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Christians in the Muslim World

On the edge of a volcano, going on hoping

I do not know whether it is a good idea to speak about a 'new order' or rather a 'new disorder'! The whole of the new Iraq has precipitated into chaos: the institutions as well as the relationships between people, co-existence, the order of values, political norms... even the role of religions within society. As the living conscience of the people they now run the risk of being exploited in order to support the legitimation of anything, including acts of terrorism! This was the inevitable price that had to be paid in order to build 'the new order', or so we were told.

 

 

Hidden anarchic or terrorist forces, disguised under the term Jihad (religious militancy), but who have nothing to do with religion or politics, and mercenaries of the old regime, are carrying out a relentless war against everything that could stabilize the situation and who every day go on ending innocent lives, not only the lives of politicians and military men accused of 'collaborationism' but also the lives of the university classes, intellectuals and civilians, resolved as they are to make life impossible in the eyes of those in power. And is authority really such? Three months have passed since the elections of January 2005 and we still do not have a government! Poker games that are fierce and unending are played and played again between the lists of the winners of the elections, who are thus already attacked by a virus, and between the heads of ethnic and religious groupings or between political parties, the most vulnerable of which, for example the Christians, find that they are literally trodden under foot.

 

 

The Political Picture

 

 

We expected that the elections of January last would be an experimental laboratory for a democratic and national partnership. And yet now we have a system where the big fish swallow the small fish. Three major forces occupy the Iraqi political chessboard and they do so on an ethnic or religious basis: the Kurds, the Shiites, and the Sunnis. This trilogy, after facing the elections, now wants to distribute power amongst its three component members in the new constituent government. Everything is divided on the basis of 'electoral and partisan returns', which in turn has a traditional ethnic and religious foundation. The Council of the Presidency is made up of a trio: a Kurdish President of the Republic, two Vice Presidents, one a Shiite and the other a Sunni, and the Prime Minister designate who is a Shiite and who will certainly have two Vice Prime Ministers, one each from the two other communities. The actual stalemate, marked by the absence of the formation of a new government, derives in large measure from this arduous equilibrium. In this game the Christians are 'guests', difficult ones to be sure, but without real weight in the balance of power.

 

Underlying the crisis we find at work two major political and ideological currents.

 

 

1. Firstly, there is the Islamist current, which has the greatest impact on the lower sections of society and which strongly supports a fundamentalist regime, perhaps in an edition that is specifically Iraqi. Voices have been raised in both the Shiite and Sunni camps to affirm that Islam should be the only source of legislation and to call for the establishment of an Islamic Shari'a. For that matter, the Prime Minister designate, although a moderate, and his list, which has a majority in parliament, belong to Islamist religious parties of the Islamic Revolution and the Da'wa ('Islamic Call') or to other factions of the same kind. However, a fundamentalist tendency of any kind will not be to the advantage of the Christian minority.

 

 

2. Secondly, there are the secular currents, which are represented by political parties conceived on the model of the Western democracies. It is within this second current that the 'pluralist' and communitarian ideal of the great majority of the population would appear to be located. Will the new majority be able to maintain the balance between the 'religious' and the 'secularising'?

 

 

The Kurdish parties, the PDK and the UNK, the secular parties of the old opposition, including the parties of the Christians and the other so-called independent movements (there are a host of these) are the spinal column of this trajectory. The achievement of a balance between all these parties of different ideologies, which are at times in opposition, is not an easy matter. Before moving on to co-operation in a truly democratic context these parties have been engaged in a war of positions, a war that has not always been declared but which is no less real because of this fact.

 

 

However, this democratic society which still has to be built cannot be constructed without a recognition and implementation of the principle of 'partnership' between all the social, ethnic, religious, geographical, historical and political components of Iraq. The real conversion of mentalities and social practices is required of people, some of whom until now have behaved like absolute lords and some of whom have been citizens of the second rank. This is the dilemma that divides the Sunni faction, the faction that controlled the old regime and traditionally held power without this being contested. Then all of a sudden this faction lost the leadership of the country. This explains the boycotting by the Sunnis of the elections and this faction's presumed connivance with the violent activities of the opposition. But in this democratic society that has been promised for the new Iraq there should not exist a 'ruling majority' that imposes its laws and prerogatives, nor a 'tolerated or frustrated minority' that is forced to show its self-justifying documents and its loyalty at every check point (I am thinking here specifically of the Christians).

