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Christians in the Muslim World

Interview to Mons. Shaba Matoka, Sirian-Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad

H.E. Mons. Shaba Matoka, Syrian-Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, is the head of a small community of nearly 60,000 faithful, a community rich in history and tradition. Interviewed by Oasis during his visit to Venice at the end of October, Mons. Shaba sketches the picture of an Iraq in which worrisome signs of instability and hostility towards religious minorities exist side by side with attempts to revive the country's political and social life on new juridical bases.



Your Excellency, how do the Christian communities in Iraq see the country's future?



Obviously the prospective for the future depends on security. If foreign terrorists are able to keep Iraq in its current unstable condition, one cannot imagine a promising future. But if an acceptable level of stability returns, then I think that there will be a prosperous and thriving future, because Iraq is potentially a very rich country, capable of offering opportunities for living and working.



In the draft of the Iraqi Constitution, there are references both to the Shari`a and the defence of minorities at the same time. How do you think the new institutional system will develop? Will Christians have sufficient protection? In education, for example, how do you think the school system will change?



We were also consulted on the draft of the Constitution which has recently been released. The Provisory Constitution foresees the protection of minorities and of their religious rights: Christians will no longer be second-class citizens as they were in the past. They will have equality of rights and, naturally, also of duties. As for education, a decree has already been issued which gives the schools, which had all been nationalized, back to their owners. We will be able to open private schools as in the past.


The question of religious freedom has not yet been faced completely and remains open. Nevertheless, beyond the guarantee of freedom of religion, the constitution talks of "respect for religions". This is always a very critical point in Islamic countries, because abandoning Islam is considered a crime punishable by death in religious law.


Some people proposed the use of the Shari`a as the base of the legal system, but this proposal was rejected. Instead they opted for the formulation: «the Shari`a is one of the main foundations of the law», implying that there are also other foundations.


To sum things up, we are satisfied with this constitutional draft.



What relationship do you have with the Sunni and Shiite religious authorities?



Before the war, we did not have great relations with them. After the war we visited the Shiite authorities in particular. We went to Sistani, who is the highest Shiite authority. Sistani seems to be a moderate man. We also visited Hakim [one of the founders of the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq, the principal political organ in Iraq, Ed.], who was later killed in Aug. 2003, and his brother 'Abdel-'Aziz Hakim. And when there were the attacks on the churches, the Shiite leaders sent representatives in order to express their condemnation of what was happening. The Sunnis also send two representatives from their committee of the 'ulemas.


In conclusion, we can say that we have a good relationship with the authorities. But there is always the population, which contains fundamentalist elements. The Sunni and Shiite religious authorities themselves have difficulties in controlling the situation, as the Sadr episode shows. As for the Sunnis, we have to add that some 'ulemas are insincere in their condemnation: they say one thing, but think and encourage another.



Attacks on churches, discrimination in daily life, the phenomenon of emigration: these are alarms for the living conditions of Christians. How are the Iraqi authorities facing the problem? And what are Christian pastors doing?



Without a doubt the attacks on the churches were a quite considerable act. Direct attacks against Christian places of worship, while the faithful were united for prayer: this means that those who planned the attacks wanted to kill and not just terrorise. The authorities and the government are against these acts: they would like to protect us but they are not even capable of protecting themselves. In Baghdad there are currently 50,000 police, yet they are unable to keep order.


As religious authorities, we have contact with the government, and we were invited to take precautions. There have been several kidnappings with enormous ransom demands, so people can no longer send their children to school. Christians are especially under pressure in the North, in Mossul, where they receive direct threats. I have heard that some mullahs tell Christians to leave because this is not their country and that girls are forced to wear the veil. But even in Baghdad and elsewhere Christians are treated poorly because they work for the Americans or sell alcoholic beverages or even because they are barbers.


Our cathedral was bombed and now we hold Mass in a large room. Before the attacks we held five Sunday Masses in the cathedral, which were very well-attended by the faithful. Now only one fourth of the people come, because many are afraid and prefer not to be seen.



Then what could the role of Christians be today, in this difficult and dramatic phase?



Many Christians remain. They cannot emigrate because it is difficult and expensive. Christians are considered constructive elements: there are doctors, businessmen, government employees, and this is appreciated even by many Muslims, who recognise the Christians' traditional work commitment and honesty.



Much is said of the presence and activities of Protestant congregations. How do Catholics feel about this? Is there a common effort or a sort of awkwardness and competition?



When the Americans came to Baghdad, Protestant sects were seen all over the place for a short while. No one knows where they came from. It is notable that when the attacks came, none of these new churches was touched. What does this mean? It is not easy to understand, because the situation is rather confused.


The Protestant congregations which were present before the war, such as Evangelists and Baptists, are a different story altogether. They respect the local churches and relations with them were characterised by cooperation. There is a difference between the Protestant communities which have existed for some time and the new ones that arose after the war.



Western Christians: they are often reproached for being far away, if not uninterested. What are you asking from European and American Christians?



This is a question we have been asked many times: «What do you want to say to the West? And to the Christian West?» Before the war, many people showed much interest in our plight, which for the most part was never made a concrete reality. In fact, after the war there was not much activity in support of the civil authorities in their peace-keeping tasks, while it is important that everyone makes an effort to help Iraq achieve peace and security. Everyone needs to help us, if not the people will leave, because there is no work. I am asking for prayer, but also for aid.


In all this the Holy Father is a splendid exception. He clearly stated that the war was "a crime" a very harsh and strong word, in order to persuade the Americans not to initiate hostilities. Even now he has not ceased busying himself with us.



And American Christians, your Excellency? What would you say to them?



The same things, all the more strongly.



Can you tell us something about the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan? What are conditions like for Christians in this region?



Kurdistan is the mountainous region north of Mossul. It is inhabited by Kurds and Christians - mainly Chaldeans and Assyrians. The city of Kirkuk is currently the source of conflict because the Kurds would like to keep it under their control.


We have met several times with local leaders and we understand that the situation is better there than elsewhere. Calmness and tranquillity are the rule. The region also enjoyed complete autonomy, protected by the Americans, after the Gulf War. We have met Talabani [Jalal Talabani, one of the principal Kurdish leaders. Ed.], who assured us that Christians will not be subject to pressure. On the other hand, there are some Sunni imams in Mossul who say that the Kurds are infidels (kuffar) just like Christians. There is also a small amount of internal emigration towards Kurdistan by families in search of security, even if most people prefer to go abroad.


The example of the autonomous region of Kurdistan reminds us that one of the current possibilities is federalism. This solution could prevent Iraq from breaking up in a bloody civil war.