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    Iraqi Christians, Bearing Witness

    Love and Forgiveness amid Death and Revenge

    By Stephen M. Rasche

    August 11, 2020

    Over the past two decades Iraq may have been the most divided place on earth, with major war, sectarian violence, and horrific spasms of full-blown genocide.

    For the larger population of Arab Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the Kurds of the north, continuing violence and unrest is an extreme obstacle to even minimal stability and progress. But for the ancient and persecuted religious minorities of Iraq, mainly Christian and Yazidi, it threatens their very existence. In 2003, at the time of the US invasion, the Christian population was estimated at over 1.3 million. Recent reports suggest there may now be fewer than 200,000 after nearly two decades of recurring violence, persecution, and forced displacement.

    Though thus reduced, it seems likely that some remnant will endure, even if merely as caretakers of what were once Christian and Yazidi properties and interests. Both the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional government in Erbil have been made fully aware of the links between Western support for their uncertain regimes and the internal treatment of their remaining populations of religious minorities. In this environment, the full exodus of the Christians would greatly diminish whatever Western support remains for the existing governments in Iraq; it’s in their interest to retain and protect the minorities.

    But, as the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, has often said, there is a vast difference between “surviving” and “thriving.” For the Iraqi Christians to thrive, they must demonstrate to the world, to Iraq, and most importantly to themselves that their continued existence has a purpose beyond mere survival.

    In short, can these Christians in their works and their witness be the “salt of the earth” that their faith calls them to be? Can a lasting and meaningful solidarity with their fellow Iraqis and, critically, the larger Western world come from it? And whose solidarity, anyhow, would it be? That of a dysfunctional and divided West reaching out to an impoverished and brutalized minority of the East, or the other way around? Whose wisdom and experience, in the larger view, actually applies?

    Father Thabet Habib, parish priest of Karamles, Nineveh Province, Iraq, on his first entry to his church, Mar Addai, after ISIS had been pushed out three days earlier.

    Father Thabet Habib, parish priest of Karamles, Nineveh Province, Iraq, on his first entry to his church, Mar Addai, after ISIS had been pushed out three days earlier.
    Image courtesy of the author

    When isis overran the christian towns of Nineveh province in August 2014, more than 100,000 stunned and displaced Christians arrived at Archbishop Warda’s doorstep, and the church began ongoing efforts to help, to preserve enough human dignity and hope to keep them from fleeing the country altogether.

    The archbishop understood early on that their future depended on conveying to others not only that they should care about his people, but why. He began worldwide travel to spread understanding of their unique and indispensable place in the fabric of Iraq and the Middle East, from ancient times to the present.

    In a February 2018 speech at Georgetown University, Archbishop Warda told his American audience:

    In these past years I have been blessed to spend a great deal of time in this country. I have spent time learning to understand your brave and neverending commitment to equal rights for all citizens, and the power with which you utilize your freedom of speech. And I will tell you that were you to stand, truly stand, in the shoes of the Christians of Iraq, and those of many other countries of the Middle East, you would not accept for one day, one hour, one second, the status under which we live today – and under which we have lived for centuries. By our country’s very constitution, we are citizens of a lesser nature, deserving of tolerance from our self-appointed superiors, but at their discretion only and not in our own inherent right as equal children under a loving God.

    So where, we ask, is there hope for the future in any of this? Should an ancient, peaceful people be allowed to simply perish without comment, without objection? It seems an almost absurd question to ask in these modern times, does it not? Well then, we object. We object that one faith should have the right to kill another. We object.

    But objection is insufficient. Continuing to balance the moral equation, Warda said:

    We Christians should not remain passive and simply pray for the best. We too have a critical role to play, a role which brings us back to the beginnings of our faith.

