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Christians in the Muslim World

Middle East: a Journey Towards Communion

Interview with H.E. Msgr. Jean Sleiman, Latin Archbishop of Baghdad, by Martino Diez

Excellency, the Synod’s title is “Communion and Witness”. Does the Middle East need more communion?


It certainly does. First of all, we need more communion among the Catholics. Catholic rites have quickly been transformed into ethnic-confessional communities. Confessionalism contradicts communion.



Is more communication needed? Do you need more meetings, more coordination?


First of all we need a new evangelization. Communication is there, encounters are frequent, coordination formally works. There are inter-ritual Episcopal conferences; what is lacking is the flame of communion. From a structural viewpoint, in fact, community relations are still very primitive. Their dynamics is more external that internal. They take place in the border regions: encounters, invitations, alliances.



In many ways, the Catholic Church still looks like the sum of many Churches. Without full communion, the Catholic Church cannot be a witness as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. If we consider history, we understand better how this anthropological community background was internalized as early as with the statutes of the dhimma, the régime provided for the so-called “peoples of the Book” in the Muslim caliphates. The fundamental issue about the legal provisions relative to non-Muslims was the obligation to pay a tax in order to be protected by the Arab-Muslim government, that is, to enjoy the right of citizenship, if second-rate, in one’s own Country. Subsequent governments perpetuated and often exacerbated those laws. The Christians were therefore recognized as fixed and separate confessional communities. This confessionalism is still in force and the Instrumentum Laboris denounces it.



What is your community’s make-up?


The Latin Church in Iraq comes from a missionary history. In the seventeenth century the Carmelites arrived as missionaries in Mesopotamia, a territory then dominated by the Persian Empire. The Diocese was formed in 1632. In the eighteenth century the Dominicans arrived. In the nineteenth century came the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Tours. In the early twentieth century a new female Dominican congregation was formed. The faithful from other communities have always been very few. Rather than “Latinizing” the people, the missionaries have been of enormous help to all, both culturally and religiously. Their one desire was to recreate communion with Peter’s See. This is a charisma cultivated by the Latin Church of Rome to this day, with the help of male and female religious as well as that of a consecrated laity which constitutes an absolute novelty in the Country.



What is the situation in Iraq?


Today the situation in Iraq is much better. However, Iraq looks like a sick man whose condition improves but still needs treatment. There is less violence but the fundamental problems haven’t been tackled yet. The Country’s unity and the ambiguity of the new constitution, the distribution of resources, the territories disputes between Arabs and Kurds, and the very issue of reconciliation among the various protagonists of this Country are crucial to the future of Iraq but remain unsolved. Violence, a political instrument, hasn’t disappeared. Its decrease should be attributed to an important change in the general situation – but it crops up again unexpectedly and continues to harvest victims.



How long can this go on for?


This situation will last until the problems we have listed find solutions that everyone can accept. Of course, the people are exhausted and want normality and stability. Otherwise emigration will continue, reconstruction will be delayed and the legally constituted State will find it hard to regain control over the whole society.



Also in neighboring Iran there are a few instances of civil unrest …


The comparison doesn’t actually stand up. In Iran there is a State. When you go to sleep you are sure you will wake up in your bed the next morning. Not in Iraq. In this situation anything can happen. Tensions are enormous. Sometimes you get the impression there are hidden actors who move according to logics that escape us. This is why making plans doesn’t make much sense. As Christians we must act with prudence and realism but we must also denounce injustice and witness the truth. Only in this way can we be free.




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