As Christians in the Middle East we are overwhelmed by so much suffering and hounded by so many challenges. As small communities we need help to deal with these problems, the main one being the exodus of Christians from our lands. The possibility that Christians may actually disappear from the Middle East is a real danger. In fact we are deeply worried that Christians in some Mideast countries might go the way of Christians in Turkey or Iran, where so few are left.
Another problem is pastoral care. We have often suffered from the absence of a pastoral programme that is appropriate for our circumstances and wonder how we can draw one up that is right for our people. For example, when I think about the laity, one question keeps popping up: how can they live and bear witness to their faith in the socio-cultural context in which they are immersed? On what social and cultural terms can we envisage the Christian presence in the Middle East?
Another challenge is our interaction with Muslims. How can we help them know and understand a bit more about our Christianity? What language should we use? Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Chaldean? Personally I think we ought to use Arabic more. Liturgical reform is another issue that must be dealt with. How can we remain faithful to our ancient traditions, remain rooted in them, and at the same time talk about today's humanity? We must also tackle the issue of training for seminarians, monks and men and women religious.
Actually there is no shortage of spirited and interesting questions before us. The Holy See has promoted a Synod for Africa, one for Asia; why not one for the Christians of the Middle East?
Which countries should be involved in the Synod in your opinion?
Iraq, but also Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine.
As for denominations, I think the Chaldeans, Syriacs, Armenians, Copts, Maronites and Melkites should be part of the process; all the confessions practiced in the Mideast region.
What was the Pope's reaction?
The Holy Father too told me that it was a good idea.
How long will it take to organise?
To do a good job to prepare the Synod we need a joint committee with representatives from the various Churches and countries, as well as representatives from the Holy See, and experts who know how to organise such events. I think it should take about a year.
What consequences would such a meeting have on the local Christian community?
What we need is a common approach. The life of the Church has a very clear purpose, and that is evangelisation. Except that right now it is as if we had no common idea about how to breathe life into this purpose and tangibly translate it into everyday life.
What about the Muslim majority?
I think there is a chance to engage Muslims in a dialogue but in order to do this we must adopt a new kind of language, one that is neither apologetic nor provocative. The Synod can help in this because it will send a signal to the societies and countries in which we live that will lead some to say: "See! Christians are trying to find new ways; they are looking for a common approach." I think our relationship to Muslims is bound to get better. But the Church must take the initiative, because no one will do it for her. The Church must take the lead in opening herself up and meeting others.
In the last few months there have been conflicting reports. Christians persecuted and fleeing on the one hand; and others actually going home on the other. What is the real situation right now?
The reality is that we have no strategy to help Christians stay or, for those who have left, come back. And in fact they are not coming back. Those who are still in the country are going to leave very soon, because there is no one taking care of them, no one trying to find a solution. We must examine and understand the real reasons for this flight and only afterwards can we think about solutions. Currently everything is being improvised. We cannot go on like this.
Because of the latest elections Iraq is once again front page news, positive news this time. What hopes do you have for your country's future?
There is hope but hope must stand up to everyday life; otherwise, it is an illusion or a pipe dream. There are positive signs and we must take advantage of them. The Christian community must be helped to stay, hope and bear witness. Not all Muslims are fundamentalists or terrorists. There are good Muslims and coexistence with them is possible. We must only find the right way to relate to them. We must find the right way and the right words, especially the words. We must constantly ask ourselves: what words can we use with the faithful of Islam?
In your recent ad limina visit you and other Iraqi bishops gave the Pope Father Ragheed's stole and Monsignor Rahho's cope, both assassinated last year. How does the witness of these martyrs affect your self-awareness as Iraqi Christians?
For me as an Iraqi and a bishop the blood of 500 Christian martyrs killed during this period of time, whose names I can remember one by one, constitute an appeal and hope. Their faithfulness, their prayers, their blood invite us not to abandon this country, to remain here and now, to bear witness to the Gospel.