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from issue no. 04 - 2008

The Congregation for the Eastern Churches

Christians are in danger of disappearing from Iraq

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri draws up a balance sheet of the first year passed at the head of the Vatican department that takes care of the Catholic communities of the different Eastern rites. The good and bad news coming from the Holy Land and the Middle East, from East Europe, India and the diaspora

Interview with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri by Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 64 years old, born in Buenos Aires in Argentina to emigrants from Ala, a town in the province of Trent, has been the Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches for a year by now. Previously, from 2000, he was substitute for the General Affairs of the Secretariat of State. In that role on the evening of 2 April 2005 he announced in Saint Peter’s Square the death of John Paul II. Benedict XVI created him cardinal in the consistory of 24 November last. 30Days interviewed him about this first year of activity at the head of the Vatican department that looks after the Catholic Churches of the different Eastern rites. The discussion cannot but begin with the dramatic end of the Archbishop of Mossul of the Chaldees, Paulos Faraj Rahho, kidnapped on 29 February, a Friday in Lent, and found dead on 13 March of this year.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri celebrates the mass for the repose of the soul of the kidnapped Archbishop of Mossul Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose lifeless body was found on 13 March 2008

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri celebrates the mass for the repose of the soul of the kidnapped Archbishop of Mossul Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose lifeless body was found on 13 March 2008

Your Eminence, is it known how the death of Archbishop Rahho came about?
LEONARDO SANDRI: It is still not completely clear. It’s obvious, however, that Monsignor Rahho died in consequence, whether direct or indirect is of little importance, of the kidnapping. And it was a death that happened after he had led the devout exercise of the Via Crucis. A death that seems to have the features of a real and proper martyrdom.
Was it criminals or terrorists who kidnapped him?
SANDRI: We don’t really know. Even if, from the information that has arrived from the nuncio, from the Patriarch and the Chaldean bishops, it seems that it more likely has to do with criminals exploiting the chaotic situation in Iraq for purposes of extortion, in order to get a ransom. However, whether terrorists or common criminals, the outcome is the same: the Christians, the Catholics, are hit and are recurrent victims in Iraq today. With the consequence that our brothers in the faith are in danger of disappearing from an area where they have been present since apostolic times.
But is this situation fruit of the post-war chaos or do you think that there is a precise plan to expel the Christians from Iraq?
SANDRI: I don’t believe that there is an explicit plan, a precise strategy, but clearly it seems that in Iraq there is discrimination against Christians, Catholics, who, moreover, out of an understandable instinct of self-preservation, feel forced to emigrate from the land of their fathers.
Is this circumstance the result of the war that led to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime or of Muslim fundamentalism?
SANDRI: Pope Benedict XVI, on the occasion of the Angelus of 16 March past, said that the Iraqi people have “for five years been bearing the consequences of a war that has provoked the disruption of their civil and social life”. Certainly the situation arising out of the war has created a situation in which the pusillus grex of Christians is in danger of disappearing. If this, may God forbid, happened, then that multi-religious and multi-cultural reality that has always been Iraq would disappear.
Could it be said that “it was better when it was worse”?
SANDRI: Some say that Christians were better off with Saddam Hussein. Certainly that was a dictatorial regime that did not respect any basic human rights, especially those of opponents. But in effect it can’t be denied that under that regime the Church could, for example, lead its own liturgical life normally, without having to fear for the life of its own pastors as unfortunately happens today.
Is there also a responsibility on the part of the Iraqi political authorities and the occupying forces for the lack of security of Christians in Iraq?
SANDRI: It is a known fact that the authorities, it seems, are not capable of guaranteeing the minimum of security indispensable for a normal life, for Christians but also for Muslims. There were small signs of a return to normality. They tell me indeed that even a soccer tournament had been organized. But the latest news promises nothing good.
You were among the closest collaborators of John Paul II, who did his utmost to avert the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003...
SANDRI: I remember well his dramatic, moving appeal at the end of an Angelus. Also five years ago, it was precisely 16 March, speaking of coincidences... Talking off the cuff, improvising, he said that he, an old man, had experienced war, knew what it was and what it involved, and because of that appealed to the younger leaders crying out his no to the war that was about to be triggered. He was not listened to. Unfortunately. The leaders decided otherwise. In good faith, I like to suppose. Admitted that there can be a war made in good faith.
How did you receive the expression of sympathy expressed by the White House for the death of Archbishop Rahho?
SANDRI: An act of formal diplomatic politesse. Unfortunately there are also many American soldiers dying.
Earlier on you mentioned the problem of kidnappings for ransom. Is there a policy of the Holy See in regard to this?
SANDRI: The Holy See leaves it up to the local communities to decide, who do everything to save the life of the victims of kidnapping. And at times they must yield to shameful bargaining.
And what do you think of the idea of creating an enclave for Christians in the so-called Plain of Nineveh?
SANDRI: It doesn’t seem to me to be a good idea, that of creating an enclave for Christians, which moreover wouldn’t guarantee their safety.
Do you plan to visit Iraq?
SANDRI: I read it. Lebanon is – and I hope that one can continue to use the verb to be in the present indicative – an example of a relatively prosperous country in which Christians still have a numerically and politically important role. Lebanon is in fact the only country in the area in which the president must be Christian according to the Constitution. But for months now they haven’t been able to elect him. And so there too everything risks disappearing. Christians continue to flee also from there.
Another delicate situation for the Christians is the Holy Land...
SANDRI: I visited for a week not long ago. I must say that in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem the situation seemed calm. There were, thanks be to God, many pilgrims. And this is a good sign. Certainly having to cross the wall in order to go to Bethlehem breaks one’s heart... Without taking into account then that at a hundred and fifty kilometers away, in Gaza, children died because of the Israeli raid in response to the launching of the Palestinian rockets. A tragedy that made us implore, in the prayers recited in Jerusalem, an enduring peace between the two peoples.
What makes the life of the Christians in the Holy Land difficult?
SANDRI: On the one hand a certain absence of coordination with some sectors of the Muslim community, and, on the other, some unresolved legal problems with the authorities of the Israeli State – I’m thinking of the visas for priests granted sparingly and of the suggestion that tax exemption of the ecclesiastical institutions, acquired in the past, now be revoked – that could in fact suffocate the presence of Christians in the land of Jesus. In this case a little bit of good will on the part of the authorities would be required. The activities concerned are of advantage not only to the Church but to the whole society and favor a climate of peace.
The picture of the Christian presence in the Near East that emerges from your answers seems somewhat desolate. Is there some small glimmer of light?
SANDRI: In effect humanly speaking that is how it is. However we trust with great hope that the Lord will listen to our prayers. And we invite all the Christians of the world to pray intensely to the Lord for peace and the wellbeing of Christians, and of non- Christians, of the Holy Land and of all the Middle East. And we hope also that the rulers of this world will in some way be touched by these prayers.
Your Eminence, a change of setting. Your department also takes care of the Byzantine rite Catholics of Eastern Europe. An important role, because of its history and size, is played there by the Greek-Catholic Ukraine Church. Even recently, during the ad limina visit, the leader of this Church, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, asked that the Catholic Patriarchy of Kiev-Halyc be finally instituted, upgrading its status as greater archbishopric. Is anything planned in this regard?
SANDRI: Cardinal Husar himself who made the request is very aware of all the negative consequences that such a decision could entail. Consequences in the field of ecumenic dialogue, I mean to say, that could further compromise the goal of full unity. John Paul II already said that the Ukraine Greek-Catholic Church deserves the patriarchy but that the gesture could only be made in full agreement with, and not against the feelings of our Orthodox brothers. Time will tell if and when this may be possible. I believe that Cardinal Husar is also totally aware of this.
Another important situation dealt with by your department is that of the Eastern Catholic Churches with roots in Asia, and India in particular, the Syro-Malabaresians and the Syro-Malankaresians...
SANDRI: We are talking of two very vital Churches, in strong numerical growth also. They are thriving with vocations and pastoral initiatives for which they also ask our financial support, that unfortunately at times we can only provide in part because our resources are limited.
They arew Churches however that, at times, also have difficulties with the Catholic Church of Latin rite...
SANDRI: I cannot deny that there are these problems, tied to the fact that by now many of the faithful of these Churches have themselves moved away from their own homelands in the south-west of the Indian Subcontinent. We hope however that all these problems can be resolved to the satisfaction of all. In this regard it seems to me of positive significance that Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, who is the senior archbishop of the Syro-Malabaresians, was recently elected as president of all the Indian bishops.
During his recent journey to the United States the Pope, speaking to the local bishops, made reference also to the many dioceses of Byzantine and Eastern rite in that country...
SANDRI: It was a very fine thing that the Pope made that reference. In the United States there are as many as 17 dioceses of the sort. The largest sector is the Ukrainian and Ruthenian Greek-Catholic Church, but there are also eparchies of Melchites, Chaldeans, Armenian Catholics, Maronites, Romanians, Syrians and Syro-Malabaresians. They are the result of a large wave of migration that, as we have seen, still flows in. These Churches still have a great vitality even if there are problems, as for example, a certain assimilation that can lead to the loss of one’s own characteristics.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri on a visit to Bethlehem in February 2008

