ACN News: Tuesday, 29th September 2009
Iraq: Is nowhere safe?
By John Pontifex
CHRISTIANS in Iraq are beginning to flee the only place where they thought they were safe – their ancient homelands in the Nineveh plains.
Reports have come in from clergy in the north of the country that in the past few months, a slow but steady emigration has got under-way from the villages and towns close to Mosul city, which trace their heritage back to the earliest Christian centuries.
It comes after warnings of another blow to the Church expected in the immediate run-up to the January 2010 general elections.
With government ministers publicly expecting a surge in violence as people prepare to go to the polls, Church leaders fear that a new security crisis could spark another mass exodus of Christians, which in some areas may mean the departure of the last remaining faithful.
In an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, leading Iraqi priest Fr Bashar Warda made clear that Christians in the Nineveh region are now beginning to feel threatened by the kind of security problems which have blighted the lives of people in so many other parts of the country.
(A priest who assists the Christians in the Nineveh plains, northern Iraq)
Speaking from northern Iraq today (Monday, 28th September), Fr Warda told the charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians: “I am sad to say that the emigration of Christian families that we have seen in places like Mosul and Baghdad has now begun to affect the Nineveh area.
“We are not seeing – at least not yet – a large emigration from places like Alqosh and other [Nineveh] villages but it is definitely happening.”
Fr Warda said he could not give precise estimates of the number leaving the region but he said that a number of exclusively Christian villages have each been losing 30 or 40 faithful every month, sometimes more.
The news has added significance because the many almost completely Christian villages in the region had become a refuge for faithful under threat in other parts of the region.
When thousands of Christians fled for their lives following a spate of killings and anti-Christian propaganda in Mosul about a year ago, many took refuge in the Nineveh plains.
Fr Warda, who is rector of St Peter’s Major Seminary in Ankawa, outside Erbil, the provincial capital of the Kurdish north of Iraq, went on to say that the emigration from Nineveh is expected to speed up after a popular doctor was kidnapped at her home in Bartala, one of the most important towns in the region.
Dr Mahasin Bashir was freed yesterday (Sunday, 27th September) from the town of Baashiqa, about 10 miles from her home in Bartala.
The abduction of the gynaecologist has, according to Fr Bashar, “sent major shockwaves” across the region, which until recently has been largely free from kidnappings, explosions and other incidents affecting other parts of the country.
Concerns that the violence has spread to Nineveh will be a challenge to many Iraqi observers who report that terrorists linked to radical political movements have deliberately kept the region safe to encourage Christians to stay there in a bid to create a so-called safe haven for the faithful.
Christians in Iraq, who numbered 1.4 million at the last census in 1987, are now down to less than 400,000 according to latest estimates.
At least 800,000 Christians – proportionately far higher than other religious groups – have fled the country since the security-breakdown of the immediate post-Saddam years.
Fr Warda went on warn that a sudden escalation in violence in the run-up to the general elections due on 30th January 2010 elections may prove catastrophic for the future survival of the Church with yet more Christians leaving the country.
He said: “Of course it would be dangerous to speculate but if the violence becomes worse, it will seriously endanger our situation.
“It is clear that whenever a problem suddenly gets worse, the first solution the Christians look for is emigration.”
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 130 countries throughout the world.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 46.5 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide.
For more information, please contact the Australian office of ACN on (02) 9679-1929. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Aid to the Church in Need PO Box 6245 Blacktown DC NSW 2148. Web: www.aidtochurch.org