14 November 2010
Two weeks ago the whole world was shocked at the brutal attack by Islamist terrorists on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, which left 52 worshippers dead and scores injured. Incidentally, Watani had had an interview in Cairo a week before with Monsignor Philippe Najim, the Patriarchal coordinator of the Chaldeans in Egypt, procurator of the Chaldean Church to the Holy See and Apostolic Visitator for Europe.
Some seven years ago the US forces invaded Iraq. Throughout these years Iraqis have suffered the bitter taste of war and violent sectarian strife, especially given the great numerous religious sects and factions in the country. As in most Arab countries, Christians are a minority in Iraq; they represent three per cent of the 27 million-strong population. In 2004, a series of threats, kidnappings, and attacks on Christians and their churches began, leaving in their wake numerous dead or injured. The centuries-old Christian community felt seriously threatened; hundreds of thousands of them opted to leave the country and relocate elsewhere.
Eighty five per cent of Iraq’s Christians are Catholic Chaldeans. Cardinal Mar Emmanuel III Delly, the Patriarch of Babylon, heads the church. In Cairo, Watani talked to Monsignor Philippe Najim.
Tell us about Iraq’s Christians before and after Saddam
It is a fact that, during the Saddam time, national unity reigned over the Christians and Muslims of Iraq, and also among the various Christian sects—the Armenians Catholics, Maronites, Copts and the Chaldeans. There were no divisions between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Everyone had a common purpose: the well being of Iraq. It is true that Saddam’s regime was dictatorial but it was indiscriminate and imposed national unity.
Today anyone can see how shattered Iraq is, and how widespread sectarian divisions have become. Sectarianism had been latent before the US invasion, but once the Saddam regime fell and there was more freedom, factions emerged amidst the chaos and turmoil, and sectarian strife was born.
What did you do after the US invasion of Iraq?
As soon as the US forces took over Iraq, all Iraqi institutions, including the army, were dissolved. I headed, among a delegation of the Chaldean Catholic Church of Iraq, to the then American ruler in the presidential palace to enquire about our situation and future under the Americans. We were appalled at the dilapidated presidential palace, and were dismayed to find out that no political, military or social scheme was foreseen.
Later we established a ‘Bishops Council for Iraq’s Church’, which included representatives of all the Christian sects in Iraq. The council, at the head of which sits Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, convenes twice or three times a year to discuss Christian affairs in Iraq. The Cardinal acts as the spokesman of the council before the authorities.
What has been the role of Iraq’s Christians?
No one can deny that Christians in general and Chaldean Catholics in particular have offered, and are still offering, an immense contribution to the well-being and welfare of the Iraqi community. Hospitals and schools run and managed by Chaldean sisters have played an enormous role in Iraq’s health care and education. Many of today’s ministers, engineers and doctors were educated in our schools.
Do you think terrorism in Iraq was born out of external or internal influences?
For some forty years, we Iraqis grew up within a very particular ruling regime. When the Americans came, the old regime was torn down under the pretext of establishing democracy. But ‘democracy’ cannot be born overnight, nor can its tenets be nurtured without heed to human dignity. The door thus opened wide to chaos and terrorism. Small local terrorist groups began to form, easily attracting despairing Iraqis who lived in poverty, hunger, and under a failing economy, especially that it secured them lucrative financial compensation. Hence began the unprecedented series of attacks on churches.
How many attacks on churches occurred in Iraq?
Some 20 churches of different sects were attacked since 2004 in Baghdad and Musol, and scores of victims were killed or injured among the laymen and the clergy. Thousands of Christians fled the country.
What were their preferred destinations? And what problems did they encounter as immigrants?
Hundreds of thousands went to Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, especially that the Chaldean Church has dioceses—even if only a few—in most of these places. Others went to various Arab countries, including Egypt. But immigrant Iraqis are facing troubles with residence permits in their host countries. As the Apostolic visitator of the Chaldeans in Europe, I have personally witnessed their problems as they strive to integrate in their new communities and to earn a living. The scarcity of Chaldean churches in the immigration countries is also a problem since Chaldeans are very devoted to their Church. But it is fair to admit that Chaldean parishes in Germany, France and Scandinavia have done their best to serve the needs of the immigrant Chaldean community in these countries.
What about the late Middle East Catholic Churches International Synod which was headed by the Pope Benedict?
The term ‘Synod’ is Greek and means ‘walking together’. The Pope invited to this year’s Synod members of all Churches, not only Catholic ones. Two Muslim delegates represented Islam, and there was one representative of the Jewish religion. The timing of this year’s Synod was planned to draw the attention of the Western Churches to Middle Eastern Churches, to allow for help and interaction.
The Chaldean Catholic Church
The Chaldean Catholic Church is an Eastern particular church of the Roman Catholic Church, maintaining full communion with the Bishop of Rome and the rest of the Roman Catholic Church. The Chaldean Catholic Church presently comprises an estimated 1,500,000 Chaldean Christians. The current Patriarch is Cardinal Mar Emmanuel III Delly, elected in 2003. In October 2007 Delly became the first Chaldean Catholic to be elevated to the rank of Cardinal within the Catholic Church.
The main characteristics, boundaries and the name of the Chaldean Catholic Church were officially reconciled and legally defined in the middle of the 19th century. The Church, consequently, was recognised by the Ottoman authorities. The Chaldean Catholic Church has historical ties with the Nestorian Church in Iraq, but these two branches split 450 years ago.
The Chaldeans still embrace their East Syrian liturgy of Addai and Mari, performing it in Syriac (a language close to Aramaic, the language of Jesus).