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VATICAN LETTER Jan-21-2005 (910 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Despite reassurances, minority Christians in Iraq are afraid

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Each time a church in Iraq is attacked or a religious figure is threatened or kidnapped, most church leaders there quickly explain that the incident does not signal an assault against Christianity.

But Christians in Iraq are afraid.

As a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, Christians enjoyed relative religious freedom under former President Saddam Hussein's otherwise oppressive, though secular, rule.

The U.S.-led embargo, then war and occupation of Iraq that toppled Saddam's dictatorship brought further hardship to the people there. Damaged infrastructure and the reigning chaos have altered life for everyone.

"Christians live like all people in Iraq, they have the same worries," said the apostolic nuncio to Iraq, Archbishop Fernando Filoni.

"But given these attacks, Christians are even more worried; it's understandable the church finds itself in double the difficulty," he told reporters in Rome Jan. 18 between meetings with Vatican officials.

The added difficulty comes when certain fundamentalist groups see the church as a symbol or reflection of the Western world or when they assume church members are collaborators with the U.S.-led occupying forces.

Syrian-rite Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of Mosul, Iraq, told the Rome-based missionary news agency MISNA Jan. 18 that Christians feel unsafe because "the U.S. soldiers deployed in various parts of the country, and whom the local inhabitants see as occupants, have helped create a negative image of Christianity among people of other faiths."

But confusing the church in Iraq as being an arm of the West "is very offensive, especially to the Chaldeans," said Msgr. Robert L. Stern, secretary-general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Chaldean Catholics, who make up the majority of Iraq's Christians, "resent the idea they are being identified as Western because they are original inhabitants" in Iraq, dating back to "before the time of Mohammed and the coming of Islam," Msgr. Stern told Catholic News Service Jan. 21 in Rome.

But not everyone interprets the violence against Christians and their churches as being just part of the general chaos or as a confused sense of the enemy.

Dominican Father Mikhael Najib told Vatican Radio from Iraq Jan. 18 that "there is a true campaign under way against Christians."

He said religious, priests and lay Christians in Mosul have faced numerous threats that have escalated in number and intensity as the Jan. 30 date for scheduled elections in Iraq neared.

Mosul, in northern Iraq, is home to many Kurds and pro-Syrian groups.

Certain Muslim factions, including the mujahedin, were apparently threatening Christians as a way to pressure them "to not align themselves with either the pro-Syrian (groups) or the Kurds," Father Najib said.

Most Catholic leaders in Iraq and especially the Vatican want the Jan. 30 elections for a transitional National Assembly to go ahead as scheduled.

Archbishop Casmoussa told Vatican Radio he did not think this was "the right moment" for elections given the climate of insecurity. He spoke after unidentified Iraqis released him less than 24 hours after kidnapping him Jan. 17.

But Archbishop Filoni told CNS the vote "will be carried out," even though it will not be held "in a normal situation."

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said violence will prevent pockets of Iraqis from voting.

Whether the poll results should be considered valid if large numbers of people do not vote "will need to be seen according to how (the voting process) is carried out," Archbishop Filoni said.

Latin-rite Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad told CNS Jan. 17 that a substantial number of Christians are "going on vacation" over the election period, "so they have an excuse" not to vote.

Casting a vote is dangerous for the Christian community, he said.

"If they vote, the others will retaliate, but if they don't vote, they will be losing something, too," he said during a visit to the Vatican.

One informed Vatican official said the legitimacy of the January elections should be called into question if entire groups sit it out.

"Even in the U.S., 100 percent of the voters don't go to vote. But for example, if all Hispanics or African-Americans decided not to vote, would that simply be an 'imperfect' election? This is the problem," said the official.

More than 62 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite Muslim, while 34 percent is Sunni Muslim, a different branch of Islam.

Under Saddam, power was generally in the hands of the Sunni minority, while Shiite institutions were under strict control, and the mostly Sunni Kurds in the North were persecuted in their drive for autonomy.

A political struggle between Sunni and Shiite groups after elections could pose a real threat to Christians, Archbishop Sleiman said.

"The real danger is in the division. If the Sunni don't share in elections, it will be sure to cause problems," he said.

Sunnis "have to be more realistic. They have to share power; they cannot have it again like before," he said.

Whether elections will lead toward a stable interim government or "worst-case scenario, a civil war," Msgr. Stern said, the church and Catholic donor agencies will continue their work in Iraq.

"The church has been functioning in every part of the Islamic world, except Saudi Arabia, where it's banned," he said.

"I don't envisage any scenario that would totally block the church," though continued conflict and insecurity "might slow things down" in plans to expand the humanitarian and health care services the church offers those most in need, he added.


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