By Edward Pentin
ROME, FEB. 5, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk is a refreshing figure to hear speak about his troubled country.
Self-effacing and softly spoken, the Iraqi Chaldean prelate has a gritty resilience but combines it with infectious optimism and good humour.
In Rome for the past couple of weeks to take part in his country’s “ad limina” visit, he found time Jan. 30 to chat informally with a group of Rome journalists over breakfast on the Borgo Pio.
He began by discussing what he and his fellow bishops see as the biggest challenges facing the Church in Iraq: the exodus of Christians and the country’s fall into chaos. Around 400,000 Christians remain in Iraq, roughly half the number who lived there before the Iraq War broke out in 2003.
“We have the impression there is a strategy, not only among fundamentalists, aimed at sending Christians out of the country,” he says. “This is a great challenge for us because if all the Christians leave, Christianity is finished in the country.” Fifteen priests have already left Baghdad, he says, and 5 to 6 churches have closed in the capital.
So urgent has the problem become across the region that he and his fellow bishops have called on Benedict XVI to hold a synod on the Middle East to find ways to encourage Christians to remain and “offer hope.”
Turning to the violence in Iraq, he says 500 Christians have been killed since 2003 (whom he calls martyrs) including Archbishop Faraj Rahho of Mosul, four priests and a deacon. Like many, he puts the brutality down to a minority of Muslim extremists, funded by countries such as Iran and Syria. Iraqis, he stresses, are an inherently “moderate people.”
On the positive side, he says the security situation is slowly improving, and he mentions what you rarely hear in the news media: that most Muslims greatly appreciate the Iraqi Christians living there. “They always say: ‘You Christians are a grace for us, we really appreciate your presence.'”
The archbishop gives three reasons for this: the tendency of many Iraqi Christians to be prayerfully silent and hospitable in contrast to the pervading mentality of Iraqi Muslims who, he says, “can be a little bit tribal” and have a preference for vendettas over civil law. A second reason, he says, is the Church’s history of building schools, hospitals and pharmacies. Although not what they used to be and short of funds, he says they still have good reputations and that, in Kirkuk, a new school is being built.
Finally, Archbishop Sako says Iraqi Christians are admired for their outreach to Muslims. He recalls how his diocese organised a meeting between religious and political leaders after a mosque was attacked, and helped in its restoration. On another occasion, he hosted a supper, and a prayer meeting in the cathedral, at the end of Ramadan. Two hundred Muslims attended. “We help Muslims to open up,” he says, “although we are always the first to take the initiative.”
During the recent conflict in Gaza, for example, his parishioners attached a banner to the front of Kirkuk cathedral that called for the war to stop, and justice for the Palestinians. On seeing it, the local imam said: “Why is it you’re always the first to do this kind of thing?” Archbishop Sako laughs loudly at the memory, adding: “There’s a great space for interreligious dialogue.” Indeed, he believes it to be one of the most importance contributions of the Church to Iraqi society.
Although Christians lived in relative peace under Saddam Hussein, Archbishop Sako denies they were better off then. “Everything was controlled,” he says, “[and] no Iraqis had the courage to criticise Saddam Hussein.” But he adds that Christians have always occupied the highest levels of Iraqi society “because they can be trusted.”
As for current living conditions, the archbishop says that apart from the security problems, Iraqis generally live well. In fact, he reports some Christians are returning, including in recent months 2,000 from Aleppo in Syria. He even adds, with wry amusement, that five families have returned from the U.S. because they cannot find work.
And while the main problem of insecurity remains, he remains ever hopeful. “There is no order,” he says, “but slowly, slowly, the country will recover.”
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Defusing Vatican-Jewish Tensions
Amid the strains and ructions in Catholic-Jewish relations these past few weeks, an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi has been at the Vatican, offering a viable, though less trodden, way to lessen the tensions.
Rabbi Yehuda Levin, spokesman for the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, visited senior curial officials last week to lobby the Church’s support in opposing a gay pride march to be held in Jerusalem later this year. He hopes the Vatican and the apostolic nuncio to Israel can help him build a coalition of other religions and denominations to block the march.
A straight-talking, no-nonsense New Yorker, Levin has a missionary’s zeal for defending the pro-life cause. Speaking at the Rome offices of Human Life International Jan. 29, he says he firmly believes that when it comes to Jewish-Catholic relations, defending life and the family should supersede controversies such as the denial of the extent of the Holocaust by Lefebvrite bishop, Richard Williamson.
“Our children are being given a case of moral AIDS,” says Levin, a father of nine. “I’m not saying there isn’t a place for that [discussion over Williamson] but we should be asking ourselves ‘What can we do together to save babies and save young children’s minds so that they know right and wrong on life and family issues?'”
He gives his full backing to Benedict XVI over the recent controversy. “People who are saying that Pope Benedict is anti-Semitic and insensitive — that’s ridiculous,” he says. “He [the Pope] has a decades-long track record of anti-Nazism and sympathy for the Jews.” Levin also says he understands what the Pope is trying to do in reaching out to traditionalists as they have some “very important things” to contribute to Catholicism.
“I absolutely support him. Why? Because he understands the big picture, which is that the Catholic Church has a problem with a strong left wing that is doing immeasurable harm to the faith.” The Left, Levin says, “are helping to destroy and corrupt the values of the Church and that has a trickle-down effect on every religious community in the world.” He points out that a Church of 1.25 billion members cannot be easily ignored. “When you [Catholics] sneeze,” he warns, “the rest of us get a cold – we are affected by what happens.”
Rabbi Levin also apologises for the reaction of some of his fellow Jews. “My guys have not acted with great sophistication,” he says. “If he [the Pope] inadvertently includes somebody who’s prominent in that movement and who says some strange things, is that a reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater and start to condemn Pope Benedict right away?” he asks. “Absolutely not.” He also believes the Vatican should do a “better job” in conveying how far the Church has come in relations with Jews and, on the Pope Pius XII controversy, the Church should stress that “the Jewish community wouldn’t want to be told what we should do and who we should venerate.”
Rabbi Levin, who every year takes part in the March for Life in Washington, has little time for the new U.S. administration. He warns of the “Obamafication” of society — meaning President Obama’s efforts to try to reach consensus on all sides of the abortion debate.
Obama, he says, “doesn’t get it.” A woman cannot be “a little bit pregnant,” nor is it possible to agree to a “little bit of homosexual marriage” and then argue against homosexual marriage. “You can’t be all things to all people,” Rabbi Levin says. “He [Obama] is prostituting godly values and, as an American, I’m offended. He thinks we’re dumb.”
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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: [email protected].