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from issue no. 04 - 2004

CRISIS. Interview with Archbishop Fernando Filoni

Iraq for the Iraqis

«It is the task of the other countries and of the United Nations to support the Iraqis, not to replace them. To make Iraq not the object of their own economico-political appetites, but the subject of growth as a sovereign country, with a position of respect in the international community.» The Apostolic Nuncio to Baghdad tells of the chaos following the fall of the regime. And he explains how Catholics see the future of their country.

by Gianni Valente

Fernando Filoni

Fernando Filoni

The label of “the courageous nuncio” which the press wishes to pin on him doesn’t mean very much to Fernando Filoni, the Pope’s representative in the incandescent tangle of Iraq. He, who remained in Baghdad under the American bombs and in the midst of the rending attacks after the war, in the small ochre-colored building of the nunciature defended only by the Vatican flag, chills the rhetoric with the obvious declaration that he was doing his duty. Nevertheless, his post which keeps him by statute at the center of the Iraqi vortex, enables him to share in and recount daily life in Baghdad, something that cannot usually be picked out from the tidal wave of news overwhelming us from that tormented country.
The Vatican diplomat from Puglia, appointed nuncio to Baghdad in January 2001, avoids commenting on the debate which arose about whether the US troops and their allies in Iraq should remain or withdraw. But it is easy to glimpse in his answers the realism and practical, pastoral sense which mark his view of things. The same qualities which he showed during his long period of duty in Hong Kong, when from 1992 to the beginning of 2001, in the role of cultural adviser to the nunciature in the Philippines, on behalf of the Holy See he tactfully followed from the former British colony delicate events of the Church in China.
Your Excellence, your decision to remain in Baghdad during the bombing stirred great admiration, whereas the diplomats from the rest of the world fled …
FERNANDO FILONI: It was nothing exceptional. To live in Baghdad during the war was a decision in line with the mission of a pontifical representative who, to quote the words of Paul VI, by residing in the countries participates, or rather inserts himself into their life. Our very situation in itself led us to share the destiny of the Iraqi people with all their sufferings, injustices and hopes.
What were the most difficult moments?
FILONI: The days of fierce bombing were terribly hard, as were those of the sacking of the city. We found ourselves living the problems that affected the whole population: lack of water and electricity, insecurity because of the crazy anarchy which seemed to overwhelm everything, breaking apart every organizational factor in social living. The civil and moral degradation was shocking: vendettas, robberies, fires, kidnappings, embezzlements destruction. Anyone, with or without a reason, was “free’” to act: no authority could stop them, because there was none. Only in the mosques and the churches did some religious threaten penalties and divine punishment.
A year later, if you had to give a picture of the present moment, what would you say?
FILONI: At a year’s distance, the degradation of the civil and moral fiber of the population is grave. Kidnappings for extortion are spreading like the plague, usually at the expense of professionals and business people. And the kidnappers demand ridiculous sums of money for ransom. I know of the case of a doctor who was asked for half a million dollars! Now he lives terrified and barricaded in his house and is thinking of leaving Iraq. But I could also cite robberies, armed assaults, murders and revenge killings, the decay of the streets, filth and lack of care, inefficient hospitals, building speculation. And especially the very high rate of unemployment, the root of so many of these evils. The police have no authority. The dignity of a people has been offended; its ancestral traditions ignored, its soul divided.
A group of women in Baghdad protesting against the American soldiers complaining about the grave problems caused by lack of water, electricity and basic requirements.

A group of women in Baghdad protesting against the American soldiers complaining about the grave problems caused by lack of water, electricity and basic requirements.

The international media only report the bloodiest occurences in Iraq and happenings in which Coalition troops and foreign hostages are involved. But what has changed in the fabric of daily life in Iraq before and after Saddam?
FILONI: The precariousness of daily life is visible everywhere: people do not leave their homes after dusk; there is not a family (the range of the term is wider here than it is by western standards) which does not have some victim or damage to lament; it is hard to survive, begging has increased notably: school is precarious; parents are afraid to send their children to school.
And yet, through all of this, business carries on…
FILONI: The first business was that in antennas and satellite decoders, there was the opening (and immediate closure) of dozens of newspapers and magazines, the buying of the kinds of car (for the most part secondhand) once reserved to the establishment, the setting up of many small businesses. The cost of living tripled as did salaries. The desire for goods, not always backed by financial resources, went in for the most modern electro-domestic products, also because importation is still untaxed. The most recent business is that of mobile phones. But the normal network either doesn’t work or functions only locally. The money system has changed. People like the new dinar which is showing a certain stability, at an exchange rate of about 1430 ID to the dollar … In brief, there are all the contradictions symptomatic of a society left to its own resources. There is no legitimately constituted authority. An Iraqi who speaks to Iraqis. Someone who really can give direction to the country.
The United States has said that that the war against Saddam served to prime the processes of democratization, to export democracy to Iraq and the Middle East. Was that aim understood by the Iraqi people?
FILONI: The discussion about democracy is complex and must take account of the sense of democracy there is in the Arab world, perceived in a way which does not correspond to Western models. The Iraqi people have a sense of their own rights, but these must be inserted into the context of their traditions and mentality, where the ethnic group and the family are the inalienable locus in which the rights of the individual exist, are exercised and also safeguarded. In the West more attention is given to the right of the individual; here the individual has value in so far as he is a member of a family and an ethnic group, which protects him and which he in turn defends. Democracy has a less philosophic, abstract sense and is more tied to the anthropological context. I hope that the aim here is not to impose a democracy of an American, British or Italian sort.
An oil pipeline in flames in Samarra, a hundred kilometers north of Baghdad.