    Ours is now a missionary role, to give daily witness to the teachings of Christ, to show the truth of Christ that we might provide a living example to our Muslim neighbors of a path to a world of forgiveness, of humility, of love, of peace. Lest there be any confusion here I am not speaking of conversion. Rather, I am speaking of the fundamental truth of forgiveness which we Christians of Iraq can share, and share from a position of historically unique moral clarity. We forgive those who murdered us, who tortured us, who raped us, who sought to destroy everything about us. We forgive them. In the name of Christ, we forgive them. We forgive them not only for the last four years, but for the last 1,400 years. And so we say to our Muslim neighbors, learn this from us. Let us help you heal. Your wounds are as deep as ours. We know this. We pray for your healing. Let us heal our wounded and tortured country together.

    One may ask, how can we Christians, in our diminished state, provide any example at all? So many of our people have fled, and so few of us are left. Some estimates have us now at barely 200,000, some even less. But among those Christians who are left, I can tell you there is a core of the faithful who will not leave. And while it is true that our numbers are now small, the Apostles themselves were far smaller. We take heart then from the first chapter of Acts: “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (Acts 1:14 RSVCE).

    This is now our role. All of us with one accord to devote ourselves. Not to exist in the shadows, waiting for the next handout of charity, hoping to be somehow passed by in the next round of violence. No. We will devote ourselves as our ancestors did in this same land nearly two thousand years ago when they first accepted the teachings of Christ in a world that was just as dangerous and uncertain as our present time. We Iraqi Christians are the children of Mesopotamia, and our ancient land is among the first places in the world where the teachings of Christ found good earth in which to grow. We will stay and bear our witness there and pray that we will see the end of all this darkness.

    Still, for the Christians of Iraq, their sense of removal from greater areas of global concern remains, even more so now in the twin shadows of pandemic and agonizing social upheaval in the West. Despite occasional international focus on religious persecution, the Christians of Iraq are often lost within the universe of social consciousness in the West, even their most legitimate advocates all too often automatically regarded as zealots or political partisans, the victims seeming to be forgotten entirely.

    And the Iraqi Christians themselves regard the present situation in the West with deep concern. Watching as righteous anger over real injustice spins off into destructive whirlwinds of hatred, desecration, and armed militias, those who have lived through the devastation of Iraq and the Middle East these past decades are aghast at the similarities. Asking me about the situation in the United States, an Iraqi Christian priest of Nineveh province – who lived through the atrocities there and saw it all begin – questioned me with sincere perplexity, “What example are these people following, ISIS?”

    He asked not ironically but from experience of horrific reality. One is compelled to wonder whether, if more people knew of the Iraqi genocides of 2014, the similarity would be evident not only to an obscure Iraqi priest.

    As the western world engages in its own tortured battle over which lives matter and what worth they hold, who bears responsibility and what are the proper resolutions of injustice, on the other side of the world the remaining Christians of Iraq, dwindling survivors of more than a millennium of persecution and recurring genocide, still hope for support in their own existential struggle.

    Historically, the Iraqi Christians have always been leaders in the fields of education and healthcare. Through these fields they have long sought to demonstrate their worth in society. In the few sincere attempts they have made at receiving direct Western aid, these two areas have been their primary focus. In Erbil within the past five years they have built a new hospital and a new university, both of which are open to all with a focus on the displaced. Throughout Iraq, Christian-run schools and health clinics serve all Iraqis and are prized for their value by Muslims and Christians alike.

    But in the end, all this risks a mere trading of services for place. Iraqi Christians have increasingly come to understand that if they are to stay now, with the reality of the ISIS genocide seared into their daily remembrance, if their presence is to have a truly lasting moral and practical value, the exchange required of them will demand something deeper still: their lonely adherence to a culture of life and forgiveness amid a land trapped in a recurring cycle of death and revenge. To demonstrate this by their witness and their lives may be their final mission.

    “Look,” said Chaldean priest Father Salar Kajo in December 2016, as we rumbled up the road to continue our work in the destroyed ancient Christian town of Batnaya, left in rubble and dust in the aftermath of a ferocious battle to expel ISIS a month earlier, “our people must forgive, and we must show these others that we can still love. If not this, then why should we be here?”

    Contributed By

    Stephen M. Rasche is vice chancellor of the Catholic University in Erbil and author of The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East.

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