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from issue no. 04 - 2006

A meeting with the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad

The tragedy of Iraq, today

«Under Saddam there was the dictatorship, the wars… but the people lived fairly well. Today there is total insecurity, no one can be sure in the morning of coming home in the evening, it seems absurd but that’s how it is».

Interview with Shlemon Warduni by Giovanni Cubeddu

The mosque of Samara, north of Baghdad, destroyed by a bomb on 22 February 2006

The mosque of Samara, north of Baghdad, destroyed by a bomb on 22 February 2006

In May the Chaldean Church celebrated an important synod dealing with the nomination of new bishops, both for Iraq and for the considerable diaspora abroad. It is hoped that the first government after the democratic elections of last year can indeed rule the country, bringing together the various factions. Daily life meanwhile continues to pay a heavy price in bloodshed and insecurity.
We meet Shlemon Warduni, auxiliary bishop of Baghdad.

Your Excellency, can you tell us what life is like in these difficult days in Iraq?
SHLEMON WARDUNI: First of all we’d like to speak only of what is being experienced in daily life, and not go into the political debate, that’s not our concern… even if at times politics can’t be avoided. How do we live? In a tragic situation. And unfortunately it’s going from bad to worse. Each day that dawns there’s hope things will get better, and then one is forced to admit that it went like the day before, or worse. But our hope is always steadfast, it is and will remain in the Lord. And in the goodwill of men, that they may really strive for the good of all, and not for the profit of the few. What is life like when it’s spent under the bombing, and now has to drag itself among car bombs, suicide bombers and above all kidnapping? Dozens of people are abducted every day, and you in the West don’t know about it. If it’s a journalist, a volunteer worker or a politician, it makes news, otherwise, the kidnapping of an Iraqi shopkeeper, a civil servant or of the father of a family, nobody’s concerned abroad. Tens of thousands of dollars are demanded from the family. The criminals want five “notebooks” – in slang a notebook is ten thousand dollars - or ten notebooks… and not only that. At times there’s a payout even to recover the corpse at least.
These criminals find out who can pay, and then they strike. They strike normal people, for money or revenge, for politics or even for terrorist purposes.
Is it a criminal activity that was already flourishing at the time of Saddam Hussein…?
WARDUNI: No, in no way. The comparison won’t hold up, it’s not even worth suggesting. Under Saddam there was dictatorship, the wars… but the people lived fairly well. Today there is the total insecurity, one can’t be sure in the morning of coming home in the evening, it seems absurd but that’s how it is. I can testify to it in person, if you’ll believe it.
That is?
WARDUNI: Last 6 March I was in my car, in the traffic. I move out left to overtake and I hear machine-gun fire. A hail of bullets hits the car and instinctively I flatten onto the seat. People who saw the scene have told me that the firing came from those armored “humvees”, with smoked windows, with which only the allied forces are equipped, without the distinctive markings of the Iraqi army. And they weren’t escorting anybody at that moment. After a few yards, I pulled in and stopped the car. The people in the car behind stopped to see if I was still alive, asked me how I was, and they were all Iraqi Moslems. The people in the humvee, after shooting at me, drove off unconcerned. But if they’re afraid of the people, why do they move among us Iraqis in Baghdad? As it is they’re a danger to us and to themselves. Why don’t they carry markings, or at least make their presence known, these “omnipotents”?
An explosion in an Iraqi city north 
of Baghdad

