Kidnapped in Iraq: Give to the Poor in My Place

Interview With Archbishop of Mosul

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MOSUL, Iraq, AUG. 16, 2010 ( A few years ago, the archbishop of Mosul was among the victims of Iraqi violence. Kidnapped by unknown assailants, he was threatened with death but then released.

Asked by his captors how much money he had, the archbishop responded, but added that if he was killed, «Then you have to distribute this money to the poor in my place.»

Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa, 71, is the archbishop of Mosul for Syrian Catholics. A smile comes quickly to his face when he speaks of his homeland, because, he says, he keeps his hope in mankind.

Still, in this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, the prelate reflects on the urgency of peace for his troubled nation.

Q: Would you want the American soldiers to leave Iraq as soon as possible?

Archbishop Casmoussa: You choose the best question in the beginning. Yes, of course, every soldier would normally wish to return home. What we need and what we hope for is peace for our country. I think that it is a good thing to study the process of the return, in order to build peace, and tranquility and build friendship between two peoples, the people of Iraq and the people of the United States.

Q: Are Christians punished in Iraq for the presence of the American soldiers?

Archbishop Casmoussa: I do not like this expression. All of the Iraqi people are punished by the presence of a foreign army. Christians, a minority here, feel that they are more affected than the others but the reality is that all the people suffer from the conditions of the war.

Q: It is still very insecure to live in Iraq or maybe even the region where you live and if I’m right, you were even kidnapped in 2005 yourself, perhaps you can tell us who kidnapped you and why?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Yes, I don’t know who they were, but I know that I was kidnapped, and I don’t know until now if they were fundamentalist or political fellows or others. I spent 20 hours with them. I could say that they were correct and I was very quiet with them, to speak, to discuss and to answer their questions.

Q: What did they ask you?

Archbishop Casmoussa: They asked me for example: Why do you say that Christ is the Son of God? You priests, why you do not marry? And what is the meaning of marriage in Christianity? And so on.

Q: But did they kidnap you because they thought that you were an American spy or why was it done?

Archbishop Casmoussa: No, no nothing like that. There was no accusation. Sometimes there is the pretext of them saying that but it is not true of course and not an accusation. They always say something about one’s relation with the occupying forces.

Q: Can you tell us what happened to you? Can you tell how you were kidnapped? Was it on the street or in the church?
Archbishop Casmoussa: I was visiting a family and after this visit I blessed this new house. There were these young people who cut down a tree to block me and put me in the trunk of their car.

Q: Did you fear for your life?

Archbishop Casmoussa: When I was in the trunk of the car, I prayed to God to give me the grace for calm and to have hope until the end and that his will be done. I also asked that he would give me the grace to be quiet and calm and not say something that would be detrimental, and I was very calm when one of the kidnappers asked me to tell him how much money I had. I told him how much I had and that I have it on record in my notebook and that the money was for the poor. He told me: «You will be killed.» I replied: «Yes, good, then you have to distribute this money to the poor in my place.»

Q: And what did they answer then, because if the money is for the poor, maybe they wanted the money themselves to use it for terrorism?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Maybe I do not know, but the second day when I was threatened to be killed, he asked me if I had something to tell my relatives. I said «yes,» and I prayed first, abandoning myself in God’s hands and after that I said: «I offer my life as a sacrifice for the peace in Iraq and that all sons of the Iraqi people, Muslims and Christians, join hands to build this country.» He said: «No, I like to have something special from you personally.» I told him: «I have nothing else.» The talk changed and the problem was resolved.

Q: So you are loved by both Christians and Muslims?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Maybe it’s a gift from God. When I returned to the archbishopric, an old lady told me: «Excellency I prayed that God will break their necks.» It’s an Arabic expression. I replied: «No madame, if God breaks their necks then the number of handicaps will increase, but we ask God to break their hearts for a miracle.»

Q: Many Iraqi Christians are leaving the country; we have seen it in the film, and you are still in Mosul. How is it possible for you to stay in Mosul?

Archbishop Casmoussa: I think the way to have Christians to stay in Iraq is to return to the situation of peace because all of them have their homes, jobs and history. You know we Christians in Iraq are not imported from another country. We have been here for 2,000 years which means that we’ve been here since the beginning of Christianity, and we own our homes. We have our own history, our own identity. We have our own churches, and monasteries. It is not easy to leave your identity.

Q: You yourself were born not very far Mosul?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Yes, in Kirkuk. All these areas around Mosul and in the north, which you now call Kurdistan, have Christian lands. We have thousands and thousands of churches and monasteries here. We have manuscripts and books speaking about the history of Christianity in this land. Islam came in 632 A.D., in the seventh century, but before that Christianity was organized with churches, monasteries and orders.

Q: But now Muslims are being imported to Christian villages. Is there a kind of ethnic cleansing going on when Muslim families are being put in Christians villages?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Yes, there are some quarters in Baghdad that were cleansed of Christians. But also in Baghdad mainly, there were some quarters cleansed of Sunni and replaced by Shi’ite. I don’t, know and we just laugh about that but the problem is different for Christian villages. Christian villages in the plains of Nineveh have always been here. They have been at home here. When you bring Muslim families by the thousands in these areas where the Christians are a majority, the Christians become the minority, and there is a change in demographic composition. And also the question of culture and education, now everyone could go freely to our schools and to our churches because they are open. If we become a minority in these historical places we lose everything.

Q: Does it mean that you lose the churches or schools?

Archbishop Casmoussa: No we don’t lose them as buildings but we lose our freedom, we lose our culture and personality (identity) and we become diluted by the majority as the case in big towns like Baghdad. If you have a democratic regime and the country is free for all people, every one has their rights as an individual and as a community, Christians or non-Christians, for example in our schools now: If you have one Muslim student among Christians, that Muslim student is entitled to Muslim teachings, which is good and we agree, but for the Christians, however, you must have 51% Christians in the school to get the rights to Christian teachings.

Q: So it is unfair?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Yes. If you have the same rights for your entire citizenship then you do not ask for special privileges. Privileges are in place when you do not grant your citizens equal rights. In the USA, the immigrants from Iraq, China, Japan, and Europe, and Ireland are allowed to keep their languages and culture but they are all cons
idered as Americans; American people (citizens) with the same rights. We are asking for that, but if we do not have that, we demand recognition of our identity and culture.

Q: But how can you sit here, and smiling and being so friendly if you know how big the problems are and you are almost losing your own identity back home?

Archbishop Casmoussa: You ask me to cry, but life is life, and we keep our hope in the future. We have hope in man. As fearful as is our country for our people, if we agree to a democratic government or state, the U.S. could find a reasonable resolve to this question.

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This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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