Card Sako: Iraqi Christians, caught between survival and migration
by Louis Raphael Sako*
In a letter the Chaldean primate recalls the sufferings and persecutions of community in the last decade. He calls for future “guarantees” and a “common foundation” based on equal citizenship. The challenge of emigration, can only be defeated by restoring a social and political fabric on which to rebuild life.
Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Christians and other Iraqi minorities need “guarantees” to survive and a “common foundation” from which to build based on “citizenship, not religion or doctrine”, writes the Chaldean primate, Card Louis Raphael Sako in a message published on the website of the Chaldean patriarchate and sent to AsiaNews for information. The “deterioration” of security in the last 13 years, warns the cardinal, including kidnapping, ransom, homicide, destruction of houses and property has caused a progressive “loss of confidence” among Christians, who have been forced to emigrate.
However, today more than ever it is important to rebuild the social and political fabric and guarantee a future in their country of origin, to which they have provided “very important contributions” in the past from the “economic, social and cultural” point of view. Returning to them, warns Card Sako, the lost “dignity”.
Below the full text of Patriarch Sako’s message. A translation from the original Arabic
In this article I would like to discuss the main reasons why Christians must on one hand remain in their homeland, that is Iraq, or on the other hand to leave it and emigrate. In any case, I want to express my concern about the current and future situation of our country.
First of all, it should be pointed out that Christians are an original people in Iraq, not an immigrant community that has come from another planet. In fact, the roots of Iraqi Christians date back to the first century AD, while their ethnic origins go back thousands of years before, being descendants of Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs and Arabs.
Throughout their long history, Christians have served their country in a very decisive and influential way at all levels, including economic, cultural and social. They firmly believe that Iraq is their land of origin and an integral part of their identity, and that they represent a fundamental part of the different components of society.
Therefore, they refuse to be marginalized as regards their membership of the land and the Iraqi people. And despite all that has happened in Iraq, Christians desire, from the depth of their hearts and for all, peace, stability, true equality, real recognition of citizenship, freedom and dignity.
The reasons that push towards immigration
Iraqi Christians have withstood prolonged social and political pressures, and are treated as an insignificant minority and second class citizens. And of course, this way of treating them hurts. We only need to recall all that Christians suffered during the war between Iran and Iraq, the occupation of Kuwait, the 13 years of embargo, the fall of the regime in 2003, and the failure of successive governments in to lay the foundations for a national state and to consolidate a culture of citizenship and equality.
On the contrary, sectarianism and tribalism triumphed, which are founded on the protection of one groups members only, the spread of a religious preaching based on fundamentalism, which refers to ancient concepts to justify violence, although religion should be based on mercy , acceptance of the other, and a respectful attitude towards everyone.
What’s more, the deterioration of the security situation in the last 13 years, and its consequences such as the series of kidnappings, ransoms, murders, bombing and seizures of homes and properties, has meant that Christians have lost confidence and hope for a better future, and everything that forced them to leave everything and migrate.
But the real shock was the invasion of the Islamic State “Daesh” and its conquest of the city of Mosul and the whole territory of the Nineveh plains in 2014, and the emptying of its Christians (ن). [The symbol: (ن: Nazarenes), placed on the houses and properties of Christians in Mosul and in the Nineveh plains, by Isis has now become the symbol of today’s anti-Christian persecution.
In reality, the Islamic State had given three choices to Christians: conversion to Islam, payment of a tax, of so-called protection (jizya – dhimma), or forced and immediate abandonment of their land, otherwise they would have been killed. And unfortunately, Daesh has erased Christian monuments and symbols in Mosul, both ancient and modern ones.
Immediately after the fall of the regime (by Saddam Hussein), some local political forces began a conflict among themselves to dominate the Christian towns and villages of the Nineveh plains, with the aim of redesigning the demographic map of that area, each of those forces for their own interests.
The military barrier that separates the Christian town of Batnaya (under the control of the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias) from those of Telesqof and Alqosh also Christian (under the control of the ‘Peshmerga’ armed forces of the autonomous region of Kurdistan Iraqi) is the concrete proof of this conflict. This barrier has not been removed even today, despite promises made to remove it from both the Iraqi Kurdistan region authority and the Iraqi government.
International organizations have also encouraged Christians to emigrate, offering them all the support and tools to do so. Equally, the Western mass media have pushed in this direction, reiterating that – within five or ten years – there would be no more Christians in Iraq.
All these factors have contributed in bringing Christians to a point where they feel that their dignity is attacked, their trust is lost, their millennial existence is threatened. And this is also true of their membership, history, identity, faith, and language. Allow me to give a concrete example concerning the university of Hamdaniya (Qaraqosh, which is a Christian city on the Nineveh plains). An academic who does not belong to this city has been appointed as president. While we know that the Church has helped the university to continue after the invasion of Daesh in that area, and even today the students belonging to it use the halls and buildings of the Church as university classrooms. And there are other unpleasant and sad examples like this.
Christians were about 4 or 5% of the Iraqi population. They were about a million and a half before the fall of the regime [by Saddam Hussein], and they were a national, cultural, social and economic elite.
But since the beginning of 2003 about 1220 Christians have been killed in various incidents of violence throughout Iraq, including 700 people, including religious, killed for their Christian affiliation. And 23,000 Christian properties were seized, 58 churches were blown up. Let it be clear that none of these statistics include what the Islamic State did. Daesh, in reality, burned, desecrated, etc. all the churches in Mosul and in the towns and villages of the Nineveh plains. And as a consequence of all this, one million Christians, out of a million and a half, left Iraq.
The factors that encourage them to stay
Iraqi Christians and other minorities need reassurance to stay in their land, continue their millennial presence, and continue their coexistence with other members of society. They want the government to look at them with the same eyes with which they look at other groups, making them feel that they are citizens of equal dignity, both in rights and duties. Because citizenship, as we know, is not based on religion and doctrine, but on common foundations.
Christians want quick and clear solutions for some issues, such as: respect for their identity, diversity, the areas historically belonging to them (against attempts at demographic and ethnic change), their protection from any threat, attack, or from any law that oppresses them. Moreover, there is a great need to rebuild trust between Christians and their neighbors in the areas freed by Daesh, through concrete procedures such as: punishment of criminals, compensation for damages in favor of victims, restitution of property to rightful owners, the removal of mines from their fields, the reconstruction of their homes, and the improvement in essential services, so that they can return to their homes.
The current situation requires a precise strategy to establish social justice and equal opportunities. And it is very important to work on discernment, teaching, culture education of the acceptance of the other, and mutual respect among people belonging to different religions. All this must be done in homes, in places of worship, in schools, on books and school programs, and in the formation of teachers. Finally, we must condemn any insult or aggression against any citizen, especially if caused by his religious, doctrinal, ethnic, or sexual affiliation.
* Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad and president of the Iraqi Episcopal Conference