I Cristiani d’Iraq
Jaca Book, Milan, 2006
In twenty years there will no longer be any Christians in Iraq’, ran a headline of The Guardian in November 2006. Numerous events, both prior to that article, and after it, seem to justify what it said: from the attacks on various Christians places of worship to the exodus of many of the faithful and on to the kidnapping and murder of various priests. What does the future hold in store for the Christians who live between the Euphrates and the Tigris? This is the question answered by Joseph Yacoub in his I Cristiani d’Iraq, a reworking of the French edition of this work, Menaces sur les chrétiens d’Irak (Editions C.L.D. Témoignage Chrétien, Chambray, 2003), which was published on the eve of the war against Saddam Hussein. The author is a major expert on the situation in Iraq. A Syrian of the Chaldean rite (and thus connected with one of the most important Christian communities in Iraq), he teaches international relations at the Catholic University of Lyons. His articles, which centre around the condition of religious minorities in the world and are willingly published by French daily newspapers and reviews, mix in a harmonious way scholarship and wisdom, reason and faith. ‘This book’, he explains in the foreword, ‘is a cry. The cry of the forgotten people of the war in Iraq – the cry of the Iraqi people abandoned to the fury of bombs and canons. The cry, even more suffocated, of the Christian minorities, distant descendants of the first disciples of the Gospel who were baptised by the Apostle Thomas’.
The first part of the book is a useful condensation of the state of the Christian mosaic in Iraq (Catholic Chaldeans, Assyrians of the ancient Church of the East, Syriacs, Armenians, Latins and yet others), their ecclesial organisations, their political status after the approval of the new Constitution, their activities, and their status within Iraqi society. The second part deals with the two-millennia old history of Christianity in Mesopotamia and of the extraordinary missionary flowering which allowed the Nestorian Church to spread from Baghdad to Peking, and then focuses on the chain of long tragedies that were experienced during the twentieth century: the promises of the Allies of autonomy that were not kept in the period following the First World War, the massacres and deportations of the 1930s, the precarious situation that existed under the monarchy, the controlled freedom of the Baath dictatorship, the embargo, and then the renewed wave of migrations. In the third part of the book the author describes the situation of an increasing diaspora which is spread through North America, Australia and Europe. The Iraqi Church has reported that in the last three years alone a hundred thousand Christians are said to have fled abroad. In Syria 44% of the requests for asylum presented to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) come from Christians, even though these make up only 3% of the population of Iraq. A haemorrhage which endangers the future of the Christians who stay in their homeland, and whose destiny, which is already precarious, will be influenced once again by the political development of Iraq and the establishment of a democratic government but also by the end of foreign domination, by the threats of the United States of America against neighbouring countries, by the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, and by a possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Iraqi Christians, for their part, can do something, affirms Yacoub. In this book he writes that it is ‘necessary to review the Christian perception of the Arab-Islamic East and break with old stereotypes through a return to the Eastern tradition of dialogue and brotherhood’. With respect to the Churches, he states that ‘ecumenism is necessary. This is a matter of overcoming doctrinal divergences, forming a front and bringing them together through unification and renewal. Unity is the pre-condition for their salvation and survival’.