ROME, JULY 11, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Though the exodus of Christians from Iraq has been ongoing for several years, the international community is still largely unaware of the issue, which threatens to undermine peace in the entire region.
This is the reflection offered by Joseph Kassab, the executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America.
Kassab spoke with the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, about the plight of Iraqi Christians and what must be done to assist them.
Q: As we know, Christians are leaving Iraq in great numbers. What was the situation of Christians in Iraq before the U.S. invasion and why?
Kassab: The number of Christians in Iraq before the 2003 war was more than 1.2 million. Now we have less than 300,000 in Iraq and the majority are internally displaced people seeking security in Northern Iraq, and another 300,000 to 400,000 are seeking asylum as refugees in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and some of them are stranded in Europe. One of the reasons for their displacement is because of the vicious violence committed against these people. The atrocities are intolerable and unbelievable. They have become a “soft target” for many reasons, one of which and the most important is: Christians do not carry arms. They do not have a militia to protect them. They do not have tribal people to help them. And the Iraqi Christians are known to be the elite, highly educated, scholars and part of the “think tank” of Iraq, and so they were also targeted for that.
Q: I want to address these questions, but first, I want to clarify: What was it like for Christians living under Saddam Hussein?
Kassab: Let us put it this way: during Saddam there was order but there was no law; now there is no law and no order. So you can see that they were better off during that time because there was some order, somehow something to protect them, but at the same time, Saddam during the last decade of his rule, became vicious and an Islamist and went after the Christians in many ways: He sent our seminarians to war against their will; forced them to carry arms and kill people. He nationalized our Christian institutions and forbade Christian babies from being named with Biblical names. He also forced Christians to belong to the Ba’ath Party — his party — otherwise they were ordered to leave. These were the kinds of things that were happening at that time, but in terms of security issues, the Christians were better off at that time than today.
Q: How would you describe the political situation today in Iraq?
Kassab: Many drastic changes took place in Iraq after the war. One of the most important changes was the formation of more than 300 political parties. Iraq only had one before the war. The Americans let go of the Iraqi army and as a result, these people are now fighting the Americans and the newly installed government. Unemployment has risen to about 90% so people do not know what to do and the situation is still chaotic. If you ask me whether democracy has taken root in Iraq, I very much doubt it. The principle of democracy is based on two pillars: The first is majority rule. The second, which is more important, is the recognition and respect of the rights of the minorities, and the respect of religious and civil rights. This is not happening in Iraq and therefore democracy has not taken root yet.
Q: In the new Iraqi constitution, there is an article that guarantees the freedom of religious expression. Is there religious freedom?
Kassab: The constitution recognizes religious freedom, but the constitution comes very short in terms of the rights of religious minorities such as the Christians. It is contradicted in Article 2, which states that Islam is the major religion of Iraq and no ruling can be issued that is contrary to Islam. That means that others who do not profess Islam have lesser rights and this is not helping at all. I think the constitution of Iraq needs to be reviewed. I think the Iraqi Christians should have more representation in Parliament and the government in order to survive.
Q: You mentioned the question of security. Christians are suffering increasing persecution and violence. Where is this coming from? What is the agenda?
Kassab: I think that there is a hidden agenda. I think there is the agenda to drive Christians out of not only Iraq, but out of the whole of the Middle East. This, unfortunately, is happening but the international community is not saying anything about it. We do not know the reason why there is this agenda to empty this region of Christians considering that this area is the cradle of Christianity.
Q: And the Christians are the indigenous people?
Kassab: The Christians are indeed the indigenous and our ancestry and history goes back 5,000 years, 3,000 years before Christ. I do not understand why this is happening and I think that there is an agenda in making this particular area have one religion rather than being a multi-religious area.
Q: What kind of stories are we talking about when we talk about violence against Christians?
Kassab: There are many atrocities committed against Iraqi Christians and there are plenty of undocumented as well as horrific stories, for instance: Rita a 24-year-old Christian woman, because of threats and intimidation, fled Iraq for Jordan. Within a month or so she heard that her three brothers who stayed in Iraq were kidnapped by fundamentalists. She insisted on returning to try to save them. On her way back, she was kidnapped by the same kidnappers. They held her for five days, beat her and raped her a multitude of times. Her family paid the ransom for her release and then was able to tell her story. She said that during her ordeal she prayed to God and Jesus Christ that she would remain Christian even unto death. She was eventually released after the ransom was paid.
Q: There are some Christians that have gone to the point of death?
Kassab: That is true. We have Ajad who was 14 years old. His job was providing security to an electric generator in his neighborhood. This financially assisted his mom. His father was killed by the insurgents. One night while on the job, a fundamentalist came to him and said, “What are you doing here?” He said: “I’m guarding this; it’s my job.” They saw that he was wearing a cross and they said to him: “You are Christian?” He said: “Yes, I’m a Christian.” They said: “You have to convert to Islam otherwise you die.” He said: “I’d rather die a Christian than convert to Islam.” They then killed him and crucified him and after that they tossed his body into a fire. These are the kinds of stories you hear from Iraq. Not too long ago our archbishop, Archbishop Rahho of Mosul, a very good man who was trying to help his people, was kidnapped. I was on my way from the U.S. to see and visit him and acknowledge him for the good work he was doing. All of a sudden I was informed that he was kidnapped and instead of me visiting, hugging and shaking hands with him, instead I ended up attending his funeral.
Q: A number of Catholic hierarchy, bishops, priests and deacons, have been targeted. Would you say that the hierarchy are targeted to scare them away?
Kassab: As you know more than 59 churches in Iraq have been burned, bombed and many members of the clergy of our Church have been kidnapped, killed — some released. Everybody who is a “soft target,” mainly the Christians, are becoming a target of the fundamentalists. So, yes, everyone who is “soft” and who is unable to protect themselves are targets of the fundamentalists and our hierarchy are definitely targets or are in jeopardy.