 

 

The Christians?

 

 

Actors, spectators or powerless victims? A real weight in the future? The position of the Church as an institution? To judge from their social presence in public life, from their economic activity, and from their cultural level, one would think that Christians made up 20% of the population. However, they make up only 4% of the total a mere 700,000, swallowed up in the Muslim ocean and devastated by an accelerating emigration, especially after the Gulf War. Thus Iraqi Christianity, with its two-thousand years of history, and which arrived in Mesopotamia 633 years before Islam, is progressively being emptied of its contents by what is a real and authentic daily haemorrhage. Of course the Christians are not the only group to experience this reality. But for a minority such a development with these rhythms becomes dramatic. What are the reasons for this phenomenon?

 

 

1. Economic, first of all, as is the case everywhere else in the world.

 

2. To flee from war and its consequences.

 

3. The confiscation by the state of land belonging to Christian villages in order to put Muslims in them and to destabilise the present demography.

 

4. Restrictions on the teaching of the Christian religion.

 

5. The government's banning of Christian names for children.

 

6. The growth of Muslim fundamentalism.

 

7. Lastly, the present-day insecurity, with kidnappings, daily murders or the threats of murders.

 

 

These last two factors worsened after the regime change. Have we not perhaps witnessed in impotent fashion the attacks on three occasions against our churches and our archbishropics in Baghdad and Mossul, where most Christians live? Was not the irreparable about to happen at the time of the kidnapping of a Bishop in the middle of last January before the appeal of John Paul II had the effect of a 'that's enough' of international indignation? Leaving aside my person, the success and speed of my liberation as a result of the appeal of the Pope and the attention of the world's mass media even raised the morale of the Christians.

 

This is why Iraqi Christians are exposed to the temptation of exodus, despite the disapproval of the Church, which, indeed, has always stressed our citizenship and our ancestral and deep roots in this land of our origins. Hitherto, I must add, Christians have been reasonably happy at the level of daily life, of relationships with their neighbours, and in the work place. Although a major shake up has taken place, not everything is lost.

 

 

There are friendships, even companies with Christians and Muslims. For a Muslim a Christian is a trustworthy, competent, loyal, peaceful and educated person.

 

To move from the status of spectators to that of actors and to promote themselves to the level of citizenship to the full, the Christians, after the change of April 2003, threw themselves into the political arena with about ten parties and movements. This was the first time in the history of Iraq that political parties defined as 'Christian', socially speaking, put themselves forward in a clear way as a political force to defend Christian 'interests'. As a reaction against historical frustration, they adopted secular approaches and based themselves upon ethnic-nationalist ideologies, generally forged according to the needs of the cause.

 

To tell the truth, all these minuscule parties, which are scattered and new to political experience, lack relevance at a national level.

 

 

As if this was not enough, an apple of discord separates the hierarchy of the Church from the so-called 'Christian' political parties because both categories contend authority over the small Christian minority, which makes up only 4% of the total population. This minority had hitherto found its defence, its only spokesman and point of reference in the Church, not only in the religious field but also in the social sphere and in relation to the public authorities. New facts are creating a dual system of reference in the Iraqi Christian community: a political-civil point of reference, claimed by the 'Chaldean, Assyrian and Syrian' political parties that have newly arrived on the scene, and a socio-religious point of reference, traditionally attributed to the Church. The hierarchy is not ready to give up the command post so rapidly!

