, nothing will change. We need to be united again. The borders are still open and groups from different countries come in and cause problems.

How visible are the American soldiers in Baghdad?

The Americans only get involved if the Iraqi army needs them, but they carry out patrols across the city.

Are kidnappings still a big problem?

Kidnappings still happen but have gone down by around 70%.

Has the mood of people improved, along with the decrease in general violence?

This has also decreased. And there are not as many car bombings.

The shops are now open again. People can walk in the streets until late at night in some areas, but in other parts of the city they can’t.

Electricity is still one of our biggest problems. We only get a couple of hours a day. It’s terrible in the summer, because it gets so hot.

More people are coming to Mass, but some are still afraid to go out because of the security situation. But at Easter and Christmas the churches in Baghdad were packed. The Christians in Iraq are more united than before because of what they have been through.

What specific things is the Church doing?

Our priests are helping people to find housing and providing financial and other support. And we have set up a number of computer courses at churches in the city. This year, we are organizing a series of events to celebrate the Year of St. Paul.

In Baghdad we have opened three Chaldean primary schools. The school in New Baghdad has both Christian and Muslim pupils. The Church believes education is the key to Iraq’s future.

How did the killing of Archbishop Rahho in Mosul earlier this year affect the Christian community?

Everyone was shocked by his death. But not just the Christians. Many Muslims in Mosul were also shocked. He was a good man and very popular with them.

What sort of relations do you have with local Muslims?

We have good relations with the Muslim leaders. They come to visit us, especially at Christmas and Easter, and we visit their mosques. And young Christians and Muslims study and work together. They just see themselves as Iraqis. We have lived for centuries together.

What are the major needs for Christians in Baghdad at the moment?

They need better security. They can find jobs, but sometimes they are afraid to travel because of the fear of bombings and violence.

We hold meetings in churches for students. We discuss the issues affecting them and also have lectures.

During World Youth Day in Sydney, around 1,500 young people met in the Latin church in Baghdad. Young people can visit each other until about 6 p.m., but after that it’s not safe to be out.

What are relations like with other churches?

We are very united. Because of the situation, we work together more closely than before. Each month, Chaldean, Syrian, Latin, Assyrian and Orthodox Church leaders meet, and we discuss any issues affecting the Christian community.

How many students are training for the priesthood?

At the moment, we have 26 men in our seminary in Erbil in the north of Iraq. We have both Chaldeans and Syrians. We have a new seminary opening in September, thanks to the support of Sarkis Aghajan Mamendu, the Kurdish regional government’s minister for finance and the economy. A second seminary, for Syrian Catholics, has opened in Qaraqosh.

As part of their training, seminarians visit families in the Christian villages so that they can see what their needs are. This is very important. And this month, they are all going to visit Rome to give them an insight into the global Church.

How do you view the future for the Church in Iraq?

It is hard to look to the future, given the instability of the situation. Life is difficult even for the Christians in the north. They have security but find it difficult to get jobs.

So what can Christians in the United States do to support the Church in Iraq?

We need the support of Christians in the U.S.A., both through prayer and other ways. I would like to see Christians from the U.S. and other countries come to the north of Iraq to meet the Christians there. It’s very important that the Christians in Iraq realize that they have not been forgotten.

Greg Watts is based in London.