In his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, on “The Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church,” Pope Benedict XVI challenged Islamic countries to offer the same religious freedom that Muslims usually enjoy in predominantly Christian countries.
Alas, the news is far from encouraging in countries such as Iraq and Egypt, where a recent spate of bomb attacks was manifestly aimed at scaring Christians out of their respective countries. A suicide attack on the Syriac Catholic cathedral in Baghdad in late October, which killed over 50 people, and a similar attack on January 1 on al-Qiddissin (the Saints) Coptic Church in Alexandria, killing 23 and injuring dozens more, were the most serious of them.
Despite this wave of terror, the Catholic Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, Iraq, Msgr. Louis Sako, was quoted as saying “we will resist and we will remain,” in an apparent response to a plea by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has called on Christians not to leave Iraq (AsiaNews.it, December 27). “For us Christians of Iraq,” Monsignor Sako added on December 31, “martyrdom is the charism of our Church, in its 2000 year history. As a minority, we are constantly faced with difficulties and sacrifices, but we are aware that bearing witness to Christ can mean martyrdom. In the Arabic language they have the same root: Shahid wa shahiid!”
The situation is so serious and worrying that some 20 sheikhs from Muslim Arab tribes were reported to have visited the Chaldean archbishop’s residence in Kirkuk to offer their best wishes for the season and express their solidarity with Christians, as well as to voice their concern over the mass emigration of Christians. “‘Iraq without Christians would not be Iraq,’ one of the sheikhs said,” reported Asia News (January 4), while another “highlighted the need ‘to strengthen the spirit of brotherhood because we are all children of Adam and Abraham.’” According to the article, Monsignor Sako replied:
As the Pope said, the attack against innocent people offends God and humanity. If we want to build life together and in harmony, we must educate our children to respect those who are different from us in terms of religion, culture or ethnicity, and respect the human mosaic that God created . . . Destroying it is to destroy not only peace but life itself.
“For many years, this beloved country has suffered unspeakable hardship and Christians have also become an object of heinous attacks with total lack of respect for life, the inviolable gift of God, desiring to undermine trust and civil coexistence,” Benedict XVI said in his message of condolence for the victims of violence in Iraq addressed to Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka of Baghdad. “I renew my appeal so that the sacrifice of these brothers and sisters of ours may be a seed of peace and true rebirth, and because many have reconciliation at heart, brotherly and supportive coexistence, so that they may find reason and the strength to do good.”
Monsignor Sako, who kindly agreed to share a few thoughts with me, noted that these attacks came in the wake of a successful Synod for the Middle East, which had called for a harmonious coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
This special synod at the Vatican, which convened October 10-14, was, Monsignor Sako claimed, largely another success for Benedict XVI, having met the expectations of its participants. Monsignor Sako had been part of the delegation of Iraqi bishops who, during their ad lumina visit in January 2009, urged the Holy Father to summon a synod to address problems and perspectives of Catholics in the Middle East.
“I was very touched by the Synod,” Monsignor Sako said: “173 fathers with their bishops from the Middle East but also from the Roman Curia, the presidents of bishops’ conferences from all over the world. I wondered at the freedom and the courage of the bishops with which they described the difficulties of Christians in the Middle East and also the challenges. By and large I think the Synod was for us a road map for protecting and strengthening Christians in the Middle East. To meet and listen to one another—125 bishops and other speakers—was very positive. The presence of the Holy Father, morning and evening and during the general sessions, was a real big help for each one of us. He was very attentive, aware of what was being said, and he was also at times taking notes.
“During the Synod we felt that the Pope is not only the pope for the Latin Church, but the pope for the whole Catholic Church—indeed, for all the Christians. The Synod was ecumenical, very ecumenical, and what we discussed was for all Christians, not only for us Catholics. So we are very grateful to him for having convened the Synod, and also spending lots of time at the sessions and also to greet each and every one of the fathers. We felt that he was very close to us; he is really our father.”
Monsignor Sako told me that, although they have been shaken to the core by this seemingly unending wave of terrorist attacks, the Iraqi Christian community is not losing its faith and hope—though patience is wearing thin. He called for prayer, moral support, and fellowship, so that his flock would not feel alone and isolated.
Regarding the observation that scant reference to Iraq was made in the synod’s final document, Monsignor Sako clarified that “what appeared in the final document was just a statement with a very short message, but there are the propositions that we presented to the Holy Father for being inserted in the final exhortation, scheduled to be published in perhaps six months or a bit more, but less than a year. But there are passages showing solidarity with Iraq and the Iraqi people, to Christians—we understand their suffering, we encourage them to stay, we pray for them, and so forth. Of course, there were also the other bishops who described their situation, their challenges, and what they were experiencing.”
