His fate held the world in suspense from August 15 to September 11, 2006. Father Saad Sirop Hanna was a young Iraqi priest, when he was kidnapped in Baghdad, after celebrating Mass of the Solemnity of the Assumption, by a Muslim extremist group linked to Al Qaeda. His case attracted international attention after Pope Benedict XVI requested prayers for his safe return.
In “Abducted in Iraq. A Priest in Baghdad”, published in September 2017 by Notre Dame University Press, in the United States, Bishop Hanna remembers his 27 days in captivity, as he struggled through threats, torture, pressure to abandon his faith. But he stubbornly refused to hate his captors.
Bishop Hanna was born in Iraq in 1972. He graduated in aeronautical engineering, before becoming a priest of the ancient Chaldean Church of Iraq. After abduction, he was ordained bishop in 2014 as auxiliary of Baghdad. He obtained a doctorate in philosophy in 2008 from Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, and speaks four languages fluently. Pope Francis appointed him Apostolic Visitor for the Chaldean communities in Europe on 19 November of 2016.
Zenit met him in Rome during a gathering held by the Acton Institute. His story is more than a simple story of one man. It is the story of a suffering and persecuted people.
Bishop Hanna, your book, “Abducted in Iraq. A Priest in Baghdad”, is based on the tragic events that happened to you in 2006. What compelled you to write now this book, after such a long time from those facts?
Yes, these facts go back to 2006, but at that time I was too tired to meditate and understand what really happened during those days. Then I came here to Rome, I finished my studies, I returned to Iraq and I worked as a parish priest in Baghdad for five years. In January 2014 I was consecrated as a bishop. Then I thought: “It’s the time to let the world know – through my personal experience – how Christians lived in Iraq in those days, what they suffered.
Obviously, not everyone experiences an abduction, of course. It also important that through the history of a man you can understand which kind of persecution the Iraqi Christians suffered. So I decided to write it in an interesting way, according to me. It is not just an essay about political and social facts involving Iraqi Christians; you can find it in so many other books. It is a story of a priest who lived with his parishioners and lived his faith in the society and tried to be himself, an Iraqi, facing all the challenges I mention in the book.
Who kidnapped you, and what do you know about them today?
The identity of these militia and groups is very difficult to determine. Who were they? with whom were they cooperating? Iraq at that time was divided into so many groups! All the area around Baghdad was controlled by different militant groups, who tried to impose everyone its ideology.
My area was part of the Sunni-majority area. The way they spoke to me, they treated me, they suggested the way I should behave or do, it seems to me they were connected to Al Qaeda. At that time there was no ISIS but Al Qaeda.
You were a very young priest at this time, how did this experience leave you and what impact did it have?
At the beginning, it created many questions inside me. “What is really happening in Iraq, in the Iraq I lived in.” Iraq is becoming another Iraq, with so many differences, challenges and aggression from one part against another part. So the question arising in me were “what is really happening?”, “who was doing this?”, “what are the problems of the people? Why are they not trying to understand each other?” I asked myself these questions as a Christian, as an Iraqi.
I had my childhood in Baghdad I was born in Baghdad. I graduated from the university, where I had so many friends from different religious, different ethnic belongings, but never attested this type of attitude against each another. So there were questions about also “what can I do also for my people, my church, my homeland that gave me birth, where I grew up?” I am a priest and what I was doing was trying to find answers, to understand, to speak, trying to analyze what was happening. That created a great feeling of grief of seeing my people fighting each other, or seeing the same people of a country fighting each other. I tried also to work on that. When I came back in 2009 to Baghdad I tried to give hope, to also support my people, especially to the youth people at that time. To try to make them understand this is not Iraq—it is also a dream, it is a future that we have to build from now, that we have to work on it. These are the questions I had.
The Islamic State, which has finally been defeated, committed many horrific acts–attacks, kidnappings, forced exiles of immense numbers, violating human rights on a massive scale. But this religious fanaticism in Iraq, in your opinion, could produce more similar crimes?
Of course, the origin of these crimes in Iraq was the fanaticism of all these groups, the civil war in the different parts of the Muslim religion. The ideology of excluding the other because he is different—not like me, not doing saying or talking like me – has been indeed the origin of all these events in Iraq. Christians are still suffering from this mentality actually, still dominating so many sectors from the society itself: it means to try to impose “my way of thinking, of viewing things,” to try to take control of the people and the country itself… So the situation has become unbearable, because of the immense pressure that the Christians couldn’t tolerate. So they decided to leave Iraq.
That leads me to my next question, the Christian presence in Iraq has drastically decreased, since many are forced to leave or chosen to. If one were to say, that Iraq is a country hostile to Christians today, what would you respond?
I will say it wasn’t. There were different times in the Iraqi history; times of goodness and prosperity, and times of persecution, and many regimes and many empires too. My experience is that in the 60s, 70s, 80s when speaking to my father, my mother, my ancestors they always talked of a peaceful Iraq, where all the people look at each other equally. They tried to live peacefully, there wasn’t this fanaticism intended to threaten their future, their way of living.
The situation changed at the end of 80s, or beginning of 90s, because of the sanctions against Iraq with all the wars that Iraq went through. Iraq changed mentality. Politicians began to try to use religion also to open their way towards the hearts of the people, to their minds: the idea was to use the religious feelings against other people, to politicize those feelings for their politic interest in the government of Iraq. So that transformed Iraq from a civil Iraq to a religious, fanatic Iraq, where so many people went back to a fundamentalist way of living the religion, taking the Sharia and the Koran in a very strict way, accordingly to this ideology.