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri on a visit to Bethlehem in February 2008

The Catholic Churches of Eastern rite also have their own married clergy. Is this true too for the dioceses of these Churches in the so-called diaspora?
SANDRI: The discipline currently in force presumes that married clergy is possible only in the territories of origin of the Patriarchies and of the Catholic Churches of Eastern rite. But not in the dioceses of the diaspora. There can be single exceptions, but the rule remains such. On this point however I would like to point to a phenomenon which those in charge of the Papal Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity have also spoken to me about.
Which is?
SANDRI: In the Orthodox Churches there is a noteworthy rediscovery of the importance and grandeur of ecclesiastic celibacy. It isn’t that in our Catholic Churches of Eastern rite or in those Orthodox there is a plan to abolish married clergy, but one notes an ever greater appreciation of the value of celibacy, both for various practical aspecs, and for the profound theological value – a greater configuration to Jesus Christ – that underpins it. It helps also to remember that in the Orthodox Churches not in full communion with Rome the bishops are always chosen from among the celibate clergy, normally from the monks.
Your Eminence, a final question, perhaps a little provocative. Should there be full union of the Orthodox and Eastern Churches with Rome, will there be room for the Congregation you preside over?
SANDRI: The Catholic Churches of Byzantine rite can and must be a bridge for full unity with our Orthodox brothers. We know the will of God that the Church be visibly one. But we do not know the how and the when. I say, joking: may the day come when this department will no longer be necessary, or that the Council for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians not be so. Let’s leave the decision in the hands of the good God.

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