 

 

A specific Christian intellectual current that is committed to the apostolate does not support the idea that is advanced by the so-called 'Christian' parties that there should be an identification of religion with ethnic nationalism, an idea based upon the concept: first come the Christians and then everyone else. In contrary fashion, the approach of the parties claims that first of all there are Assyrians, Chaldeans or Syriacs. However, it remains true that the ethnic or racial question is one of the most difficult that there is today Iraq. Indeed, it is specifically on this basis that the minorities (including the Christians), who had previously been cancelled, are trying to play a role on the political chessboard as to be able to obtain their right to citizenship on the same basis as other Iraqis.

 

Have they obtained something? At a concrete institutional and juridical level nothing has changed, although the new personalities on the scene continue to make fine speeches.

 

 

A few flashes: in some city councils some Christians have been called to take seats. But when it came to representation in the first national government feelings of frustration came to dominate: four second-level representatives at the provisional national assembly and a woman minister for emigration insignificant results for a few.

 

 

Even more acute frustration was felt at the time of the elections of last January when entire Christian regions, above all in the plain of Ninive around Mossul, where there are the largest Christian settlements, were deprived of their right to vote. Pretexts of neglect or bad organisation were rolled out to justify the fact that these villages (with almost a hundred thousand inhabitants) had been deprived of their right to vote. This deprived the Christian representatives of the possibility of sitting in the first 'democratically' elected national assembly.

 

 

Protests, demonstrations and petitions followed one another. But Christians continued to see themselves dismembered, minimised and underrepresented in the spheres of high decision making. What they now want is that this disgrace is not repeated at the next election in December and to have at least a role in the drawing up of the Constitution in order to guarantee their fundamental rights and to participate with the other political forces in the administration of the country.

 

It should be observed that the Church, represented by her Bishops, was subjected to strong pressures during the period of transition between April 2003 and the formation of the first government, both by various political parties, including those of an Islamic character, and by social and tribal forces, or by their leaders. In the joint effort to reconstruct the country they were called upon to represent not only their communities but also the line of wisdom and co-operation. One may say that a certain climate of unprecedented Muslim-Christian dialogue at the level of leadership began. This presence became increasingly rare when the institutions began to take shape.

 

 

However, in my opinion the institutional Church did not pay sufficient attention to the new phenomenon of Iraq and to preparing the ground for the future. But was it really able to do this? The capacity for reflection and objectivity in analysis, as well as clarity of vision, have been lacking. In the climate of Iraq, and there can be no doubt about this, one proceeds by testing the waters. And now, as has always been the case, we await the future! However, the declaration of the Assembly of Patriarchs and Bishops of April 2003 was an unprecedented initiative. This assembly was organised by the Apostolic Nuncio of Baghdad and was addressed to the governing council with the new Constitution of Iraq in mind.

 

 

This declaration asked the new Constitution to:

 

 

1. 'Recognise our religious, cultural, social and political rights'.

 

2. 'Establish a legal status by which every person can be seen according to his capacities so that everyone has the right to participate actively in the government and service to the country'.

 

3. 'See Christians as citizens in the full sense of the term'.

 

4. 'Assure the right to profess our faith according to our ancient traditions and our religious rights, such as that of educating our children according to Christian principles and that of being able organise freely, so as to build our places of worship and our cultural and social centres according to our needs'.

 

 

This kind of official public action (this declaration was sent to the provisional governing council, to the American government, and to the Secretary General of the United Nations) could have opened up a new era in the presence of the Church in Iraq. But things rapidly returned to their traditional silence. However, the new President of the Republic, Jalal al-Talebani, a very secular and open Kurd, recently exhorted the Christian hierarchy on the occasion of his first audience granted to Catholic Bishops on 21 April 2005 to give voice to and to express the needs of Christians, adding that he himself was ready to promote the rights of Christians.

 

Iraq remains a crucible of very specific realities that have been accumulated and fragmented down the ages. In itself this pluralism is a source of wealth and such difference should create dynamism.

 

 

The other person is not necessarily an opponent to be eliminated. He can well be energy to be added to ours. Hence the virtue of dialogue that leads to collaboration in mutual respect and as a result to friendship, which is first of all trust and not distrust. Without these principles we will always remain far from the path that leads to the building of a new Iraq in justice and lasting peace.

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