Cardinal hopes church's history of survival in Iraq will help its future

IMAGE: CNS photo/Robert Duncan

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — To understand the current situation
in Iraq — the evolving and complex conflicts there, and the fear and resilience
of its Christians — one has to understand its past, which is often ignored or
unknown in the West, said a former papal representative to the country.

“History is itself a victory over ignorance,
marginalization and intolerance; it is a call for respect and to not repeat the
mistakes of the past,” said Cardinal Fernando Filoni in his book,
“The Church in Iraq.”

The book is also “a testimonial” to the victims
of “the Islamic terrorism of ISIS,” he told the Christians and
non-Christians he met when Pope Francis sent him as his personal representative
to encounter and pray with these shaken communities that fled the Islamic State.

That brief visit in 2014 was a homecoming of sorts.

The Italian cardinal, now 71, lived in Iraq during a
time of great tension and turmoil. St. John Paul II made him the apostolic
nuncio — the pope’s diplomatic representative — to Iraq and Jordan in January
2001. Several months later, after 9/11, the United States administration
started building pressure against Iraq, pushing for military action.

St. John Paul firmly opposed military intervention and, despite
the fact that he sent peace-seeking missions to Washington and Baghdad, the
United States attacked.

“Not even the stern warning of the saint-pope could
deter President George W. Bush from his purpose,” the cardinal wrote. He
said the day of the invasion, March 19, 2003, became “a very sad day for
Iraq and for the whole world.”

The nunciature never shut down, not even during the airstrikes
and occupation or the ensuing chaos of looting and revenge.

It was during his tenure there in Baghdad, which ended in
2006, that Cardinal Filoni went through the nunciature’s archives, which housed
“a rich history” of documentation and letters, detailing the history
of the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Iraq and the establishment of an
episcopal see in Baghdad in the 16th century.

“Naturally, this caught my eye,” he said, and
the idea for a book emerged there in the wealth of material buried in an

The book’s chapters take a historical overview of the
church’s long presence in Mesopotamia, dating back to the time of St. Thomas
the Apostle, and looks at how the expanding early Christian communities there
evolved, faced internal divisions and challenges, and still shared their unique

Looking at the church’s journey in the past also made him
realize: “This is unknown to us. And so I thought, writing a book that
traced, especially for us in the West, the birth, the evolution of this history
up to present day could be … of service to Christianity in the Middle East,
particularly in Mesopotamia, which is suffering because of expulsions, persecution
or discrimination.”

Published first in Italian in 2015, The Catholic
University of America Press is releasing the English edition toward the end of
July in the United States and in mid-August in the United Kingdom.

The cardinal spoke to Catholic News Service in Rome
during an interview at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples,
where he has served as prefect since 2011.

The book looks particularly at how minorities and the
country as a whole suffered invasions, despots and Western hegemony, and yet
tenaciously held on to its cultures and religious identities.

“In order to defend their identity within this great
sea of Islam, Christians had to withdraw into themselves, keeping their own
language, which dates back to the time of Jesus, that is, Aramaic,” he
said. While, over the centuries, the everyday spoken language developed into
different dialects, the liturgy still maintained the original form of ancient Aramaic,
he added.

Even though Christians held on to their traditions and
culture, they were “truly open” and didn’t ignore the world around
them, learning and speaking Arabic, for example, he said.

This kind of everyday contact between Christians and
their Muslim neighbors also led to a sharing of ideas, influence and mutual
respect on the local level, Cardinal Filoni said.

For example, he recalled when he lived in Baghdad, he
visited a church dedicated to Mary in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.

“I was astounded by the fact that the walls of this
church were dirty” with what looked like handprints smudged everywhere, he

When he asked church members, “‘Why don’t you clean
this?’ They said ‘No! Because these are the signs of the Muslim women who come
to pray to Mary, mother of Jesus, and as a sign of their prayer, they leave an
imprint of their hand.'”

Since Mary is revered by Muslims, he said many expectant
mothers visit this church to pray to her for protection.

“This influence, for example of Mary, in people’s
daily lives” and similar devotions to prayer, fasting and charity, fostered
closer relationships, mutual respect and understanding between Christians and
Muslims, he said.

“A modern Iraq, full of history, of possibility and
responsibility — not least because of its huge oil resources, which continue
to be a source of discord, jealousy, envy, and oppression — should be
defended, helped, and supported more than ever,” the cardinal concludes in
his book.

While the primary responsibility for allowing Muslim,
Christian and other minorities to return to their country and help build its
future belongs to Iraq’s three largest communities — Shi’ites, Sunnis and
Kurds — the rest of the world is also “in some way responsible for this
crisis,” he told CNS.

“We all have to assume responsibility to rebuild,
which is very difficult, because once people emigrate, they very rarely go back,”
he said. “But if we can still preserve the coexistence of these even small
communities (that remain), this will benefit peace, which is essential so that
Christians don’t keep leaving behind this ancient land so rich in culture,
tradition and history.”

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Editors: Book can be ordered through the Catholic University
of America Press website: or call 1-800-537-5487. In Europe, the
CUA book distributor is Eurospan: or call +44 0

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Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.


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