Two Iraqi archbishops are seeking “faith and hope” in Iraq, while bewailing the continuing exodus of Christians from the country amid continued violence.
Archbishop Yousif Mirkis heads the Chaldean Archdiocese of Kirkuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region.
He said that he “quite definitely” fears the end of Christianity in Iraq.
“We are in the process of disappearing, just as the Christians in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and North Africa have disappeared. And even in Lebanon they now constitute only a minority,” he told the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need July 8.
Archbishop Mirkis said he is not resigned to defeat, but “trying to be realistic.”
“There is still the hope that faith brings,” he said. While he himself will not leave Iraq, he said he understands why young Christians are leaving in the wake of so many violent deaths.
“In the past ten years we have lost a bishop and six priests. In addition there are about a thousand of the faithful who have died in attacks.”
“Not everybody shares the faith and the hope.”
The Christian population in Iraq has plummeted to 400,000, down from about 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Their situation has worsened further since June, when insurgents with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant seized a sizeable amount of territory in north-western Iraq.
According to U.N. figures, acts of violence and terrorism killed at least 2,400 Iraqis and 1,500 civilians in June alone. The violence has also driven more than 1 million people from their homes.
Kurdish forces have separately moved into cities like Kirkuk and other areas abandoned by the Iraqi Army. A political rift has opened between Iraq’s Kurdish leaders and others in the government headed by prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, the BBC reports.
Archbishop Matti Warda of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil said that it will be “difficult” to keep Christians in the Kurdistan region, given the lack of homes and jobs.
However, he believes that there is a future for Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Not only is there security here, but the government is prepared to listen to our concerns. This became evident in the present refugee crisis,” the archbishop told Aid to the Church in Need.
“The Kurdish government has opened the borders to Christians.”
He acknowledged that this situation has come about because Christians will not return home.
“When we approached the government here we made clear that the Christian families had no intention of returning. The Kurds said that they would of course prefer it if the Christians were able to remain in their homeland where their possessions are. But in this situation they made immigration easier.”
He that since the beginning of June his eparchy has cared for about 400 Christian families from the Mosul area.
“Either they will stay here in Kurdistan or they'll go to another country, to Turkey or Lebanon. Many have already begun to do this unfortunately.”
Archbishop Warda said that the ruling parties in Kurdistan follow a secular tradition that helps the Christians’ situation. While there are people in Kurdistan with “narrow views,” he said, “that is not the government’s attitude.”
He also encouraged people to be realistic about the existence of extremist movements and activities.
“Such movements are rising in the whole region. They will also reach Kurdistan. Quite definitely. But at least the government's keeping an eye on the problem.”
He said he believed that the government would intervene before hostilities reach Christian towns.
“We must in any case be prepared.”
Archbishop Mirkis said the disappearance of Christians would destabilize Iraq’s “social ecology.” Their churches have traditionally maintained many schools and hospitals. They have always been “open-minded, multilingual and oriented towards the West,” disproportionately serving as medical specialists, engineers, intellectuals, writers, and journalists.
“Because of the continuous emigration we are of course losing our dynamism,” the archbishop said.
He said it is “not easy to be a Christian in Iraq today.”
The archbishop said the founding of Israel in 1948 “traumatized the Middle East.” The assassination of the last Iraqi monarch, whose reign provided many freedoms to Christians, was followed by more political assassinations, a 1967 war against Israel, and the Iran-Iraq War.
“All this generated instability and emigration.”
The rise of ISIL terrorists is a new situation, he acknowledged, but it must be understood “in a broader context.” He said that antagonism between the West and the Islamic world has replaced the antagonism between the West and the Soviet Union.
“It is a war between the modern and the retrograde. For example, the Salafists refer back, even in their name, to their seventh century ancestors, whom they wish to imitate,” he said, referring to a school of Islam common among some extremist Muslims.
Christians’ Western orientation is one reason extremists hate them, the archbishop agreed.
“But the jihadists don’t hate only them, but also all those who do not agree with their worldview.”
Archbishop Mirkis said that the Muslim elite has been weakened alongside Christians, with “disastrous consequences.”
He said that the “best antidotes” to extremism are dialogue and culture.
“The more culture a country has the less susceptible it is to fanaticism.”
Christians have met in dialogue with elite Muslims “like brothers.”
However, these Muslims are declining in number too. More than 180 university professors have been killed in attacks in Iraq, and many medical specialists have left the country.
Archbishop Mirkis said that Christians must listen to Christ, and be “the salt of the earth.”
The Kirkuk archdiocese is preparing a relief effort to Muslim refugees from ISIL-occupied areas.
This is not a “proselytizing action,” the archbishop emphasized.
“They should know that their Christian brothers love them. And many of the faithful are donating to this even though they have to scrimp and save to do it. This is our role.”
He also rejected any claims that a majority of Iraqis are extremist.
“The Iraqi people are not innately fanatical. Like the Islamic world as a whole, they have been hijacked by fanatics. And now they can't move.”