Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Pope has a Christian responsibility to protect Iraq

The kidnapping and killing of Paulos Faraj Rahho, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, in March this year was a tragedy for all Iraqis, not only the country’s Christian minority. Such acts are designed to create fear and mistrust between communities that have lived together for millennia. We must not allow criminal elements from inside and outside Iraq to destroy the country’s unique religious and cultural heritage.

The Christian presence in Iraq long pre-dates the arrival of Christianity in many parts of Europe, the continent which still feels it owns and defines the Christian tradition. I myself have happy memories of Christianity in Iraq. As a Muslim pupil at Baghdad College, a secondary school run by Jesuits, I received an excellent academic and moral education. I had Muslim, Christian and Jewish friends and my teachers taught me to value our shared humanity above sectarian divisions. Never has such an attitude been more sorely needed in Iraq than now.

Iraqi Christians have given so much to their mother country, often acting as a bridge between Europe and Islamic civilisation. The Christian community has always valued education and has produced some of Iraq’s most distinguished lawyers, doctors and professors.

Perhaps the most important thing about Iraq’s Christians is the fact that they have never sought to distance themselves from their Muslim friends and neighbours. This can be seen clearly in politics – never have the Christians sought to establish or support a narrowly based, ‘Christians only’ party. Instead, when permitted, they expressed their political ideals in a secular manner, supporting those parties they believed had the best social and economic policies which would benefit all Iraqis.

The Pope has a responsibility to speak out on behalf of Iraqi Christians who are suffering violence and intimidation. But it is important to remember that all Iraqis are victims of the chaos that has been visited upon their homeland. Muslims grieve and bleed as much as the Christians and I am concerned that one community’s suffering is not ‘valued’ more than another’s.

Political and religious leaders in Europe and America should not use the issue of Christian vulnerability to undermine Iraq’s unity. In the Middle East we are all too familiar with these divide and rule policies. During the nineteenth century the European colonial powers set themselves up as ‘protectors’ of certain Christian minorities. This approach destabilised the region, exacerbated religious divisions and often ended up placing the favoured minority in peril.

Perhaps the best known case of European support for Christian minorities backfiring is Lebanon where the Maronite community became strongly identified with French power and influence. The resulting mistrust and bitterness between Maronites and other religious communities has played a major role in Lebanon’s inability to find social and political peace.

It would be tragic if Iraqi Christians, who have for so long participated wholeheartedly in the country’s affairs, came to be seen as ‘outsiders’ by the Muslim majority. They an integral part of Iraq, an enduring strand in its identity. Their proud tradition of scholarship, patriotism and humanism must not be lost to us. I pray the Pope can use his wisdom to heal misunderstandings, not create divisions.

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