Sunday’s massacre of 58 Catholics at a Baghdad cathedral fits a disturbing pattern of violence against Christians, according to an Iraqi priest with long experience of ministering in the region.
"Everyone watches as Christians are killed and no one tries to put an end to these attacks,” Father Firas Benoka told CNA.
“This, for me, indicates the constant will to eliminate Iraqi Christians definitively,” he said. “So we are mistaken if we think that the recent attack on Christians will be the last."
A local diocesan priest serving in Mosul, north of the Iraqi capital, Father Benoka complained of growing intolerance from Muslim extremist groups, often with cooperation from elements in the local Iraqi governments.
Mosul is located in the traditionally Christian area of the Nineveh Plain, a region Father Benoka called "the last zone that is historically ours."
In recent years, many of the Christian villages and cities that dot the plain have struggled to maintain their identities in the face of growing government pressure to change the area's demographics, he charged.
Father Benoka has been a priest for five years and teaches philosophy at the seminary in Mosul while studying for his doctorate in Rome. He is a native of Bartella, one of the Christian cities near Mosul.
Government officials have sought to encourage settlements by “foreign, non-Christian communities to destroy the united and Christian face of this area,” he said, adding, "I would say that these governments have been successful in doing so."
He called the brutal Oct. 31 attacks on Catholic worshipers at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral a “massacre” that will only confirm Iraqi Catholics’ feelings that they are viewed as unwanted “infidels” in their own land.
At the same time, Father Benoka praised the heroism of those who were killed while celebrating Mass. The blood of "martyrs” has been spilled on this land for "thousands of years," he said. And this blood remains the greatest proof that the Christians of Iraq are indeed Christian. It also demonstrates Iraqi Catholics’ love for their country.
Violence has increased since the U.S. led war against the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The resulting disruption contributed to a mass migration of Christians from the area. Estimates put the pre-2003 number of Christians in Iraq at between 800,000 and one million. According to the United Nations, the current number is about half that.
Political and religious leaders blame the Iraqi government and security forces for the Oct. 31 attack, and Father Benoka agreed.
Christians are not left completely unprotected, he said. He described the "humble projects" initiated by some communities "to keep evil at a distance as much as possible." But, he added, these internal measures "cannot resist strong attacks."
To ensure peace and the survival of the Christian community, he said, Iraqi Christians must be recognized in the country’s constitution as having equal rights with Muslims.
The "nucleus of misunderstanding" and "discrimination" is contained in the very articles of the Constitution, he pointed out.
The Constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state and the fundamental source of legislation. At the same time, the constitution also prohibits laws that contradict or oppose the fundamental principles of Islam.
"Because of these and other articles, Christians are forced to follow Islamic law in the administration of justice," Father Benoka explained. This extends to areas where Muslim law conflicts greatly with Christian teaching – mixed Muslim-Christian marriages, women's rights, and freedom of speech.
The law also restricts Christians’ ability to share their faith and imposes limits on Muslim conversion to Christianity.
"We need international protection seeing as the Iraqi government continues to fail in our protection," Father Benoka said.
Archbishop Basil Casmoussa of Mosul has also called for help from the U.N.
"When we see that, especially by the authorities, there is not a adequate response, we feel without protection,” he told Vatican Radio, Nov. 2. “So it is necessary that the United Nations enters in play, it is now indispensable to safeguard this little community!"
These points, along with the reconciliation of political parties in the country through the selection of a moderate government "far from the patronage of political Islam," are "important to protect the rights of Christians and so maintain their presence in Iraq," the archbishop said.
In the meantime, explained Father Benoka, the Christian communities of the Nineveh Plain are preparing for the arrival of Christians from Baghdad who are fleeing the recent upsurge in violence. The attack on Our Lady of Salvation has been followed by numerous car bombings in recent days that have caused chaos in the city.