Monday, December 26, 2011

Keeping in Mind This Christmas the Christians of the Near East

Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Mar Emmanuel III Delly
celebrates Christmas Liturgy in Mosul.  Priests from
Arlington VA, note the altar girl serving mass on the
picture's right. 
We think of the Iraqi people as Muslims but before the second Iraqi war there were approximately one million Christians in Iraqi, mostly members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, or the Syrian Orthodox Church.  Christianity came to what was once Assyria in the second and third centuries and despite the Muslim conquest in the seventh century and subsequent centuries of Muslim Rule under the Baghdad Caliphate and then the Ottoman Empire, vibrant Christian communities continued to exist and even flourish especially in the towns and villages of the so-called Nineveh plain centering around modern day Mosul.  
     The Chaldean Catholic Church has been in formal communion with Rome since at least the early seventeenth century.  (It’s previous status was ambiguous, especially after the Council of Florence in 1445, but it can be said that it was never in formal schism.) The current head of the Chaldean Catholic Church is Cardinal Mar Emmanuel III Delly, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans.  Worldwide there are about a million and a half Chaldean Catholics, six hundred thousand of whom lived in Iraq before the most recent war.  (There were also about 400,000 other Christians, not Chaldean Catholics but Latin (Roman Rite) Catholics, Syrian Catholics, and Syrian Orthodox.)     The Chaldean Catholic Church maintains  a seminary in Baghdad.   The Patriarch resides in Mosul. The Syriac Orthodox Church comes from Apostolic times and the Patriarchate of Antioch which parted ways with Greek Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism when it rejected the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451) regarding the manner in which humanity and divinity are united in Jesus of Nazareth.  Syriac Catholicism separated from Syriac Orthodoxy in the late eighteenth century when Mar Ignatius Michael III Jarweh, Bishop of Aleppo who had reconciled to Rome was elected Patriarch.  Several bishops who opposed union with Rome rejected his election and chose an alternative candidate pledged to retain the autonomy and separation of the Syriac Church.  The followers of Mar Ignatius thus became known as Syriac Catholics; those of his rival, Mar Matta ben Abdel Ahad Saalab bishop of Mosul are Syriac Orthodox.   Latin Catholics are fewer and their Archbishop is Jean Sleiman, a Lebanese Discalced Carmelite. There are also smaller communities of Armenian and Maronite Christians.  
      I remember that about two weeks before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 that I was at a dinner party with a couple who are Arab Christians—the husband Maronite, the wife Copt.  They were very upset at the impending war as they foretold—and foretold correctly—that a war would destabilize the entire region and have ominous consequences for Arab Christians in Iraq and throughout the region.  They could not have been more right. The late Pope John Paul II also forecast a dangerous shift of power in which Christians would suffer as a consequence of the American determination to go to war.  The Pope sent Cardinal Pio Laghi, a family friend of the Bushes, to speak with President Bush but it was to no avail.  The plight of Christians in the region has grown steadily worse since the American invasion.  
      For centuries the Christians of Iraq were give the protected status of dhimmi by the various Muslim overlords and the various Christian communities existed in peace and even thrived.  Even under the regime of Sadaam Hussein they remained protected and Chaldean Catholic Tariq Aziz served as Foreign Minister and then as Deputy Prime Minister.  The Second Iraqi War (“Mr. Cheney’s War”)  totally destabilized Iraq and not only pitted Shiite against Sunni in a bloody civil war but left the Christian minority without any protection.  American strategy only made this worse when, in order to take pressure off Baghdad, Mosul became the center of conflict.  The majority of Iraqi Christians lived in Mosul and surrounding villages and towns. Militants suspected the Christians of treasonous ties to the NATO forces whom they viewed as foreign invaders.  Terrorists began targeting the Christian communities with abductions and murders of religious leaders.  Father Ragheed Azis Ganni was killed in Mosul in 2007 along with three subdeacons at Mass.   Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped in 2008 and found murdered several days later.  Several of his companion including chauffer and bodyguard were also killed.  Christians were threatened with death if they did not abandon their homes and their businesses.  Churches have been bombed and religious institutions destroyed.  To date about 40% of Iraqi Christians—400,000—have fled the country and most of the remainder live in fear and with hope of escaping their ancestral homeland. 

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