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Synod, an opportunity to stop the Christian exodus from Iraq

By Louis Sako

Iraq’s Christian community could disappear if the international community does not intervene to guarantee its presence in this land. Emigration should be discouraged and Christian-Muslim reconciliation should be encouraged.

10/12/2010 Iraq, Vatican City (AsiaNews) – “There is a danger of the extinction of the Christian community in Iraq,” said Mgr Louis Sako, archbishop of Kirkuk, a few days before the opening of the Synod of the Churches of the Middle East in Rome. The Iraqi bishop hopes that the principles of equality and citizenship will be recognised for Iraq’s ancient Christian community, strengthening peaceful coexistence with the Muslim majority.

The synod, which will close on 24 October, is designed to boost the witness and communion of Christians by strengthening ties among their Churches and guaranteeing religious freedom, peace and justice in the Middle East. The remarks that follow are those Mgr Louis Sako delivered to the International Seminar on anti-Christian Persecution held in Brussels on 5 October.

1. The Beginning

Most of you probably do not know about Christians in Iraq.  Christianity entered Mesopotamia (Iraq) from the beginning of the Christian era.  According to the best-known and most widely disseminated version, the Apostle Thomas was the first one to evangelize those regions through his travel to India.  At the time of the Muslim conquest in 637, about one-half of the population of what is now Iraq and a great part of Iran was Christian. Iraq’s Christians are one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.    Their native tongue is Aramaic, the language of Christ; they speak Arabic too. Obviously few Christians have suffered worse in recent years than these Iraqis.

2. Today Situation

For us our future is linked to the Muslims who are the majority, but at the same time, we are worried about the growth of religious extremism and the political Islam. Extremists are the big danger for the whole world. Their strategy is to impose their rules and their ways even in the countries where they are housed. There is no clarity on the future of the Islamic world scene! Religion should be updated and integrated into the life of faithful today.

The Christians in the Middle East were in the early twentieth century, 20% of the population, but today, they account for less than 10%. In Iraq, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, there were approximately one million Christians in Iraq prior to the war. Today, there are only about 500,000.

Whereas in recent years, there have been alarming numbers of religiously motivated killings, abductions, beatings, rapes, threats, intimidation, forced conversions, marriages, and displacement from homes and businesses, and attacks on religious leaders, pilgrims, and holy sites. In Iraq, with the smallest religious minorities having been among the most vulnerable, although Iraqis from many religious communities, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have suffered in this violence. Whereas members of small religious minority communities in Iraq do not have militia or tribal structures to defend them, do not receive adequate official protection, and are legally, politically, and economically marginalized.

In Iraq, the number of Christians is continuing to diminish. Maybe they will disappear under continued persecution, threats and violence carried out by extremists who are leaving us no choice: conversion immediately to Islam or to consign their property and leave the country or to pay a monetary tribute to the Jihad if they want to avoid their death. Fifty-one churches have been attacked (three churches in my diocese). One bishop and three priests kidnapped and murdered and about 900 innocents Christians have been killed since the United States-led invasion in 2003. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes and are staying in neighbouring countries as refugees. They are looking for a secure place to live and to educate their children to the same levels they themselves achieved before the war. For six months, Iraqi politicians are not able to form the new government.

3. What is to be done? Do not leave them alone

There is a danger of the extinction of the Christian community in Iraq and other country”. For these families, the war has been a disaster. Americans are not only responsible for that tragedy, but they are responsible of a stable and peaceful future. They should not leave them behind   and pulling their troops out of Iraq without caring.

In addition, the international assembly is responsible to keep religious and ethnic minorities in their land to continue their presence and uphold their heritage and witness. The lack of planning to stop the mortal exodus that afflicts our community is worrying.

The future of Christians in Iraq, but also in M.E. has one of two ends: Emigration, or to accept to live as a second-class citizen with many difficulties and fears.

The question that requires an urgent and decisive response is, “How can Iraqi Christians be helped?”  We need a strong support from all, with a clear “political” vision and precise plans not only for protecting and encouraging Christians to stay home and to hope, but also for fostering reconciliation among Iraqis, to promote human rights in that area and asking the governments to respect the rules.  Christians have been, and can continue to be today, an instrument of dialogue, peaceful coexistence, and collaboration with our Muslim brothers who are appreciating their qualifications, therefore the migration of Christians from Middle East is a big loss for both.

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