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International Religious Freedom: Reflection from an Iraqi Bishop

 
Most Reverend Shlemon Warduni, Remarks for International Religious Freedom during the USCCB General Assembly, Public Session, Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dear brothers in the Lord,

I am very happy to be with you, and I thank you very much for inviting me to talk to you today about what is happening to the Church in Iraq. Although this talk comes a little bit late but it is better late than never, as we say in Italian "meglio tardi che mai".

The church in Iraq: As you know, for some time we have had a very bad situation for all Iraq and for all Iraqi citizens. We always used to talk about all Iraqi people in general and about Christians in a special way.

That was because the Chaldean church has existed from the first century of Christianity in Iraq. It was founded by St. Thomas the Apostle in Mesopotamia. This church flourished in the 4th century with St. Ephrem, the poet of the Virgin Mary, who taught in the famous schools of Nisibi and Edesse. Our missionaries at that time journeyed to China, Mongolia and India.As the centuries passed, the number of our Chaldean faithful reached 80 million at one time, but this number very slowly became smaller. Now in all over the world, we are about one and half million Chaldeans, and in Iraq about 400 thousand faithful.

For years, Christians and Muslims lived together, not in perfect harmony but with some degree of cordiality and mutual respect. Neighborhoods were often mixed. Our children played together. We celebrated each other's festivals. Christians could go to schools and have good jobs. After the American invasion of Iraq, things changed drastically.

Our situation in Iraq became a tragedy of immense proportions after 2003. All Christians were harmed, but especially we Chaldeans, the largest community of Christians in Iraq.

We have lost one Bishop – Faraj Rahho; one priest was killed – Fr. Ragheed Ganni; and 6 subdeacons. More than 15 priests have been kidnapped and released after paying a lot of money as ransom. Many of them were tortured. More than 20 churches have been attacked.The tragic high point was the attack on Our Lady of Deliverance Cathedral in Baghdad where over 45 persons were murdered, including two young priests. Many of our faithful have been kidnapped and killed.

Our Pontifical Babel College for Philosophy and Theology, which was situated in Dora, a Christian section of Baghdad, was occupied by U.S. coalition forces for one and a half year as a "combat outpost." This was very bad for us because our brother Muslims accused us of collaborating with the Americans because we were Christians.They said that we gave the building to the Americans. The taking of this building by the U.S. military definitely harmed our relations with Muslims and was used by extremists to stir up more hatred against Christians and encourage more persecution.

Terrorist and fanatic groups continued to attack our Christians in Dora. They forced Christians to leave their houses or to pay "al Jesya" (a fine levied on non-Muslims simply for choosing to live in an Islamic society) because they are not Muslims. They forced our Christian daughters to marry Muslims, even the princes of al Qaida. They said to Christians, "Become Muslims or be killed." As a result, many Christians escaped the area and went to the north or fled outside of Iraq.

The same thing was done in Mosul (Nineveh) in northern Iraq that traditionally had a strong Christian presence.Many were killed because of fanaticism against them. We tried to talk with everybody to get help for Christians and other religious minorities. Many of them promise us they will do something, but nobody has done anything.

As a result, our people have no trust in anybody and they continue to leave the country with many criticizing the Church for not having helped them. This emigration is catastrophic for our Church. Some wonder if there is a big plot to empty Iraq, if not to empty all the Middle East, of Christians.

Emigration is a most dangerous and contagious illness that we have had in these last ten years. I can say that even the fetus in the womb of his mother desires to emigrate. As a result, more than half of our faithful have left Iraq since 2003.

We have not experienced this kind of drastic situation in the past 200 years. You may ask, why did this happen? First of all because of the war, there is no peace, no security. Instead there are terrorism, kidnapping, car bombings, suicide bombings. There are no jobs, only much oppression. In the face of this, there is no more attachment to the land of our ancestors, to the land where the Church has existed for centuries. Everybody is worried and anxious.

We only ask for our rights and to be considered as first class citizens, just like any other Iraqi, because this is our country. We feel many times that our treatment in general is unjust.

As leaders of the Church in the United States, you bear a special responsibility toward the people and Christians of Iraq.In 2003 your government led the war that brought some terrible consequences.The U.S. government can and must do all it can to encourage tolerance and respect in Iraq, to help Iraq strengthen the rule of law, and to provide assistance that helps create jobs for Iraqis, especially those on the margins.

Many times we ask, where can we find "justice and peace"? Our Lord says: "I give you my peace, but not like the world gives…." The peace of Jesus is love. This love guides us to unity, because love works miracles, and builds justice and peace. This can be realized when all the Church works together in one heart and one thought.

We beg you to do something for us. We want only peace, security and freedom. You can tell everybody: Iraq was very rich, but now is very poor, because of the war and much discrimination. We want to cry out to you: we want peace, justice, stability, freedom of religion. No more war, no more death, no more explosions, no more injustice. Please help us talk to everybody. Push the cause of peace. Our people are tired, our Christian families and communities are now spread out in a huge diaspora. One family I know is spread out in 4 or 5 countries and in many cities within the same country. They long to be reunited.

We trust in God and in your spiritual help and in your prayers. We ask you to do your best for our Iraqi Christians that are living in your blessed country. Help them to live in an honorable status with their just rights.

God bless and thank you very much.



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