Saturday, March 8, 2008

Iraqi Christians in Trouble

The Christian Science Monitor reports from Bartella, Iraq in an excellent article entitled "Iraqi Christians cling to last, waning refuges":

The bullets lay on the desk amid Bibles and rosaries. They're for two pistols owned by Father Ayman Danna.

"The only solution left for our people is to bear arms. We either live or die. We must be strong," says the Syriac Catholic priest at the Church of Saint George in Bartella, a northern Iraqi town in a swath of fertile land called the Nineveh Plain that now has the largest concentration of a dwindling Christian community.

The Christians who fled sectarian persecution that followed the US invasion in 2003 are now battling to hold onto one of their final refuges. They are increasingly besieged by Sunni Arab militants on one side and by Kurdish ultranationalists on the other – both of whom have different agendas for the area.

In a sign of how grim the situation has become, Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in nearby Mosul, was kidnapped last Friday and three of his companions were killed.

On Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said everything must be done to secure Archbishop Rahho's release, days after Pope Benedict XVI described his abduction as "abominable." Sources in the Nineveh Plain say the kidnappers are asking for $1 million in exchange for Rahho's release.

Rahho is among nearly a dozen priests who have been kidnapped in Mosul since 2003. Many more ordinary Christians have been abducted. In most cases, a ransom was paid to free the priests, the sources say. Three priests were assassinated.

The situation of Christians in Iraq today is tragic; they are a small minority of a country of over 25 million with no large militia funded by an outside power, as the Shi'as do in the form of the Badr Organization.

As I wrote in December last year (but never got to post):

Christmas is as suitable an occasion as any to remember fellow Christians around the world--especially in the Holy Land and Iraq, where they've been suffering a great deal lately.

From Bethlehem, AFP reports:

Hotels booked, parties planned and lights glittering, Bethlehem is preparing for tens of thousands of pilgrims to overcome Israeli occupation and give the town the best Christmas in years.

"We are hopeful this city will remain peaceful. I'm sure we'll have a wonderful Christmas," says Mayor Victor Batarseh, determined to look on the bright side sitting next to a plastic fir tree near Manger Square.

Tourism has grown 60 percent, and he expects 30,000-40,000 tourists -- double the number last year -- to visit the town where the Bible says Jesus was born in a stable after Mary and Joseph found no room at the inn.

Hotel occupancy has risen from 10-15 percent to 45 percent in the run-up to the season. Batarseh thinks the 2,000 beds in town will be fully booked this Christmas, reversing a long slump stemming from Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Katherine Korsak, a 36-year-old Roman Catholic from Poland admits she was initially scared about coming to Bethlehem, crossing through the towering cement wall separating Israel from the West Bank and passing military security.

"But this is such an important place for us. We came with joy. Christmas is so close and for us it's a spiritual experience here," she says, showing the postcards and wooden carvings she bought, feeling sorry for the vendors.

This optimism is nonetheless overshadowed by the continuing Israeli occupation:
Israel's separation barrier has confiscated farm land, uprooted olive trees, isolated the town from Jerusalem and helped to quicken emigration and keep unemployment at more than 50 percent. Israeli raids are still frequent.

One Bethlehem olive wood workshop is modelling Nativity scenes complete with a replica separation barrier blocking the wise men from getting to the stable. A British charity has virtually sold out its stocks to worried Christians.

"I hadn't understood to what extent land was taken and freedom of movement curtailed. They are literally imprisoned. It's a horrible thing to see a community aboslutely [sic] destroyed," said charity director Gareth Hewitt.

Estimates about the proportion of Christians left here vary from 15 to 25 percent. Batarseh says they were 92 percent before Israel was created in 1948.

Samir Qumsieh, general manager of Nativity TV Station, which broadcasts religious services, said "the nightmare in my head is emigration. It's deadly. Fifteen years from now, you will not find a Christian."

World churches should finance building projects to provide jobs and give young men a reason to stay. Instead he bemoans a "shameful default" by Christians in the world and growing secularism in Europe and the United States.

Truly, his lamentations need to be heeded. Christians in the West must not forget their co-religionists in the Holy Land, and the Middle East more generally.

