Iraqi ambassador criticized for his views on anti-Christian violence

IraqiDemonstratorsFeb2010 Supporters of Iraqi Christians demonstrate in St. Peter's Square this past February

The violence against Christians in Iraq is real and is driven by Muslim extremists and government indifference.

According to a local Iraqi Catholic leader, the anti-Christian persecution is not a concoction of Western journalists, despite claims made recently by Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican.

Father Firas Benoka, who ministers to Syro-Catholics in Mosul, north of the capital of Baghdad told CNA that the ambassador’s remarks were a gross simplification of the sufferings of the country’s tiny Christian minority.

Iraq’s Vatican ambassador, Habeeb M. H. Ali Al-Sadr, recently blamed the media and international organizations for distorting the situation in Iraq.

He told a conference in Velletri, Italy, Jan. 29 that these groups were “playing the game of the terrorists, being concerned about the Christians, their future and the society’s lack of development,” the ambassador said.

But this analysis does not ring true on the ground in Iraq, Fr. Benoka said.

Extremists have been making violent attacks on Christians and their churches for years, he said.

They are targets, he said, for a “single motive … because they are ‘Christians’.”

“This was the only, most decisive accusation and the cause of the evil they suffered,” he added.

Media attention has increased as the violence against Christians has escalated, Fr. Benoka said.

The last year has seen bombings directed at Catholic students from the University of Mosul and the massacre at the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, he continued.

He said he personally knows people were only allowed to escape from the church with their lives after renouncing their faith to their kidnappers.

Though the government has decried the attacks and announced its “closeness” to the Christian victims, “the attacks have become ever more ferocious,” he said.

“Amid all this should the world have been silent? Should such a miserable and humiliating position be tolerated?

“The mass media have not exaggerated in their judgment of the situation,” Fr. Benoka said. “Actually, they have missed many of the injustices that continually take place in the villages of Christian majority populations.”

Fr. Benoka said the Iraqi ambassador’s remarks reflect the government’s desire to cover up its failure to protect Christians.

Christians, he said, “are abandoning the nation because of the evil that have suffered and the indecent life there. It is not because of what is heard indirectly through the mass media.”

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Estimates vary on just how many Christians have emigrated. A Feb. 21 Human Rights Watch report estimated there to be 675,000 Christians in Iraq, down from over 1 million in 2003. A U.S. State Department puts the current number between 400,000 and 600,000.

Fr. Benoka expressed disbelief at the ambassador’s claims that Christians received special government privileges worth $15 million for rebuilding their destroyed churches and other building.

“Since when?” he said. “Why be close to them after the attack and not before?”

Other privileges like tax breaks on electricity and water the ambassador spoke of are still in place from Saddam Hussein’s regime and are shared by all religions. In any case, Fr. Benoka said, electricity is scarce these days.

Fr. Benoka also rejected the ambassador’s idea that Iraq’s new constitution “guarantees Christians full equality of rights and duties.”

The constitution, which establishes Islam as Iraq’s state religion, is “ the biggest obstacle to religious freedom of all the non-Muslim religions,” he said. It also bars any “law that contradicts or opposes fundamental Islamic principles.”

Fr. Benoka asked, “With this strong affirmation on Islam, how could one speak of a religious liberty or of equality of law among all citizens of the same Iraq?”

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He pointed to specific and practical examples of how this could affect non-Muslim citizens.

In matters of inheritance, he said, women are only entitled to half the share of men. In court, the testimony of two women equals that of one man.

In addition, a woman divorced from her husband can only remarry him if she has married and divorced another man. This clashes openly with Catholic teaching in which neither man nor woman can marry another after divorce.

Another example is that any citizen may convert to Islam, but all Muslims are strictly prohibited from converting to other religions. If one parent converts to Islam, his or her underage children are automatically converted with them.

Fr. Benoka said that there are many other example of laws based on Islam included in the constitution that are applied to all citizens even if these laws “sometimes contradict the fundamental principles of their religions.”