Saturday, 15 March 2008

Plight of Iraq’s Christians being ignored

Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho’s photograph is carried at his funeral in Iraq on Friday

I was worried five years ago, as the war in Iraq was about to begin, and we all saw images of President Bush speaking in a Church, with a bright, fluorescent cross behind him. And I was disgusted as he glibly used that dreaded word Crusade.

For ordinary decent Christians across the world, this war could never be a Crusade. We could never think it a Christian virtue to take up arms to attack our Muslim brothers and sisters, or to take up arms to advance the ideology of a government that consistently fails to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to set the prisoner free.

The Bush government consistently turns its back on those clear Christian duties when it starves the hungry children of Iraq, when it fails to provide adequate health care, even for war veterans, and instead of setting prisoners free subjects them to cruel torture – indeed, vetoes every effort by Congress to limit the kinds of torture it can use.

And Amnesty International has shown this week how unashamedly complicit in this Ireland has been.

If President Bush wanted to con Christians into thinking this was going to be a war on behalf of Christians, let me remind you today of the consequences for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East.

On Thursday last, the Catholic Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was found dead in a shallow grave in that northern Iraq city. At the end of February, this gentle 65-year-old prelate was abducted while he prayed the Lenten Stations of the Cross in his church, praying in Aramaic, the language of Jesus himself.

There could be no starker statement that the war over the past five years has not been a war to create democracy and to introduce pluralism. Instead, the west’s war in Iraq has created a ruthlessly intolerant Iraq where Christians and other minorities are targeted for their faith.

As Cardinal Delly, the Patriarch of Babylon, wept at yesterday’s funeral for his martyred friend, he wept at the bitter fate of Iraq’s ancient Christian Church, one of the oldest faith communities in Iraq.

Many other Iraqi Christians have been terrorised and murdered over the last four years: Father Paulos Iskander was beheaded, Father Mundhir al-Dayr assassinated in his Protestant church, Father Ragheed Ganni and three deacons gunned down and their car booby trapped as they went about their pastoral work.

The list includes many lay people; even Christian children have turned up dead after being tortured.

In the past five years, from southern Basra to northern Kirkuk, all across Iraq, the Christian community has suffered brutally. Forty churches have been bombed, mostly in Baghdad and Mosul. In the once religiously integrated neighbourhood of Dora in Baghdad, 2,000 Christian families have been told to leave or to face death.

If the Americans tell us they have brought law and order to Iraq, let us expose their lies. Criminal gangs have found easy prey in the religious minorities, who have been left defenceless.

Most of Iraq’s Christians have been driven out – whether they are Chaldean Catholic, Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox or Protestant.

Iraq has been home for many centuries for Christians and Mandeans (or Sabeans), the descendants of the followers of John the Baptist. But in the past five years, under the very eyes of Western troops, they are being victimised and obliterated.

Although Christians only account for 4 per cent of the population of Iraq, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says 40 per cent of Iraqi refugees are Christians. They seek temporary refuge in neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Turkey.

When they arrive in Britain and Ireland, they’re told Iraq is a democracy, Iraq is a safe country, Iraq has been made safe by the US and Britain – and they’re told to go home. Go home to what – to victimisation, to kidnap, to murder, and to eventual annihilation?

A Crusade has been turned into genocide. And yet George Bush continues to claim he is a Christian.

Apart from Christians, remnants of Iraq’s other non-Muslim communities are all rapidly shrinking into extinction: Jews number in the double digits (there were only seven in Baghdad at the last count); Mandeans count about 5,000, and have been advised by their leaders to leave; Yizidis now number less than 500,000. They all suffer severe persecution because of their religious status and their numbers continually shrink as their members flee into exile.

Archbishop Rahho was a dynamic leader, who inspired the youth of his diocese, cared for the sick, spoke out for peace. Canon Andrew White, who represents the Archbishop of Canterbury in Iraq, said this week: “We are devastated.”

Condolences have poured in from around the world, from Christians and Muslims, from people of all faiths, and people of none.

But the Bush administration has yet to acknowledge that the Christians and other minorities are being persecuted in Iraq. That would destroy the image of the Bush Administration, and deny any credibility for remaining there as an occupying force.

The Bush administration has no policies to address the needs of these people in Iraq and has no desire to help them find refuge abroad. Their villages are without police, without security, without stability. They live in fear. No senior administration official in Washington has ever even met their exiled leaders in America to hear their views, or to offer them hope.

The archbishop knew the risks of staying in Iraq. But he told his people that he “wanted to remain in Iraq until the end.” Because of the West’s war in Iraq for the past five years, that end may well be near.

Canon Patrick Comerford was speaking as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at the protest march in Dublin on 15 March 2008 organised by the Irish Anti-War Movement to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq war.

Celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day

An icon of Saint Patrick from the exhibition of Greek icons currently running at the Gordon Gallery in Derry

Patrick Comerford

My Greek friends are great at celebrating their name days. But, should I be celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day today (Saturday), or on Monday? Or are you confused by the changes in Church calendar, which appear to have been ignored by the organisers of parades, and the fleet of cabinet ministers dispatched across the globe?

In an editorial on the conflicts between Saint Patrick’s Day and Holy Week, the Church of Ireland Gazette says this weekend:

“There is confusion throughout the length and breadth of the island this weekend as people mark the first holiday weekend of the year, but wonder when they should be celebrating St Patrick’s Day.

“Because 17th March this year falls on the Monday in Holy Week, the bishops of both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church agreed that religious celebrations for St Patrick’s Day would take place two days earlier, with the saint being honoured instead on Saturday 15th March.

“Liturgists point out that the days of Holy Week and Easter Week rank above all others, and liturgical norms require a feast day in those two weeks to be moved to the earliest available date after Easter. This year, that available date is 1st April, because the Annunciation is being moved to 31st March. And so, 15th March became a better option for St Patrick’s Day, with many hoping any conflict with secular and civic events could be minimised.

“However, there are no sensitivities in secular civic society when it comes to the significance of Holy Week. St Patrick’s Day parades are going ahead in many cities, towns and villages on Monday, which remains an official holiday – although the London parade takes place on Sunday, and in many cities in the United States, including Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, St Louis and Seattle, they’ve managed to get it right, moving their parades to Saturday. Even in Savannah – where they have the largest attendance in the world at a St Patrick’s Day parade – religious sensitivities inspired all involved to move the parade to Friday 14th March.

“This is the first time since 1913 that St Patrick’s Day falls in Holy Week, and the first time it has been moved in the Church calendar since 1940 – when 17th March was Palm Sunday and St Patrick’s Day was marked on 3rd April. This coincidence will not happen again for another 152 years, when St Patrick’s Day will fall in Holy Week once again in 2160.

“Writing in the Word magazine, Prof. Vincent Twomey of Maynooth said that ‘it is time to reclaim St Patrick’s Day as a church festival.’ He questioned the need for ‘mindless, alcohol-fuelled revelry,’ and argued that ‘it is time to bring the piety and the fun together.’ Admittedly, this year’s change in the Church calendar does not provide this opportunity. But perhaps it does provide a timely reminder for Christians in Ireland today that the central truths of the faith St Patrick brought to this island – the life, passion, death and Resurrection of Christ – are more important than any commemoration – secular, civic or religious – of the saint’s life.”

And to that I say: “Amen” and “Hear, hear.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College