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IRAQ
from issue no. 06/07 - 2007

Who the Chaldean Catholics are, what is happening to them

The persecutions of the world



by Giovanni Cubeddu


How many churches remain in Baghdad? And how many Christians in Iraq? Before the disaster of the last war the Iraqi capital was notoriously “the city of the fifty churches”, meaning that to each one of the Christian rites there belonged one or more places where they could celebrate. Today out of fifty approximately thirty remain active. But it is all changed. One lives in fear.
A religious Shiite, affiliated to the group of Moqtada al-Sadr, speaks in front of the church of Saint Elias in Baghdad, 10 June 2007. The Moqtada al-Sadr group distributed humanitarian aid to more than 70 Christian families 
ejected from the quarter of al-Dora

A religious Shiite, affiliated to the group of Moqtada al-Sadr, speaks in front of the church of Saint Elias in Baghdad, 10 June 2007. The Moqtada al-Sadr group distributed humanitarian aid to more than 70 Christian families ejected from the quarter of al-Dora

Also in the historical periods of domestic agitation, mosques and churches have always been looked on with respect, because the Muslims themselves know well – unlike the many western analysts of geopolitics and military strategy, sprung up like mushrooms in order to draw sustenance from the warlike breeding ground – that the Iraqi Christians do not represent a minority of new immigrants, but are, quite simply, Iraq itself: because they live Mesopotamia from the very first manifestation of Christianity. Six hundred years before Islam was born.
It is a public boast of the Christians of this Eastern Church about the passage of Thomas the apostle and the preaching of the apostle Judas Thaddeus in their land. Moreover, the Iraqi Jews also remember that the local collection of rabbinical writings known as the Babylonian Talmud begins from 70 A.D. and contains among others one of the first non Christian citations of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Despite all the dramatic tensions of the recent history of Iraq, and notwithstanding that there is a Shiite majority beside a strong Sunnite group – that governed until the fall of Saddam –, the Christian minority has always been proud to consider itself and to declare itself primarily Iraqi.
Of a census taken of a million Christians before the war, according to authoritative sources of the Chaldean Patriarchate, there remain today perhaps 600 thousand, subdivided between the Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac, Armenian, Melchite, Latin, and Copt Churches and Protestant communities. The Chaldeans are Catholic and represent a good 80 per cent of all the Iraqi Christians, who follow pro quota the painful choice of their Muslim fellow-citizens to become refugees: there are two million within the Country, and as many more outside, according to the official data. From 40 to 50 thousand people leave Iraq every month, in the face of a Moloch of war and human sectarian arguments that are never satiated with human lives.
In the interview Patriarch Delly explains how for some months in the vertiginous settling of accounts between Shiites and Sunnites, innocent victims have entered, the Christians. And it is something different and more ferociously continuous compared to the attacks against the Christian churches already begun in the summer of 2004. This happens today particularly in Baghdad, in the al-Dora quarter, and in Mosul, in the north of the country, but also elsewhere. The payment of an “al-jezia”, a tax, is what such delinquent gangs impose on Christian families, if conversion to Islam is not accepted, unless a girl of the family is given “in pledge”. Otherwise the only alternative to death is flight, with only the clothes you are wearing: the house is abandoned instantly. In Baghdad the phenomenon of the “area refugees” exists, of who pitifully seek refuge close to their own former habitation and who perhaps find it in the former parochial hall used for shelter: so it is, as we write, for hundred of families in al-Dora. These poor people continue to go to mass, often in damaged churches, and to turn to the priests, often risking new reprisals on the part of the gangs, who sometimes have also torn down the crucifixes from the cupolas of the churches and threatened the priests. Some parishes have had to close down and this has caused further discomfort in the faithful who found relief only there. The friends of father Ragheed Ganni, for example, assert instead that he paid with his life for not having wanted to yield to these rules of desperation, doing everything in his power publicly in order to succeed in helping as many people as possible. But in Iraq already a Protestant pastor and a Syro-Orthodox priest had met the same fate, the same martyrdom.
Then there is the phenomenon of extortions. Kidnapping of relatives: ransoms paid perhaps by needy families that later on receive the news that their dear one has already been executed. Kidnappings of priests: exorbitant demands of the Chaldean Church, followed by negotiations during which one hopes perhaps that the bandits understand that they will never be able to obtain the million dollars usually demanded, but only some thousands or hundreds of dollars. Recently seven Chaldean priests – with some of their collaborators – got off in this way. Money, not Islam, appears to be the motor of these groups, who not by accident see in their ranks those criminals who Saddam Hussein let out of the jails in mass when the conflict broke out.
Father Ragheed Ganni

Father Ragheed Ganni

And the liberators? In all of this, we recount an episode of glaring and dangerous insensibility on the part of the American military forces. In Baghdad there was a seminary, now not anymore, it was transferred to the north, for objective reasons of security. There was the Pontifical Faculty of Philosophy and Theology “Babel” and it is not anymore, transferred to the north: because on the premises – occupied without the consent of the patriarchy – an American barracks now lodges. It availed sending the auxiliary of the Patriarch to the “green zone” of Baghdad to deal with the American authorities. And there has been no result so far from having asked the Iraqi government to intercede: the soldiers remained, in contempt of the damage caused to an already poor Church and, above all, of the further danger that such a symbolic gesture creates for the Christians (even more guilty in the eyes of the gangs of fanatics for having accommodated the occupier). In May, after a long silence, the Patriarch, directing himself to the American military commands, had already expressed in their regard (from his site which is called “st-adday.com”, that is Saint Thaddeus, the apostle considered to be father of the Chaldean Church) his global judgment: «You have entered Iraq without our consent. God does not appreciate what you have done and are doing to our country».
After all, for the Christians, in the recent history of Iraq, there has never been such a dark period (along with other things, the Constitutional Charter of the “new” Iraq exposes them now to the risk of being judged according to the sharia, which did not happen with Saddam). The old Patriarch Delly understands. He has seen it all from close up. His life as pastor has coincided with the exodus of his faithful – which began around the ’sixties – from this cradle of the faith. Before being elected in December 2003 at the end of a tormented synod – not the only one, in truth, in the Chaldean Church –, Emmanuel Delly was since 1962 – and so for 41 years – auxiliary and then auxiliary emeritus of the Chaldean Patriarch, first Paulus II Cheikho and then Raphaël Bidawid. Delly always has been a point of reference for the Chaldeans, has looked after them in these decades of torments, war, embargoes and again war, and now persecution. He was placed at the head of this Eastern Church as defender of the tradition, of “Chaldeaness”. And as soon as elected he said: «My program is to bear witness to Jesus Christ before the world and to bring to all the message of hope of the Gospel». For the faithful it is easy to love him.


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