Monsignor Sako suggested some practical measures that should be implemented immediately, calling for Iraqi security forces to provide protection for Christian churches—especially on Sundays. Muslim religious leaders must publicly condemn these terrorist attacks and highlight religious texts supporting the spirit of tolerance and peaceful coexistence between religions. Curricula in all Muslim countries must be purged of all hateful language directed against the followers of other religions. A spirit of tolerance and peaceful coexistence must be fostered by the media.
One of the things that struck Monsignor Sako was the need and desire for communion among the seven Catholic denominations in the Middle East, because, “if you want to do something, you have to be united. We should pursue unity and be one, at least us Catholics in the Middle East. In other words we should work together to develop common positions, to shape our seminaries, to form our seminarians and religious, to reform our liturgies, to educate our lay people and to be on the same page when it comes to religious instruction and the role of laity, women, and consecrated people in the Church. So communion is not something theoretical; communion means ‘we live it out,’ and also bear witness. We do not bear witness to the Gospel if we are divided. This communion should reflect what we believe and confess.
“But we also spoke about the presence of Christians in the Middle East, for them to be equal citizens with the others, reciprocity, in the sense that all citizens should be treated equally, not with some treated as first-class citizens and others second-class—which is the situation in the Middle East. We also spoke about the right to have freedom of conscience and the freedom to preach our religion. Why should some religions have the right to preach and proselytize all over their countries, while the Christians have only the freedom to worship, but not the freedom to evangelize others? In particular, we called for the governments of the Middle East to respect human rights. They have signed the charter of human rights, and so they’ve got to respect that. We renew our request for them to respect human rights.”
On another subject, Monsignor Sako was convinced that the death penalty recently handed down to the former Iraqi minister Tariq Aziz was “a shame.” In his opinion, the “death penalty should be taken off the constitution of all countries. Who has the right to take the life of someone else? Capital punishment is a shame against humanity and an offense against the creation as well as the person. Tariq Aziz was working with a dictator and could not challenge his decision. We know what the situation was in Iraq when a minister or an official contradicted Saddam Hussein: He was immediately killed. So, he could not change the mind of the president. I am not saying this because Tariq Aziz is a Christian; I am saying this with regard to all the members of the government at that time. I think today we have to understand the situation and work for a democratic Iraq, for reconciliation and not taking revenge. This sentence is a type of revenge. Iraq should change her laws as well as the mentality behind them. Personally, I think that Tariq Aziz and the others do not pose a risk for Iraq’s national security, so they could stay in jail and be judged justly; I mean according to international law. I am very sad, really, seeing people condemned to death because they were with the old regime and today there is a new one. With dictators it is not possible to tell them this is wrong, this is good.
“We as the Catholic Church in Iraq are not protecting or defending him because he is Christian; we should intervene because he is Iraqi—for him and also for the others on death row. I think Iraqis should petition the government to stop these decisions. This is a bad step for reconciliation among the Iraqi people and the reconstruction of the nation.”
And the American presence?
“They said they are leaving or they left, but who can control the reality? Moreover, they left Iraq without a strong government, without a strong army and police. How are we to protect the country—the borders and the people? Iraq is still vulnerable and weak in this regard.”
Are Americans still perceived as invaders?
“There was the feeling that they changed the regime, but what after that? The whole country was in chaos and confusion, no order, no strategy for the future. We feel that we are headed toward an unknown future, maybe even the division of the country or perhaps (though we hope not) civil war.”
And what about the WikiLeaks revelations on Iraq?
“I don’t agree with what they said about the 29 February 2008 kidnapping of the bishop of Mosul, Msgr. Paulos Faraj Rahho, and also the three deacons, because they shot them and abducted the bishop and asked for a ransom, so I think they were politicizing the kidnapping.”
What do you mean?
“I mean that the story is different. After Mass the bishop’s three companions were shot, killed, and the bishop was kidnapped and put in the trunk of the car, and he called saying that he had been kidnapped, and then they negotiated a big ransom that the Church could not pay, and he was killed.”
What was WikiLeaks version of the story?
“They say that he was killed immediately, and this is not true. He was reported as having been killed by Al Qaeda—who knows, maybe Al Qaeda or maybe others. Nobody can know, there was no inquiry, and this is a big problem in Iraq. Each one can kill, and nobody cares or is following up on the case.”
Your final appeal?
“We want to see an end to these days of violence, revenge killings, and bomb attacks; these explosions are destroying the whole country. With peace, with dialogue, and without resorting to violence, we can rebuild Iraq, and we can help each other for the benefit of our country. We can live together with deep respect and joy.”