Chaldean archbishop does not believe Christians will be gone from Iraq

IMAGE: CNS photo/Khalil Al Anei, EPA

By Dale Gavlak

HARISSA, Lebanon (CNS) — Despite
predictions that Christianity could be wiped out of his war-torn homeland
within five years, an Iraqi Catholic cleric said he believes in God’s ultimate

“This prognosis may be of
thinkers or politicians, but not of the believers,” Chaldean Archishop Yousif
Mirkis of Kirkuk told Catholic News Service at an April trauma counseling
training in this Lebanese mountain retreat town.

“When our faith reaches the
edge, even to the point of death, there is always an intervention of God,
something amazing happens,” said the archbishop. “This is the faith
of the Old Testament witnessed in Exodus and (the) parting of the Red Sea, and
in the New Testament with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, I don’t believe
those who say that there won’t be Christians in Iraq.”

Iraq’s Christian population numbered
about 1.4 million during the rule of Saddam Hussein, but figures now hover
between 260,000 and 300,000 as political instability and persecution by Islamic
State militants have drastically reduced their numbers. Other religious
minorities, such as the Yezidis, also have been targets of vicious persecution
by the extremists.

Half of the remaining Christians
in Iraq struggle to remain true to their faith or flee to other countries due
to dangers the Islamic State poses, including forced conversion to Islam. Every
year, the Christian population decreases by 60,000-100,000, according to the
international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, in a report issued
late last year.

Archishop Mirkis has argued
otherwise from his experience of helping those who have fled extremist
persecution and are displaced within their homeland. He said healing in his
diocese to those traumatized has taken a number of forms, whether using
puppets, theatrical scenes, art, song and poetry as well as group “talk.”

“We try to use all the
possibilities in our community and especially spiritual services such as
masses, Bible study groups. The best thing is not to give up. We shall
overcome,” he said of the 130,000 who fled from the 2014 Islamic State
militant takeover of Mosul and the Ninevah Plain. “There are too many
questions for us about Daesh and what is to follow,” he said, using the
militants’ name in Arabic.

“But this is not the first
time we experienced this kind of persecution,” he said, noting past times
of Christian persecution.

The Aid to the Church in Need
report references an exodus from Iraq of Christians fearing ethnic cleansing
and potential genocide at an unprecedented pace while the world has stood by.
It warned that “Christianity is on course to disappear from Iraq within possibly
five years — unless emergency help is provided on a massively increased scale
at an international level.”

In late April, Islamic State
militants blew up Mosul’s iconic clock tower church, known as al-Latin or al-Sa’ah
Church. Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako denounced the destruction.

“We have received news that
the ISIS elements blew up the archaeological Latin church belonging to the
Dominican fathers, located in the center of Mosul. We strongly condemn the
targeting of the Christian Church and also condemn the targeting of mosques and
other houses of worship,” he said.

The patriarch urged Iraqi
politicians to speed up the national reconciliation process, while imploring
the international community and religious authorities to do more to end ongoing
sectarian conflict in order to protect the country and its citizens.

But the storming of Iraq’s
parliament building by Shiite protesters in late April underscored the extreme
fragility of the government and plunged Iraq into a deeper political crisis as
divisions spread not just among Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds, but splinter
each grouping from within.

Archbishop Mirkis said: “Those
who decide to emigrate are making a very hard decision. Those who stay, we try
to help them.”

He said his diocese has taken in
800 families and 400 university students who want to continue their studies in
Iraq, even though their parents have emigrated.

“Christians who are stable
in Iraq discovered that they can do more than be Christian only. By welcoming
the displaced and helping them, many have overcome the trauma they have
experienced,” he said. “I spend all my time, not only with material
needs of the traumatized, but also addressing their psychological and spiritual

“Our faith is very rich. It
dies, if you don’t use it,” he said. “Please use the faith you have.
Don’t let it die inside you.”

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