That created the problems we have now, without forgetting that there are also political problems, between the Arab World and Iran, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Sunni countries and Shiite countries, and so on. All of this is used and manipulated in a very certain way to just arrive to their goals to divide, to control, to prove themselves and their ideology. And who is suffering in this process are the poor people, the Christian minorities, those people do not have these strong ethnic or religious belonging like the Sunni one, the majority.
Pope Francis expresses often a somewhat optimistic view on interreligious dialogue with Islam. Not everyone, even in the Church necessarily agrees, what do you think?
In my opinion, the Church after the Second Vatican council has tried to insist on the positive points that we have to concentrate on, in order to establish a dialogue with others. So we have to see what is the positive, which are the common values between each other.
Pope Francis always tries to find the positive in others. This is a good way of affirming that there is always hope, even if the reality is saying something strongly opposite to what we think. There is always hope, because we are not the only one who determines the reality. We believe that God exists, He is here and He can transform the badness and the brutality we see in our nature and our life into a good thing, as He always did in the history of humankind.
I think the Pope and so many bishops simply agree on this principle: we must continue in dialogue with the Muslims, even if they can’t; we must help also the other to understand how we should do a dialogue, what are the basic issues we have to dialogue about, so we can live together peacefully and we can worship God as He wants.
The countries where Christians are suffering the most persecution and violence and discrimination are historically mostly Muslim majority countries. What does that mean for dialogue?
The persecution does not cancel the dialogue, or just get rid of the dialogue in itself. The dialogue is essential as I said. The persecution is there because there is a misunderstanding of what we believe and what others also believe. Sometimes we also have to change ideals about what others also believe.
But dialogue does not mean that we give up all our principals or our beliefs, absolutely. We must stay firm on them! Through dialogue, we must say what we have to say about what we think of God and Jesus Christ; but we must also let the others speak, understand and lead them to understand how we can respect each other without fighting, without persecuting each other.
The persecution against Christians is very ancient in the history of the Church. The Christians were not persecuted for just religious reasons, but for different reasons. The Arab countries and especially Iraq, the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire had different reasons. We do not have to put the blame on just the religion itself. We have to work on that, we have to build bridges—that is Christianity. The Gospel are full of episodes where Jesus faces very strong resistance from different people. He always tries to make them understand who is God, even if He suffered for that. I think Christian has no other meaning than this.
In February 5, you and other Chaldean bishops met the Holy Father. There was a talk of a potential visit to Iraq, at least an invitation. What should be done realistically for this invitation to be welcome?
Iraq needs a visit from the Pope. Iraq is a very important country as a “biblical” country. So many prophets, Abraham, and many other prophets came from Iraq. The people of Iraq are suffering, the Christians as a minority, as a very small community, are suffering.
The Pope expressed his support for all these minorities, always, in a very clear way. Iraq needs to get attention. But the visit should be very well organized and studied, not to give credit to a part or another part, not to be politicized. It should be a very religious, very Christian visit. It should also give importance to the community that is suffering and living all this pressure in this country. I think it is a very good idea, but should be studied and well organized.
With all the Iraqi Christians that had to leave I would like some background: which cities and countries in Europe, where is the greatest concentration, are they nostalgic about returning back home, could they ever do so? Also, and those still in Iraq, how are they doing now and these aspects?
There are different opinions about this. As I said the reality is very complex if we are talking about the old generation who came to Europe some are willing to go back to Iraq but not a real wish or will to go back, especially with this situation that we have still until now the Iraq is in very bad condition from the point of the life, ordinary life of people. The society is still suffering from so many problems and the infrastructure of the society is still destroyed so Iraq has problems currently, and because of that so many Christians are continuing to leave.
The new generations that have gone to Europe, United States, Canada, Australia, and to other countries, they do not want to go back. That is the truth, they are very well settled. They are very happy with their lives in these countries. They are given good opportunities to live, to develop life and their identity in a peaceful way. They are very well established there and so talking about returning to Iraq it is not very realistic.
People in the United States, Canada, and even Europe, now even as an apostolic visitor for the Chaldean Church here in Europe, I see that many people are very welcome in these countries, they started a very good life, they worked for 20 years to build something and they built it and their son, daughter, and children are having better opportunities and better future in these countries. So they don’t think they want to go back to Iraq.
Unfortunately also because Iraq is not improving, from the point of view of the condition of life, condition of the country itself, still there are conflicts between different parts of Iraq, infrastructures of society are destroyed. Still that corruption is stealing every opportunity from the people.
Still Christians are actually threatened in their work, their lives, they are unwanted, and in a certain way still unsafe. Two weeks ago actually we had different events in Baghdad. There was young Christian man killed in the street, a father of two sons, and now a week ago, a family of three persons, a doctor and his wife who went back to work in Iraq, were killed in their household. Still Christians are suffering there.
Would you like to make a final appeal?
I think we have to pray, we have to work on peace; peace comes when people actually want it and live it. We have to work on that. As Christians we have to be very proud of what we have as a religion, as faith; and to build on our faith, on our principals, a certain way of life and give to testimony of Christ in this world.