The Independent's Donald Macintyre elaborates on the politically-minded woodworkers and their nativity scenes:

The Bethlehem craftsman Tawfiq Salsaa says simply that he was "inspired" to produce the first model with a "political meaning" he has turned out in more than half a century of continuous carving in olive wood and mother of pearl. "I was thinking about our problems and I thought that if Jesus was to come here today, he would find a wall. Then I started working on it. That's how it came to express our situation."

"It" is certainly the most striking crib you'll find this Christmas, deftly combining the nativity with the stark realities of Bethlehem 2,007 years later. Its beautifully carved wooden parts, detachable for easier packing and dispatch, depict the familiar scene of the infant Jesus, Joseph and Mary, the three wise men, complete with camels, and depending on the buyer's taste, a palm tree or a stable, to indicate that there was no room at the inn.

But in the middle, separating Magi from manger, is an unmistakable representation of the Israeli military's separation barrier, the forbidding eight-metre-high wall that snakes round Bethlehem from the terminal-like checkpoint at the northern entrance to the city and which leaves such an indelible impression on every first-time pilgrim on their way to the Church of Nativity from Jerusalem at this – or any other – time of the year.

Unsurprisingly, according to Macintyre, this work of art "has been denounced by various pro-Israel Jewish groups for what the United States-based Anti-Defamation League has called 'a shameful, cheap gimmick ... destroying the spirit of Christmas'". If only they knew what Christian and Muslim Palestinians have had to endure throughout Israel's splendid occupation, which has been far more detrimental to the spirit of Christmas in Palestine than any nativity scene.

Now we turn to the Christian community in the war-ravaged nation of Iraq, which isn't faring much better than the one in Palestine. Writing from Baghdad, the New York Times' Damien Cave informs us:

Inside the beige church guarded by the men with the AK-47s, a choir sang Christmas songs in Arabic. An old woman in black closed her eyes while a girl in a cherry-red dress, with tights and shoes to match, craned her neck toward rows of empty pews near the back.

“Last year it was full,” said Yusef Hanna, a parishioner. “So many people have left — gone up north, or out of the country.”

[F]or those who came to Sacred Heart for Mass on Christmas Eve, there seemed to be as much sadness as joy. Despite the improved security across Iraq, which some parishioners cited as cause for hope, the day’s sermon focused on continuing struggles.

Iraq’s Christians have fared poorly since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with their houses or businesses frequently attacked. Some priests estimate that as much as two-thirds of the community, or about one million people, have fled, making Sacred Heart typical. Though a handful have recently returned from abroad, only 120 people attended Mass on Monday night, down from 400 two years ago.

The service began with traditional hymns. Some songs were sung in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It was a reminder of the 2,000-year-old history of Iraq’s largest Christian group, the Chaldeans, an Eastern Rite church affiliated with Roman Catholicism.

Initially the sermon seemed equally traditional, beginning as many do with phrases like “This day is not like other days.”

Yet the priest, the Rev. Thaer al-Sheik, soon turned to more local themes. He talked about the psychological impact of violence, kidnapping and a lack of work. He condemned hate. He denounced revenge.

“We must practice being humane to each other,” he said. “Living as a Christian today is difficult.”

A few moments later he asked, “If the angel Gabriel comes today and says Jesus Christ is reborn, what do we do? Do we clap or sing?”

His parish, quiet and somber — with the drab faces of a funeral, not a Mass on Christmas Eve — took the question seriously. And responded.

“We ask him for forgiveness,” said a woman, her head covered by a black scarf. Her voice was just loud enough for everyone to hear.

Then another woman raised her voice. “We ask for peace,” she said.

The dire straits Iraqis of all faiths find themselves in is truly tragic and should stir the world to help them. Not just the people still managing to survive inside the country, but also the millions of refugees outside it. Hundreds of thousands of these refugees in Syria are facing food shortages.

The most cruelly ironic thing of all is what "justifications" are used to continue the Iraq war. They aren't the same ones given at the start of the war; those purveyors of honesty and wisdom otherwise known as U.S. government officials knew full well that their allegations against the Iraqi regime were completely false. The rationale for war has shifted from weapons of mass destruction and links between Iraq and al-Qaida to spreading democracy and freedom and bringing peace to the battered country. If only that were so...

[A broken link and some bad HTML were fixed in this quote.]

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