Q: Why are Christians a “soft target”?
Kassab: The reason is because of their Christian beliefs. They believe in peace. They do not like to fight. … In addition to that they own many businesses and are successful business entrepreneurs. They are also professionals. This makes them obvious targets. Firstly, because they pay the ransoms when kidnapped, which pays or fuels the fundamentalist agenda. Secondly, this is a method by the fundamentalists to intimidate these minority religious groups.
Q: You mentioned that a lot of them are successful entrepreneurs; many of them make up the intellectual base of Iraq. What is the risk to Iraq for the loss of this Christian population in terms of a brain drain, if you will?
Kassab: You are right that the majority of Iraqi Christians are highly educated. The majority of them are either educated in Iraq by the American Jesuits or by the European and American universities. They are, indeed, professionals and highly successful and are easy targets. There is certainly a significant brain drain. Iraq has been depleted from its “think tanks.” UNESCO, not too long ago, reported that more than 20,000 Iraqi intellectuals and professionals have fled Iraq because of intimidation, and fear for their lives. These people, whether Christians or Muslims, [are targeted] because of their professionalism; they are known to bridge people together because they understand what peace is and what life is, which is a positive thing, but they are unable to live in Iraq. This is a loss for Iraq because this loss deprives Iraq of the potential to rebuild itself and get out of this problem. These people are unwilling to go back until the security situation improves.
Q: We have to clarify that the violence inflicted on the Christians comes from a particular group, because you’ve spoken about the moderate Muslims. Do you have stories of moderate Muslims working to save the Christian population?
Kassab: Yes, there are a lot of stories to be told about moderate Muslims protecting Iraqi Christians. This is particularly true among neighbors. We know that in the past, Iraqi Christians and Muslims lived side by side; these were friends, visited each other, interacted among themselves and there was mutual respect. We have a lot of cases of good Muslim neighbors harboring and protecting their Christian neighbors from being hurt by the fundamentalists. This a very positive sign of hope in Iraq and I hope that it will continue. We need to see more people doing it. Is there a glimmer of hope in Iraq at this time? I do not know. I’m not very sure that there is this glimmer of hope for Iraq unless more moderate people come forward and create a unity for all.
Q: Why is there silence from the international community on what is happening in Iraq?
Kassab: I think that the Christians have been forgotten by the international community and mainly by the world churches. We need more publicity for the plight of Christians. We are doing our best to make sure that their voices are heard and we will continue to do so and therefore, we plead to the international community and the Iraqi government to make sure that these people are protected and are able to survive in their own country.
Q: The Christians are moving to the plains of Nineveh and there seems to be a push, or an idea that is circulating, in creating Christian enclaves in the plains of Nineveh. Is that, in your opinion a good idea?
Kassab: Yes and no. Let me explain: It is a good idea for our people to move to a safe area, to a secure area where they are able, at least for the time being, to survive. It is also good to know that these areas allow access to various resources that will assist them. They are also close to the Kurds who are, at this time, sympathetic to all Iraqi religious minorities who are suffering. We would like the Iraqi government to be doing the same thing.
But, at the same time, there is a lot of misunderstanding with the thinking that if this is done then they become vulnerable because of their concentration in one area. This is not what we are calling for. What we are calling for is a self administrative area where they police themselves. These areas should also allow for good economic programs as well for them to thrive, as well as security measures. If this is established then the Christians can live anywhere in Iraq especially when their rights are recognized. Another proposal we’ve presented to the international community is that there should be an Iraqi Minority Security council in place, made up of members from the Iraqi religious minorities, the Iraqi government, the U.N. or members of the international community in order to enforce that and make sure that the Iraqi religious communities are protected. This is something very, very important. Things are getting out of hand; as we speak we are seeing cases of murder, kidnapping moving from Mosul to Kirkuk and there is an outcry there in Kirkuk: “What is going on? Why is the Iraqi government and the international community not protecting the Christians, after all, these are the indigenous people of Iraq. These are the ancestral people of Iraq and they should be entitled to the first right to be in Iraq.”
Q: They won’t come back until they know that there are certain conditions in place to guarantee their safety?
Kassab: That is correct and what we are working on is to make sure that there are certain security measures in place. They can have self-rule. They can police themselves and the most important factor is that Iraq and the international community should provide the infrastructures to provide good education, health care, transportation for these people and a very conducive environment for economic activity to attract these people back to Iraq. Iraqi Christians are very resilient people. They are survivors; given all these guarantees, they will thrive and rebuild.
Q: What can we do — you and me?
Kassab: We have to inform; our word has to go out. It has to be well publicized — as we are doing now. And we would also like to see humanitarian agencies in the area, to provide immediate humanitarian assistance for these people. There is a call for a very important rescue for our people, especially the refugees. They are going through a horrible time in the countries where they have sought asylum and which are unable to re-settle them all, and as a matter of fact, cannot re-settle them all or do not want to because they want them to go back to their homeland. In order to do that, we have to push for better conditions for them to go back to Iraq. These are the same people who will be able to bridge Iraq together; they are the buffer between the contesting parties. It is now the time to call for reconciliation among all the people of Iraq to be united and not fragmented and when this happens the Iraqi Christians will certainly be better off.
Q: One last question: What will Iraq be without Christians?
Kassab: The Christians, as I’ve said, are an integral part of Iraq. They are the elite. They are the most educated in Iraq and they have contributed so much to Iraq without anything in return and without any agenda. Therefore, Iraq without the Christians will not be the same Iraq that we’ve know for centuries.
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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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On the Net:
Aid to the Church in Need: www.acn-intl.org
Where God Weeps: www.wheregodweeps.org/countries/iraq