13 June 2012
An Iraqi woman prays at a Chaldean Catholic church in Amman, Jordan, on 15 April. Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to neighboring Jordan following a spate of bombings that targeted churches in Iraqi cities in the past few years. (photo: CNS/Ali Jarekji, Reuters)
With the situation in Syria deteriorating and anxiety growing over the plight of Christians in the Middle East, the National Catholic Register’s Tim Drake spoke recently with someone intimately connected to the region and its people: Bashar Matti Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, in northern Iraq:
Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, there has been a significant reduction in the number of Christians in Iraq. Why is that?
Yes, there’s been a reduction. Christian churches were targeted, Christians were threatened and killed, and many were forced to move elsewhere. There are so many reasons that many felt there was no future for them amidst an immature political process. The political process is based on family and tribal connections. Those in the U.S. look at the situation and wonder what’s going wrong. They say, “They have a constitution; there was an election. Things should be going okay.” What those on the outside don’t realize is that tribal connections are working on the inside. The tribes and parties look out for their own interests. Iraq is a very wealthy country, with a $100-billion budget, and many resources, such as oil. There’s much greed. So, for Christians, there are many reasons for them to leave — and maybe one or two reasons for them to stay.
Where are Christians going? Are there any safe enclaves for Christians in the Mideast?
They have gone to Syria, to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, but all of these are “waiting countries.” People tend not to stay there. Forty-four percent of Iraqi asylum seekers are Christian. They are going to any place that will speed the process of immigration. Other families seek final settlement in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Those who are not able, who are too poor or do not have the means to travel, often move inside the country to places such as Erbil and northern Iraq.
How might the instability in Syria affect Christians there?
It’s precarious. Syria is sensitive because Lebanon would be affected by Syria. It would cause chaos there as well as to the Christian presence in Iraq. When there’s chaos, it is not a good time for minorities.
Do you see post-communist Russia as a possible defender of Christians in the Mideast?
No, primarily because of communism. The Orthodox are very strong in Russia, but, politically speaking, we cannot view them as our defenders.
What are three things you would like American Catholics to know about Catholics in Iraq?
First, that Christianity has had a presence in Iraq for 2,000 years. It’s a very old community. It has not been converted from Islam. We were there before Islam. Our schools were always the best, even from the sixth and seventh centuries. Second, we’ve been through a very difficult time. We are grateful to the many people who have held out a hand of charity and solidarity with us, the various Catholic charities. However, we would like to leave this path of charity for the path of opportunity. Yes, we are a minority, but we have the capability to stay and build a good future for Iraq. Third, I would like to see more of a commitment by the media to raise the awareness of the issues in Iraq to build schools and hospitals. We are not benefitting from the wealth that Iraq has. We need to find ways to stay and build the community. When we leave Iraq, it’s a big loss. When I visited our communities in Detroit, the second and third generations are no longer speaking the language. Our whole culture is gone.
Do you see a peaceful generation coming?
Yes, that’s what we have to work for. The next generation is not following in the footsteps of their parents because they are tired of the mess. So many voices are asking when, for what and why? These courageous questions are helpful.
There’s much more at the Register.
We also spotlighted Christians in Iraq recently in A New Genesis in Nineveh, the cover story of ONE's November 2011 issue.
Tags: Syria Iraq Iraqi Christians War Emigration