An oil pipeline in flames in Samarra, a hundred kilometers north of Baghdad.

How are Christians getting through this phase of chaotic transition? And how do they feel about the future?
FILONI: The Christians have in every way gone through the same problems as the Iraqi people, of which they are an integral part. And one can’t deny that being in a minority they are now feeling a certain preoccupation about the future. In the past the regime established certain guarantees for them, but what will the future bring? At the end of April 2003, all the bishops, Catholic and non-Catholic, signed a declaration, which remains the charter for the ideal position to which Christians in Iraq aspire: no privileges, respect for religious rights, free participation in civil, social and political life without distinction of belief; respect and good relations with the religion of the majority of the people, and co-operation with the lawful authorities, without interference. The Christian population appreciated its tone.
Are there different approaches to the situation from the different communities? And are there political formations which represent the Christian minorities?
FILONI: There are indeed some dozens of small political parties of Christians. The bishops recommend respect for rights to them also and healing the ethno-religious divisions among Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syrians, Armenians and so on. The criterion is to establish a shared roof, under which everyone will be free to hold on to their own particular features. Being a minority Christians can only have a future if they succeed in setting aside the divisions that they carry with them, the outcome of historical ethnic, ritual and doctrinal divisions.
In what concrete ways are the representatives of the Christian communities involved in the reconstruction of the social and civil fabric?
FILONI: Today Christians have proportional representation in the administrations of cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk, they have a representative on the government council and a minister in the transition government, actually responsible for the transport sector. For the future the leaders of the communities hope to regain the schools and cultural institutes which were nationalized by the previous regime. In fact by Decision no. 87 of 5 November last the government council legislated the restitution of buildings and the restoration of rights. But the whole Church, according to people’s different possibilities, intends to participate in the reconstruction of the country. There are actually seven dispensaries functioning in Baghdad, Bassora and Mosul, treating people free of charge, providing medical help and medicine; the donations received are distributed; the families who have been without work for some time are helped; the partial reconstruction of houses damaged by the war is provided for; a certain number of day nurseries attached to the parishes are run; programs of health assistance to needy families are being set up; medicine which can’t be found in Iraq are obtained from abroad. Furthermore, projects for the construction of a hospital in Mosul are underway as well as two nursing schools for girls.
But in this situation what difficulties do you encounter in your work as a diplomatic representative? Who do you deal with?
FILONI: My official counterparts, from the diplomatic point of view, are the local authorities. Gradually as they take control of the situation contacts develop. The Holy See has had relations with Iraq since 1966, but the presence of an apostolic delegation goes back to 1850
In the West many laud Christianity as a factor of cultural identity, almost to be set in opposition to the reawakening of Islamic fundamentalism. The equation “Christianity equals West” comes up in various versions. How do these opinions look as seen from Baghdad?
FILONI: I can say that the Pope is held in high esteem among Muslims also. The newspapers report his appeals and refer to the more significant initiatives. The Pope’s opposition to the war aroused affection and admiration for him. He is very popular and the people are grateful to him. Let me tell you of a small but significant fact. After the war, they were taking food supplies and water by truck to Sadr City, the well-known poor quarter of Baghdad. The truck was blocked, but when the people knew that it was aid from the Pope, they said: these we accept, and we are grateful. A respectable Shiite leader said to me some time ago: «Now the Pope can come to Iraq». An ayatollah wrote of his appreciation to me because, after the recent earthquake in Iran, the Pope asked for aid to be given the Iranian Muslims.
The photos of the mistreatment and torture in Iraqi prisons are rousing public opinion. What reactions have you noticed among the people?
FILONI: Everybody is indignant and disillusioned. In the face of the facts, the comparison, almost taken for granted, suggests itself to many: the negative things that happened in the past, and everybody knew about, are happening again today, in the very same places, and even worse, are being perpetrated by those who said they wished to erase that past. Credibility has been compromised and I doubt that it can be completely restored. The Iraqi people feel themselves offended in their dignity and will not easily forget these very grievous happenings.
In your view what may happen after 30 June? Will there really be a substantial transfer of powers to the local authorities? And more in the long term, is there a future for Iraq?
FILONI: In my view, yes. Iraq has a future, first of all because it’s a country with the resources to construct itself one. I’m referring to the economic resources, but also to a long cultural tradition. Civilizations on which the whole of the West has drawn had their origins here; culture is a root, and this root is not dead.
Then it will have a future if the Iraqis themselves want it. It’s they who must put aside hatreds and rancor, seek reconciliation, overcome religious divisions and ethnic exasperations, find enlightened leaders with a spirit of service, who put the interests of the people and the country first, emerging from twenty years of disastrous wars, of economic waste, of injustices from which no one, absolutely no one, was spared.
And to give a real possibility to this future what must the other countries and the international community do?
FILONI: It is the task of the other countries and of the United Nations to support the Iraqis, not to replace them. To make Iraq not the object of their own economico-political appetites, but the subject of growth as a sovereign country, with a position of respect in the international community.

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