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from issue no. 09 - 2004

CHRISTIANS IN IRAQ: The auxiliary bishop of Baghdad of the Chaldees speaks

Iraqi blood, Western arms

«Iraq has become a garbage can of terrorists of every sort… From the West we see tragic atheism, together with arms dealings and drugs, which feed fanaticism and also arm terrorism». Interview with Shlemon Warduni

by Gianni Valente

The 36 round-tables of the conference “Religions and cultures. The courage of a new humanism”, organized in Milan by the Community of Sant’Egidio and by the archdiocese of Milan from 5 to 7 September, were a response to those who claim that in our times of global terror merely to talk of dialogue and negotiations is the same as capitulation if not connivance with the enemy. And the reason was the working days were attended not merely by the habitués of festivals of good intentions. But real people, immersed in the confusion which seems to wrap everyone. An outcropping of the real world, with its contradictions and its gray areas, as can be gathered from the interviews with Shlemon Warduni, auxiliary bishop of Baghdad of the Chaldees, and Ahmad al-Tayyib, rector of the Islamic University of Al-Azhar, which 30Days conducted at the Milan conference.

The Catholic-Assyrian church of Our Lady of Succor in Baghdad after the attack of 1 August 2004

The Catholic-Assyrian church of Our Lady of Succor in Baghdad after the attack of 1 August 2004

«Why the war? There is no reason, if not oil interests, and perhaps Israel as well… Take it, the black gold, we don’t want it. We want peace for our children». He spoke if anything too forthrightly, Shlemon Warduni, auxiliary bishop of Baghdad of the Chaldees in his speech at the Milan meeting organized by Sant’Egidio. The same sincerity with which he recounts to 30Days how the disaster following the war has also overwhelmed the Christian communities in Iraq.

After the August attacks what has changed in the real life of the Iraqi Christian communities?
SHLEMON WARDUNI: The attacks of early August obviously caused consternation and fear. The synchronous timing with which the Christian churches in Baghdad and Mosul were struck was especially upsetting.
Has attendance at mass and parochial activities declined?
WARDUNI: There was a decrease for a few weeks. But already by the celebrations of 15 August there was a return to normal levels of attendance.
And yet some sources maintain that in the weeks following the attacks forty thousand Christians fled Iraq …
WARDUNI: Some left, but I made a small investigation and I must say that the numbers spoken of are an invention. The emigration of Christians from Iraq and the Middle East is unfortunately a constant phenomenon. The situation in fifty years has gone from bad to worse, from one conflict to another, from one crisis to another. The young especially, who can’t imagine the future getting better if they stay here, are forced to leave. This phenomenon was certainly exacerbated after the attacks on the churches, but there was not the mass exodus spoken of by the Western media.
Are the Christian churches now under protection?
WARDUNI: After the attacks, the churches had, for some days, the protection of the police and military forces. Afterwards, we preferred to entrust our young people with the task of guarding and dealing with eventual dangers. A type of service of self-administered order, because the faithful who come to mass are also reassured if they see that the people in control are familiar faces, rather than the police and the military with arms and armored vehicles.
According to a widespread view, the Christians were attacked intentionally as unwelcome guests in Islamic territory, linked in some way to the Western occupying forces …
WARDUNI: I wouldn’t say so. One must stick to given fact, without speculating too much. Our relations with the Muslims were good. And we continue to do our duty, as before. Our youth do military service and in all the wars they always fulfilled their proper obligations as citizens towards the nation. Respecting the civil authorities and the laws of the country, working seriously, and all Muslims know this. We consider the attacks on the churches part of the design that struck in all directions, beginning with the mosques, aimed at throwing the whole situation into chaos. And to prevent daily life from returning to normal.
But is the provisional government beginning to have a certain legitimacy in the eyes of the people, or is it perceived as a puppet government?
WARDUNI: There are many who consider it to be a non-legitimate government. But many are waiting to see whether the provisional government and the council which backs it will succeed in taking the road to the restoration of normality. For me this is the first step, an attempt that must be supported. This government must be given credit, because a country without government and law, cannot survive. Afterwards, when the elections come, a government that is truly a faithful projection of the forces present in Iraqi society can be chosen.
First the war, then chaos and daily slaughter and terrorism. Almost two years after the start of the US attack, what was the fundamental error of those who chose invasion to bring about the fall of Saddam’s regime?
WARDUNI: They thought it would be like Afghanistan, but Iraq is an entirely different thing. It was a country rich in history and culture, with countrywide political controls, with a structured army. When all of a sudden this was completely wrecked, an immense vacuum opened up, which is frightening. When, for example, they decided to dismiss everybody in the civil service and state apparatus, an immense mass of unemployed was created from one day to the next. Even those who at the beginning accepted the end of the regime as a liberation, then saw that the liberators were acting as an occupying force. The other fatal mistake was to keep the frontiers open. Even now anyone can enter when and how they like. Iraq has become a garbage can of terrorists of all sorts, who arrive bringing arms and instruments of terror. And then, there are the army weapons and police equipment which have ended up in the hands of the people … In the West only the kidnapping of foreigners is spoken about, but hundreds of Iraqis are also kidnapped for ransom, and when we tell journalists this they reply that it doesn’t interest anybody. Then too there are bombs planted everywhere. One loses hope quickly.
In the beginning Christians seemed involved in the first steps of reconstruction. Newspapers and political groups organized by Christians sprang up. Are there still concrete signs of that participation?
WARDUNI: Yes, there are parties and newspapers, which express particular interests. But people must be unified to enter into the political scene. We have encouraged Christians to participate in the life of institutions to construct a democratic and free country along with their own co-nationals. But how are we meant to understand this democracy? The idea of imposing freedom and democracy from without is grotesque and a failure. For example, it’s inconceivable to impose the model of American democracy, or the Italian one, on a Middle Eastern country. There are different attitudes, cultures, traditions. Only by looking at Iraq with the eyes of Iraqis can one set going a real process which, with the gradualness of real historical processes, can move towards democracy. We have said to the Christians: do not split into small little groups, try to form a single party. Otherwise in this situation you end up by becoming dispensable little particles.
Some intellectuals allege that Islam has unleashed a holy war against Western civilization and its Christian roots. How does a Middle Eastern bishop view those notions?
WARDUNI: Christians must only follow what Jesus said. Love one another as I have loved you. Thus we remain united. And we testify to others our faith in Jesus, in the East as in the West. Formerly people said of Christians: «See how they love one another». And many became Christians. Now this is lacking. And from the West we see instead tragic atheism, together with arms dealing and drugs, which feed fanaticism and arm terrorism.

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