What I can say is that we are living through extremely difficult times, stormy times. Hard trials await us. You know what has happened to us Christians in Baghdad, from the Cathedral attack on. We are in shock.
Unfortunately, these attacks are continuing. We have no respite. After the Cathedral massacre we lost two brothers from the same family, killed while at work. Sadly, this is what is still going on. The families have resumed emigration, trying to find shelter in the North. Those who can are going abroad. The situation is basically intolerable. Despite the difficulties, we try to offer a little hope by saying that God is close to us and will protect us, that we will always have the strength to witness our faith.
This is why I address you and all those who will read you: so that you may continue to pray for us, for we cannot stand on our own. We need your support, your prayer, for sure, but it is also necessary that something be done, as we are trapped. We can no longer trust anyone, find support, or count on anyone – here everything is very difficult. We have no protection at all. Here in Karakosh, fortunately, our young people defend us but we fear for them, we fear they might be attacked, that something might happen to them.
This is our witness: to remain here to confirm that we belong to this Country and that we don’t want to abandon it; and in the meantime we try to offer some hope. I know it is difficult to speak about hope at such a moment. As I have told you, we are in a storm.
What is life in your convent like?
There are five of us, it is a small convent. We have moved: we used to have a large convent with a big church in Mosul but because of the continual threats we were forced to leave and to come here to this small house in Karakosh. Together with our brothers we try to go everywhere to announce God’s Word to support the young and bear witness to our living faith.
What were the threats?
We used to find letters on our door: they said they wanted money and that we would be kidnapped and slaughtered. Other Christians received threatening text messages, always requesting money. The problem is that we never know who is behind the blackmail: there’s no signature, these are printed letters, no one knows who sends them. We don’t know who is behind all this.
There are people who take advantage of the current situation to take money away from the poor. Sometimes we wonder whether the threats are authentic or come from someone who wants to take advantage of the situation. Since there is no State, no law, no government – or no strong government anyway – there are always those who seek their own advantage.
Father, in Oasis, in our newsletter, we talked about the film on the Tibihrine monks. As I was listening to you, I thought of the experience of the Tibhirine Fathers. What are your impressions before the witness of these monks?
I saw the film before returning to Iraq, while I was still in France. I was very struck by their witness. We too, for many years, have been the bearers of a witness. We remained at Mosul until 2007 and for four years, from 2003 to 2007, we suffered about ten bombings and hundreds of threats. On my arrival, I was threatened because I had taken a picture of a burning car. I had to hide within the convent for a fortnight: I had been threatened for a photograph, because they thought I was working for the Americans.
I thought we were in a free Country but this is not true at all. We stayed there for four years and when we realized that these people have no respect for life… if you think what they did to Fr Paolo: they tortured him, they slaughtered him… and then, the murder of Fr Raghid, and of three deacons together with him; and then the bishop (Msgr Raho). Then we said that was enough, we decided to stop because to those people life is worth nothing. You need to understand that we no longer are in a condition to witness. We do witness, but to be able to continue to do so we must keep alive.
For those people who hate life, the human being counts for nothing. A Christian is a number. They have killed three Christians? That’s nothing serious. It’s a sin to lose your life for people who give life no value. The safety situation doesn’t improve. When we saw the assassination of the priests and that of the bishop with his bodyguards, we decided with our leader that we could just as well bear witness elsewhere without exposing ourselves to danger. We had no possibility to survive. Terrorists, extremists, I don’t know who they are.
This is why I say we no longer are in a position to witness. For in Iraq we have been through various stages. The last explosion, when I was in the Mosul convent, was on November 1st 2006. On All Saints’ Day I had just stood up to recite Vespers, I’d just about started, I’d just said Lord, I hadn’t yet said God, [make haste to] help us when a terrible explosion broke out, we were just 30 metres away, we saw the fire, all was in pieces, the glass panes were shattered, many doors had been blown out, we were very scared but stayed there despite the bombs and the threats we received every week, despite the people they were sending to us asking for huge sums like 200,000 dollars, and we said: we have no money, we are monks, we are religious, we are people who worship God, who is love and peace.
Sometimes they left us alone, even without taking money, some other times they didn’t, and they insisted with their threats. So you understand that it was gradually, after a series of incidents, that we came to the decision of moving. But we didn’t leave Iraq, we only moved house. We settled in this large village of Karakosh, 30 km away from Mosul. We thought of seeking shelter here to take time and see how the situation would evolve. If things get better we will get back to our convent.
Unfortunately, this disaster does not seem to be nearing an end. If nothing else, here in Karakosh we are a little freer to visit other villages, to organize lectures and retreats, and to teach. In this way we’ll be a little more useful, since we’ve seen that those people have no respect for life.
As to Iraq, what is the road to take in order to arrive at a solution?
I believe we will arrive at a solution when the parties come to some form of reciprocal understanding. The violence is also due to the absence of a State. We are still living under a régime which does not look after the people. An agreement must be sought. The attacks are not against us, as also our Muslim brethren are hit. We are not the only ones to suffer violence but the violence perpetrated against us is more noticeable and more frequent because we are a minority and belong to a different religion, and there are the extremists who want to empty the Country of all those who are not Muslim -- but I believe everyone is in danger.
This is why I think that the best solution is for the State, that is, for politicians, to open a dialogue in order to bring about a situation where the law may rule and everyone may take up their responsibility, their own role, that is, their own place in society. There cannot be a separate solution for the Christians: we belong to the same Country and want to live here in brotherliness but on condition that our rights be safeguarded.
A number of suggestions have been made recently: the President has proposed a department for Christians, someone else has recommended independent zones for Christians. Our message, or better, our message as Christians is addressed not only to ourselves but to everyone. The fact is that we would really like the State to take the situation in hand; and that the politicians, rather than pursuing each one his own interests, would take care of the general interest of the Country, of the good of all the people, of the good of all.
The truth is that there is a great confusion. You ring the police, and the police refuse to intervene, as they are afraid. It’s happened recently to a family in Mosul. I understand that the policemen are afraid – but if they cannot protect us, who will?
What are the reactions and the attitudes of Iraqi Muslims? Do they notice the persecution of Christians? How do they behave in front of what is happening? Are they aware of the situation or not?
I could answer that there are two types of reaction. Some people are on our side. This attitude was particularly evident in Baghdad. There are many Muslim young people and women who come to pray for the martyrs killed in the Church. Others are indifferent, they don’t see and are not interested, and I am somehow afraid of these people. For you cannot remain indifferent before such crimes.
For instance, in a village where there had been a massacre of Christians I asked the Christian community about the Muslim reaction to this crime and the answer was that not one word of compassion had been said; in fact, sometimes we have been ridiculed. People who react in this way are sick in their thinking and in the very structure of their humanity.
This is a problem, for all have seen what’s happened. To kill children in a church is a very serious crime, a crime against humanity, against Human Rights. How can you kill a child sleeping in its mother’s arms? What has it done to deserve to be killed? If people don’t budge before such events the problem is enormous, and so is the anxiety. I can conclude by saying that we Christians are people who live in peace, and that our true weapon is love. I was struck by seeing a student, wounded during the attack against our schoolbus on May 1st, who said, his face full of blood, ‹‹ Our religion is a religion of peace and love ››.
We all belong to the same Country, Muslims, Christians, Yazdit… therefore we must defend our right as Iraqis and respect the specificity of each one as that constitutes a richness for all.