An explosion in an Iraqi city north of Baghdad

Some Moslems brought me straight home, telling me that Our Lady and my pectoral cross had saved me, that it was a miracle, and they thanked God…
In Baghdad you can die for overtaking, because they take you for a terrorist.
Is the insecurity you mention increased by religious factors?
WARDUNI: Not at all, it hurts everyone indiscriminately. Political motives, revenge, terrorism or religion merely add a tone to a picture already dark and oppressive. When there’s no security, there’s no government, there’s no rule that holds, and the most disparate groups all allege “valid” reasons for their behavior. And the population, the innocent, who can do nothing, remain in the trap. One thing yes, prayer.
Have the democratic elections changed the general expectations of the people in a positive way?
WARDUNI: We hoped that some good would come out of it, and we still hope in a stable government, strong, shared, to get our Iraq moving. But up to today, nothing. For the future, let’s hope.
Does the Chaldean Church feel some relief at the possibility of a coalition government?
WARDUNI: It’s the majority of the Iraqis who want a government in which all the parties collaborate for peace and reconstruction. If anybody is left out, there will immediately be new contradictions and clashes. For the moment the best thing is sharing and reconciliation. Without privileging personal, ethnic, religious or “national” interests. Stability is possible only on the shared basis that everyone together seek the good of the Iraqis, all of them.
Is the new Iraqi constitutional Charter up to dealing with what you describe? Or does it need amendment anywhere?
WARDUNI: There is optimism on the Constitution. It sets out excellent principles on freedom of conscience, on equality, on human rights. But there remains the dilemma of the article on the principles of Islam, which, according to the Constitution, no law can break. And if this constitutional norm is put into practice, it will be a source of discrimination for part of the Iraqi population, a real stumbling-block for freedom of conscience and human rights. Take the example of freedom of worship, given that conversion to another faith is not allowed in Islam. Here there is the problem of minors, because if the father and the mother become Moslems, they must automatically adopt the faith of the parents and, at eighteen years old, they won’t be able to revert to their original faith. Certainly we would like the children to be left free.
Another example of the application of the sharia concerns alcohol, that is forbidden by Islam, with the result that groups of Moslem fanatics blow up the shops that sell even the smallest sample, or even kill the shopkeepers.
So, the judgment on the general lines of the Constitution is positive, provided that amendments can gradually be enacted. We as Iraqi and as Christians are asking for them, but only for the good of Iraq and are always willing to co-operate for such purposes.
Bishop Warduni during a press conference with Shiite religious leaders in Baghdad on 4 February  2006. The Shiite, Sunni and Catholic religious leaders gave out a joint declaration condemning the satirical cartoons against the prophet Mohammed published in Europe

Bishop Warduni during a press conference with Shiite religious leaders in Baghdad on 4 February 2006. The Shiite, Sunni and Catholic religious leaders gave out a joint declaration condemning the satirical cartoons against the prophet Mohammed published in Europe

