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Christians in the Muslim World

Iraq: Who put the Christians in a Trap?

Author: Jean Benjamin Sleiman

 

Title: Nella trappola irachena

 

Publisher: Paoline, 2007, pp. 136

 

 

In the day of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, there had gathered together ‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia’, that land between the two rivers which would be evangelised by the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew and their disciples. The Church of contemporary Iraq, therefore, draws its origins from the first Christian community. Those millennia-old roots continue to nourish a small flock that today makes up 3% of the population. It is divided between twelve different denominations but it is now running the risk of falling into growing insignificance. The Christians are the group that is most exposed to the oscillations of fanaticism – it seems a paradox but at a time when after years of dictatorship Iraqi society is able to taste freedom, they belong to those people who do not have the conditions to be able to enjoy it. This is borne witness to, in pitiless and dramatic analysis, by the Latin Archbishop of Baghdad, Jean Benjamin Sleiman, in his book Nella trapola irachena (‘In the Iraqi Trap’).

 

 

The condition of the Christians in Iraq can be summed up in a term which draws its juridical-religious legitimacy from the shari’a and which has never been really overcome, not even during the rule of the Baathist Party. That word is ‘dhimmitude’, in which the ‘protection’ accorded to religious minorities in exchange for what is in essentials submission is formulated. Although existing in the presence of examples of concord and cooperation, the relations between Christians the Muslim majority have never had the opportunity to become truly egalitarian. The consequence of this is that Christians feel that they are foreigners in what has always been their country. At the same time, the impetus to emigration has reached such levels that a prospect is now possible that only a few years ago was inconceivable – the day is not far off when the number of Iraqi Christians of the diaspora will be greater than those who live in their homeland.

 

 

To make the situation worse is the tendency of various Christian confessions to shut themselves up in their own worlds and to uphold their autonomy and rights, to the detriment of an ecumenical dynamic which is more necessary than ever before at a time when the minorities are severely tested by fundamentalism of an Islamic kind. In order to create an alternative to the logic of preventive war, in Sleiman’s view, a preventive diplomatic initiative would have been required. This, however, did not take place. Today, Iraqi Christians feel that they are in a trap. They would like to be peaceful citizens who are loyal to their country but they find themselves sucked into political violence. The shameful abuses of the new ethnic and religious powers subject them to laws and customs that do not belong to them. Their women have to wear a veil and their faith can only be expressed timidly and discreetly; their very existence is increasingly exposed to precariousness.

 

 

Faced with such a dismaying scenario, the temptation to fall into pessimism is around the corner. But Sleiman suggests a number of routes to escape from the trap of Iraq. First of all, the country must not be abandoned to feuds between rival factions. Peace cannot be a unilateral gesture and the government in Baghdad, more than ever before, needs international support. Iraqi society has to face up to the wager of reconciliation with a national history that was built up through co-existence between diversities and in dialogue with modernity in order to defeat fanaticism and free religious practice from radical confessionalism and fundamentalism. The Christians, in particular, have a historical role to play: they will not manage to conserve their identity without contributing to the construction of national unity, embracing the demanding task of being mediators between the parties. For this reason, concludes the Latin Archbishop of Baghdad, ‘reinvigorated by the faith they must not behave like a minority that has closed itself up in its own powerlessness and strives to reach the history that it has left behind it. They must, instead, begin once again from their homeland, from citizenship and from the Charter of Human Rights, and from the common good. Will they be up to the task that history is placing before them? And will their brothers in the West be able to support them in this task through prayer and action?

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