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Christians in the Muslim World

Anyone who does not believe in hell should come to Iraq, says Baghdad's auxiliary bishop

S. E. Msgr. Shlemon Warduni

Interview with H.E. Msgr Shlemon Warduni, Auxiliary Bishop of


Baghdad of the Chaldeans, by Maria Laura Conte





Born in Iraq and a passionate witness of his country, Msgr. Shlemon Warduni, Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad of the Chaldeans, does travel abroad from time to time, where he speaks without fear about what is happening in his country, talking about matters that are not always truthfully reported in the media. Sometimes, when the situation gets particularly tense his Muslims friends even urge him to stay clear of home, for a while at least . . . .






met him in Italy during one of his travels outside the country, two months after the abduction of Msgr. Rahho (whose body was found on 13 March last), another wound not only for Iraq's Christian community but for the whole country as well.




"I feely strongly that everyone concerned about Iraq should understand that the country's terrible situation affects all Iraqis, not only Christians," Msgr Warduni explained. "When a bomb goes off or when a market is hit by an attack, Iraqis die. Terrorist bombs don't discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation; they strike the innocent no matter what. Of course we cannot deny certain facts or turn a blind eye to the obvious discrimination that Christian communities must endureattacks against churches, abductions and murders, threats against the Baghdad neighbourhood of Dora where some Christians were told to leave or convert to Islam, but we should not forget that this is happening in a country whose entire people is being victimised by blind violence. For everyone, Iraq is hell today. I urge anyone who does not believe in hell to come and see for themselves the state in which our country is. After that he will believe in hell."




According to government figures more than a thousand people died in clashes between militias and the army in April; as many died in March, 721 in February. There is no electrical power, except for a few hours a day; there is not diesel fuel to run generators, a paradox in a country that could supply energy to the whole Middle East and beyond; food prices are increasingly unaffordable and there are no fixed phones. . . . But above all, people live in insecurity.




Indeed for Bishop Warduni, "what is most painful is the lack of security. Each one of us lives in uncertainty; you don't know whether you'll make it home; threats of attacks and abductions never end."




Before 2003 Christians were about a million; although there are no clear figures, only half that many are left now. Many have fled abroad, to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, even Europe and America, like millions of Muslims. It is estimated that about 4.5 million refugees in the world are Iraqi, first driven by Saddam's regime, then by the wars against Iran and Kuwait, the embargo and now the new war of 2003. . . .




Here are just a few numbers to put the situation of the Chaldean Church in Baghdad into perspective. At present 28 seminarians are preparing for the priesthood; five years ago they were more than double that. So far this year around 300 to 400 kids received the Sacrament of the First communion; five years ago they were 2,000-3,000.





"And yet I see Christians remain steadfastly attached to their faith. No significant conversions to Islam have taken place. And I have never had to lock up my church, which has always been full; as a matter of fact, I can tell you that churches at Easter were full to capacity. Since I was born I have seen one war come after the other in a never ending series and I am convinced that war can never solve any problems because all it does is destroy, not build. It is now said that we have democracy in Iraq, but when I go down any of our streets in any of our cities I wonder where this democracy really is."




Bishop Warduni will not readily talk about political issues; he would rather focus on the life of the Church. But in the latter he recognises the fragility that comes from the cleavages that divide Christian communities. Indeed "Christian disunity," he acknowledges, "is one of the most hurtful things for it weakens and impoverishes us. The arrival of some 15 Protestant sects has made a bad situation even worse. These groups are led by outsiders or by people trained in the West, who practice an in-your-face kind of proselytising that turns Muslims against us. We are very respectful of other people's faith; we would never dare invade some other religion's space. By contrast, the followers of these sects are unconcerned about others. With their steam-roller evangelisation they are creating separateness and hostility. For this reason and irrespective of our differences, it is important for us Christians to stick together and bear authentic witness to the Christian faith before our Muslim brothers who, for the most part, just want a return to peace and coexistence."





Finally, asked about what he would like to see Western countries do, the Bishop of Baghdad said: "When I come to the West I realise something. In Iraq we have war with bombs and weapons; in the West you have another type of war which is also destroying the truth about man. All you have to do is see how families suffer, how couples split, how love between man and a woman has become devalued, and generally how the value of life has been lost. For my country I call on everyone to seek out the truth about Iraq and not rely only on journalistic reductionism or simplification. Above all I urge them to pray for us. I am convinced that prayers that call for peace and reconciliation in my country are the most powerful tools for everyone."