Snipping Roots and Longing to Leave Iraq

Interview With Retired Archbishop of Mosul

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ROME, MAY 2, 2011 ( Though Christian roots in northern Iraq stretch back for centuries, as many as 80% of young Christians in the area want to snip those roots and move on to someplace with more promise.

But Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa is encouraging them to stay. «If we were strangers here in Iraq, then we would leave,» he says. «But it is our historical land and historical country.»

The retired Syrian Catholic archbishop of Mosul, now a curial bishop of Antioch, sees young people’s dream to leave the area as a major problem, though he says he is a natural optimist and there is hope for the situation.

The archbishop spoke with «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, about the future of Christians in Iraq.

Q: Since 2004 the Christians in Iraq have suffered a savage persecution including threats, kidnapping and death. What is the situation today in Iraq?

Archbishop Casmoussa: It is very bad today. We were hoping that two years ago things would improve because the situation in Baghdad and other cities have improved. In Mosul — this is the biggest city in the north of Iraq and is considered the country of Christians — the situation is very bad, with many kidnappings and killings. We have a feeling that we are not wanted in this city, though this has been our home and here you will find many churches and monasteries. There is so much history for us Christians here in Mosul and the surrounding areas of Mosul.

Q: There are many Christian villages all around Mosul?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Yes on the plains and in the mountains of Mosul. It was here where Christians had the first school, first printing press, the first Christian hospital in Iraq and we feel at home in Mosul. We are not strangers in Mosul.

Q: There was a letter circulated on a daily news Web site by an extremist group, Ansar Al Islam: “The secretary general of the member’s Islamic brigade has decided to give the Christian Crusader infidels of Baghdad and the other provinces a last warning to leave Iraq immediately and permanently and join Benedict XVI and his followers who have trampled on the greatest symbols of humanity and Islam … There will be no place for the Christian infidels from now on … those who remain will have their throats slit as it is happening to the Christians in Mosul.» Is this what Christians have to live with every day or is this an exception?

Archbishop Casmoussa: It is not an exception and it is not the first time that we’ve received messages like these. I have that message in Arabic. It is difficult to read those messages. Many people are not aware of these messages. But harder than these messages are the attacks against the lives of the people here. If we were strangers here in Iraq, then we would leave. But it is our historical land and historical country. We have nowhere else to go. This message is dangerous for the central and for the regional governments and for all the Iraqi people. We know that these extremists have no power but just use terror to intimidate, but there are many small groups like this that are a menace today — and today Christians, tomorrow Muslims.

Q: Why?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Muslims do not have a unified philosophy and Islam does not have one philosophy and one direction for all sects. The first struggle was between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Mosques were destroyed and many people were killed on both sides because of the struggle for power. Christians are not the first victims and maybe not the last ones, but for us, we are a minority and it is hardest for us because there are few of us and many people from the Christian community now are emigrating; 80% of our young people are leaving or dreaming of leaving and it is a big issue when thousands of your young people hope to leave.

Q: The large majority of Muslims do not agree with these extremist positions. Do you have stories of Muslims protecting Christians in these recent spates of violence?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Yes, last year when Christians were leaving Mosul after the bombing and killing, many Muslims kept the houses of the Christians safe. When the Christians returned, the Muslims celebrated their return with joy, distributing sweets and inviting the Christians to come to their homes while they prepared meals. We have many stories like these. The Muslims themselves suffer from these extremists. There is so much lawlessness in this new Iraq and in all these years after the coming of the Americans, no one has been prosecuted for violent crimes according to the Iraqi Constitution.

Q: So the perpetrators of violence have not been judged for their crimes?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Yes. Because of fear — and this is a fact in Iraq.

Q: If protection cannot come internally, has there been an appeal to the international community and if so why has there been silence from the international community?

Archbishop Casmoussa: In my opinion, there are many interests both from the international community and from within Iraq. We have oil and our oil is one of our great calamities or punishments. There are many interests between the West and Iraq.

Second, if you speak about military protection, in my opinion, it is not what we need. There is no peace after a war, destruction and death. If the international community and the U.N. can put pressure on the central government to put into place the primacy of the law, it would be a good step to build a country with a national government. Not one based on religious or political interests, not Kurdish, Christian, Shiite or Sunni interests, but one which holds the interests of the entire country.

The problem and real struggle now is the rivalry between political parties based on religious or nationalistic groups, which is not in the interest of the country. The choosing of ministers should be based on qualities and not on religious or nationalistic parties; then we can build a better, a new country, a new Iraq. We have asked the U.N. and the international community to assist in searching for and discovering qualified people. We have heard often that this request was halted at a certain level because of the self-interest of highly influential persons.

Q: Is there hope?

Archbishop Casmoussa: I am by nature an optimist. We hope that we can do something about it. I do not deny that it is also our land, our country and we have to rebuild it. There are many solutions. My hope is that we, Christians, can stay here with our freedom and rights; that we can stay in our historical areas in the north and in the centers of Baghdad with our cultural and political rights, to be able to govern ourselves. When we try to build our schools or centers we have to ask the central government and it is very difficult to build even in our historical areas.

The state is the master of the situation and many government officials are against us. They may not openly say it, but they make it difficult for us. For instance, we wanted to have a cultural museum; we already had the initial approval but after the American occupation the new government cancelled the permit citing five reasons for the cancellation. If we have self-government then we can do it. We requested the building of a Christian university within the Christian area. We have 1,300 students from the same village; that’s not a small number and if we included the Christians from the plains of Nineveh we could have 3,000 students with another 500 to 600 Christian professors living around our villages.

Q: Your Excellency, if you have two words to say to Catholics around the world, what would your appeal be?

Archbishop Casmoussa: Christians must stay in Iraq. You have to help us to stay by pressuring the central government in Iraq to respect our rights, our presence and freedoms. I also appeal for help with projects to allow
Iraqi Christians to stay in Iraq.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann 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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