Meanwhile the Christian minority is thinning out because of emigration. Some people, among them President Talabani, propose as a way of helping to transfer the Christian element to Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north, where there is more security. Patriarch Delly doesn’t seem much in favor.
WARDUNI: Emigration is not exclusive to the Christian, but involves Moslems also, because, simply, it’s a tragedy for all Iraqis. We usually say that before being Christian we’re Iraqi, and the same is true, according to us, of the Moslems, who are first of all Iraqi. We Christians have been Iraqi from the beginning, we’ve been here for two thousand years.
And we’re against emigration. But what am I going to say to a young Iraqi, a Christian, who asks me for reassurance about his future, his life? I’m not sure of my own life, how can I protect his? The main point is not the emigration of the Christians, but the tragedy of Iraq. As for the second point, Iraqi Kurdistan … a solution is not that easy. Christians live among people, in the world, they want to be its salt, to witness to Christian love, humility, for the good of Iraq. And then, even if the Christians were relocated in places apart, who would really guarantee their safety? Not to mention that by choosing to live on our own account elsewhere, away from where ordinary people live, we would give an example of egoism and fanaticism. And all this precisely when many Moslems are asking that their neighbors be Christians, and want to frequent them because they are people of peace, honest, ready to help their neighbor…
However the question remains theoretical because nobody in fact has offered solutions already feasible, and the patriarch and we bishops are trying to understand, we’re keeping up to date.
Among the various Christian denominations – Chaldean, Syriac, Latin – is there a unity of vision and purpose?
WARDUNI: In general terms there are no serious divergences. Every Christian lives brotherhood, solidarity, the desire to reconstruct the country. But obviously there can be difference of opinion. We are men, naturally. But on the good of Iraq there is agreement, and all the various Christian voices come together without difficulty in an appeal, to say to the people and the government that the Christians want to be considered fully Iraqi, they have been here for millennia, before anyone else, and they have always and in any case been with Iraq and for Iraq.
Those who see us as Westerners are making a mistake, we are not Americans, or English, but Iraqi. In Iraq the Lord God decided to give us Jesus Christ and Islam to the others. There may be Christianity in Iraq as in the West, but how many Christians are there indeed, in Iraq and in the West, now above all when this harsh wind of dechristianization is being felt and one hears things that make one shiver? Marriages between men, or between women, with test-tube babies… For us Orientals it is a disgrace, it’s against nature.
Returning to the Iraqi Christian: there is unity on the fundamental things among us, freedom on the rest.
The United States makes known that the help of Teheran will be useful in steering your country toward peace. How much does Iran count for in Iraq, from your point of view?
WARDUNI: It’s a delicate matter, political, but also religious, given that the Shiites are a majority in Iran as in Iraq. And they tend, obviously, to agree among themselves, as Catholics would in the same situation… A great many Iraqis would not appreciate the interference of a third country, and vice versa, that’s for certain. But to answer your question would take me over the line, it really isn’t within my field.
What help are you asking of the Holy See?
WARDUNI: We are only asking for something it has already done for us, that is the moral consolation of reiterating “No to war”, of speaking of justice for our people and of human rights, of hope and peace. We appreciate it a great deal. And the Moslems, after seeing so very many Christians pray for peace, have understood that the war didn’t come from them. And for this help we are grateful to the Holy See, which is doing everything possible here, as already throughout the world, to bring peace. The children, the young Iraqis have the same right to live as anybody else. Now they don’t have hope. And that is why Patriarch Delly launched the appeal for prayer and fasting that Pope Benedict took up «in the name of God, Allah» … so that He may restore peace to the Iraqis.
Are foreign multinationals arriving? Is the economy gradually recovering?
WARDUNI: But the people who work with the Allies get kidnapped… even if they are Iraqi citizens. And again it’s fathers of families involved. If foreigners come to work in Iraq, they do it secretly. Economic betterment today belongs to those who work in government offices, and who receive a State salary, like the pensioners. How can the rest get by in an “economy of fear”? What economic system can manage to flourish amid general fear, in chaos? That is generally why we Iraqis want a strong government. And prices? Has any one ever heard before of a petrol shortage in an oil-producing country? A gas cylinder cost 0.75 euro, today it goes from 15 to 20 euro. A liter of petrol 15 cents, now it goes from 1.5 euro to more than 4.5 euro. Those houses that may have an electric generator don’t have the fuel to work it, if not at sky-high prices. Would you be able to live comfortably without electricity at fifty degrees in the shade?
With the Moslem leaders, with our Moslems neighbors, there’s nothing but friendship, which is the best way of telling them again that our action is guided only by charity, humility, solidarity and desire to rebuild our country
Do happenings between Israel and the Palestinians have an effect on the factions in Iraq?
WARDUNI: The majority of Arabs don’t love Israel, the majority of the Jews don’t love the Arabs, I’m not saying anything new, unfortunately. Today in Iraq the Arabs are on one side, the Americans and the English on the other.
Meanwhile the attacks in Iraq have a multiplicity of authors…
WARDUNI: The issue is complex. But there’s no lack of people coming from outside. And they have the cooperation of those inside. And the motives get tangled, they’re of the most disparate and desperate sort, involving people who are doing what they do because they’ve already lost everything. Every day there’s a new terrorist label, every day we’re told that they come from this or that country, every day there’s the suspicion that they belong to this or to the other party. Is anybody capable of checking?
Do you notice resignation in the Chaldean community?
WARDUNI: No, not everything in Iraq is bad. We have our schools, we teach the catechism, there are many gatherings of young people, even if it’s not like before... But the feasts we’ve celebrated have always been splendid, and let’s hope they will be in future. We manage to distribute food aid, and with our three Chaldean infirmaries provide medicine and treatment to patients, of any faith, Moslems for the most part. With the Moslem leaders, with our Moslem neighbors, there’s nothing but friendship, which is the best way of telling them again that our action is guided only by charity, humility, solidarity and desire to rebuild our country.
Then, I said, some people are beginning to have a fixed and dignified income, and in the newspapers, that are more numerous than earlier, there is greater freedom of expression - maybe too much, since it’s enough to harm this or that political rival…
But it’s the hope that enables us to live. Above all in this period of Easter, of resurrection, peace and spiritual renewal. We Iraqis wish them to you with all our heart. As you do to us.

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