This report is contributed by Oliver Maksan of Aid to the Church in Need.
The Vatican’s diplomatic representative in Iraq, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, is cautiously optimistic that the Christians driven out of northern Iraq by the Islamic State might be able to return to their homes sometime this year.
He told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, however, that the process will be most challenging—even aside from the formidable military effort that will be required, and which most observers consider to be unlikely to happen anytime soon.
“If they do return it won’t be easy,” the nuncio explained; “besides the reconstruction of destroyed houses and infrastructure, such as schools, it will be necessary first and foremost to restore the trust in Muslim neighbours which has also been shattered.
“Many Christians feel their neighbors betrayed them, because they looted their [abandoned] houses. So it will not only be necessary to repair homes, but also relationships.”
Archbishop Lingua gave a positive assessment of the work done by the Iraqi central government: “Something has been put in motion; the new government is working well. A fundamental factor is the greater involvement of all groups. The country will never be free of terrorism as long as some ethnic and religious components are barred from the governing process. If a group is excluded it must not be assumed that they will not rebel.”
The alienation of the Arab Sunni population from the Shiite-dominated central government is seen as one of the main reasons for the rise of Islamic State.
What is crucial for the future of Christianity in Iraq, Archbishop Lingua stressed, is how the crisis in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain will be handled. That is the territory where the majority of Christians have lived for many centuries and which is currently occupied by Islamic State. “If the government manages to regain control there and implements a campaign of national reconciliation, then there will be a place for Christians in Iraq.”
“If clashes persist, however,” he added, “the weakest will pay the price, and these are always the minorities. We therefore have to hope that peace will return. This is where the international community comes in.”
Archbishop Lingua stressed that the basic humanitarian difficulties experienced by the refugees, such as the inadequate medical care, are currently aggravated further by the cold winter. “At the present time the people mainly need heaters. There are reports that some of the children have perished in the cold.”
On top of this there are growing psychological strains. “The people don’t know how long they still have to hold out as refugees,” the prelate said. “This hopeless situation is causing some people to consider emigration while they don’t actually want to leave.”
About 7,000 Christians have already fled to Jordan, where many are awaiting to leave for Western countries. The nuncio reported that about 10% of the 120,000 Christians who fled their homes in August have left Iraq.
The nuncio also stressed that Pope Francis was deeply concerned by Iraq and the situation of the Christians there. Asked about the possibility of a papal visit to Iraq, he said: “The Holy Father is expected in Iraq both by the Church and the political powers, and even by non-Christians such as the Shiite leadership. I am impressed how great the consensus is concerning the figure of the Pope.”
As regards security concerns surrounding a visit by the Pope to Iraq, Archbishop Lingua said: “I’m no expert in such matters. But everybody says that they would do everything to make the visit a success.”
The archbishop said that a possible visit would have to last longer than one day: “You can’t come to Iraq and not go to Ur, which Sunnis, Shiites and Christians all revere as the birthplace of Abraham. You can’t not go to Baghdad, because that’s the seat of government. And you can’t not go to Erbil, where the majority of Christian refugees live.”
“I would therefore prefer a visit to be fixed for a later date and for it to be more extensive, rather than for it to be organized quickly, with the risk of missing out on some opportunities.”
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)