The Latin-rite Archbishop of Baghdad Jean Sleiman has called on President-elect Barack Obama to make the protection of religious minorities in Iraq a priority for his administration. The request follows significant violence against Christians in Mosul.
Minority religious groups in Iraq are being politically marginalized, with the Iraqi parliament announcing a significant reduction in seats allotted for members of such groups for the upcoming elections. Recent allegations also claim political involvement in the October attacks on Christians in Mosul.
Archbishop Sleiman spoke by phone with the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.
“It is very important that the U.S. should help protect minority rights in Iraq,” he said. “Pressure needs to be put on [the] government in Iraq to respect the needs not only of Christians but all minorities.
“I hope that the U.S. will encourage Iraq to improve and become a country where the rule of law is upheld, where there is equality and where human rights are at the heart of the constitution.”
The archbishop reported that Christians desperately needed increased security in Mosul, where at least 1,500 refugees have returned after weeks in displacement camps or other temporary residences. More than 15,000 fled Mosul last month after a surge of violence and intimidation.
Early Wednesday morning, two devout middle-aged Syrian Catholic sisters named Lamyaa and Walaa Sabih died after being stabbed to death in their home in Mosul. Their mother was also attacked and was in critical condition at a hospital.
On policemen’s arrival at their house, a security car was bombed, killing three policemen and badly damaging the victims’ home.
Walaa was married with two teenage children, a boy and a girl.
According to Aid to the Church in Need, the incident has caused doubts about the success of government attempts to improve security in Mosul by massively increasing police presence there.
Fr. Bashar Warda, who has overseen ACN emergency relief programs for Mosul refugees, said the attack was having a “dramatic” effect on the faithful, who now fear another wave of attacks.
“It is clear that many would think of leaving Mosul again. The government is trying to say that the city is now safe and then suddenly you have incidents like this,” he said, adding that the attack had taken place in an area with tight security.
“The police have acted very speedily to calm the situation but it is clear the attackers knew what they were doing,” the priest said.
“The government is trying to fool the outside world into thinking it is doing good things and that the Christians are safe. In reality the situation is really very challenging,” a local Catholic leader told ACN.
Archbishop Sleiman in his interview before the latest attacks voiced concerns that Christians had been exploited by some leading political groups alleged to have colluded in the campaign to expel Christians from Mosul.
In a joint statement last month, Iraqi bishops stated that the “tragic events in Mosul” were “part of a political plan” aimed at the “division and fragmentation of the country.”
On November 3 Iraq’s parliament allocated only six of its more than 400 seats for religious minorities, with only three of those seats for Christian minorities. The six minority seats are a decrease from the fifteen originally planned.
“The political parties here are not concerned about the rights of minorities. They think more about their own tactics and strategies,” Archbishop Sleiman claimed.
The archbishop also spoke of the upcoming change in the American presidency, saying:
“I do not detect a real enthusiasm for Obama. People here think that a change in president will not bring about a change in strategy – maybe in style….One Arabic online newspaper ran an article with a headline – ‘Bush was not a savage and Obama will not be an angel.’ I think this means the journal believes Bush was not as bad as some say and Obama will not be as good as people think.
“People don’t know quite what to think of Obama. His charismatic figure and his victory impressed everybody. But most people will be watching and waiting to see how the situation develops,” the archbishop said.