The exodus of Christian people continues, though in less massive numbers than it did in the past; violence and persecutions against them continue, these too on a smaller scale but in more and more worrying ways. Nevertheless, the faith of those who endure grows fortified by the harsh ordeals and you may even find Christians who have come back to their homeland, pushed by the desire to give testimony. This is how a week of reporting amidst the Christians in North Iraq can be summarized, from the area between Kurdistan and the governorates of Nineveh and At Tamim, along the thoroughfare which crosses, from South to North, Kirkuk, Erbil, Mosul and lastly Zakho next to the border with Turkey.
The bleeding heart of the Iraqi Christ beats in Mosul where Christians numbered almost 50 thousand before 2003 and today are no more than 7-8 thousand. The others have looked for refuge in the small towns of the nearby Nineveh plain, today under Kurdish military control, or they fled to Kurdistan or abroad. For two years the seat of the Chaldean archbishop, which was the point of reference for two thirds of the local Christians, stayed vacant after Mons. Paulos Faraj Rahho’s abduction and death in captivity between February and March 2008. Last January his successor finally took office: Mons. Amil Nona, 41 years old, until then parish priest in Alqosh, a village known for the presence of its Saint Ormisda Monastery where in the early 1500s the rejoining of most Iraqi Christians with Rome was discussed. “I confirm it 100%: this is the most dangerous city in Iraq for Christian people”, he says welcoming us in the building where his predecessor moved the curia after the attack which completely destroyed the Episcopal see in 2004. “In the months before the election of last March, attacks and kidnappings on and of Christians multiplied, then after Allawi’s victory they decreased. But if Sunnis are kept out of the next government, violence will resume on a large scale”.
Of the 10 Chaldean parish churches, only 4 are still open; of the 4 Syro-Catholic ones, only one. All church life takes place exclusively within the church buildings, but in the old part of the city and at Holy Spirit parish – where father Ragheed Ghanni was slaughtered together with three subdeacons and mons. Rahho was abducted –the Christian presence is almost underground, with the call to Masses passing by word of mouth. In those areas, bishop and priests move around incognito only. Mons. Nona started a catechesis for adults about the ten commandments which takes place at St. Paul parish where Mons. Rahho is buried. “My pastoral mission – Nona explains – consists in showing that death must not be feared. But in order to not be afraid of death you have to know how to live. When facing these people who have been suffering for seven years, it is important to show them how they can live”.
Anna used to live with her husband Markos in the neighbourhood of Holy Spirit church. They moved some years ago next to the Antonian Monastery of St. Michael on the relatively quieter Eastern bank of the Tigris River after selling their house. “Once, militia men threatened me with death because my veil slid down when I was doing some shopping in the old city. They force us to dress like Muslim women if we want to go out of our homes. We managed to sell our house without trouble but some acquaintances of ours have been forced by extremists to sell theirs for half price because they are Christians. We are fed up; if it was possible we would migrate abroad”. Two of the couple’s children already have; one is in Sweden and the other is in Syria waiting to be accepted as a refugee in Europe.
War, violence and persecution disrupted Christian demographics in Iraq. Before 2003 the Country counted approximately 800,000 Christians, half of them living in Baghdad. Today there are 400,000 Christians remaining, of whom only 150,000 live in the capital city. On the contrary, Kurdistan dioceses and the towns on the Nineveh plain have together doubled their Christian population going from 40,000 to 80,000 people, while the Dohuk-Zakho diocese has become the second-largest Christian diocese in the Country, probably exceeding 100,000 people. Erbil too, where the interdiocesan seminary and the theological faculty were moved, has experienced a Christian immigration boom: the Christian majority neighbourhood of Ankawa has doubled its number of families from 2,000 to 4,000.
In the plain of Nineveh Christians have strengthened the majorities, sometimes overwhelmingly, that they had already had in every town apart from Tel Qaif, home town of the patriarch Emmanuel III Delly: here Christians used to be the majority but then decreased to 30% and all of their priests emigrated to the United States, with the exception of one. But it is exactly here that we meet Samira, an elderly woman who came back after five years spent in Detroit to assist her three granddaughters who were orphans after her daughter’s death. She lives now in her son-in-law’s house who did not remarry: “For me – she says – here or in America is the same: I didn’t go out there and I don’t go out here”. “To live just one day in Iraq is worth more than the whole life in America”, boasts proud Yusef, the son-in-law who is now widowed.
In Alqosh too, there are Iraqi Christians who went against the tide and came back to their home Country. Hasim Harboli, 33, wears the gray habit of a novice monk. He has been living in the Antonian Monastery of Our Lady of the Seeds for the last two years, but he spent the previous ten years living abroad with his parents and brothers, and was in Greece for the last five years. There he heard a call to religious life. His family’s satisfaction disappeared as soon as they learnt that the young man would answer this call not by entering any Greek monastery but coming back to Iraq. “The desire of giving my life to Christ arose in me reading the saints’ lives and admiring the devotion which the priests dedicated to assist the community of Iraqi Chaldean Christians in Greece. I would have willingly been consecrated in Europe but then Mons. Rahho’s story happened. His sacrifice deeply struck me. I meditated a lot about him and about the suffering of Iraqi people who have fewer and fewer priests. I then made contact with the superior of this monastery and I came back to Iraq.” To answer to his vocation, Hasim left his Iraqi girlfriend with whom he had a relationship in Greece and broke his relationship with his siblings. His parents resigned without any joy to his choice. But he does not have any doubt regarding the choice he made: “I want to offer my life the way Jesus did”.
Yussef Dured, a refugee to Europe after the first Gulf war, has lived for 17 years in the Netherlands working as a pizza man and a chef but went back to Iraq three months ago. Father of three daughters, 2, 5 and 7, and husband to Sonia (she was also an Iraqi Christian refugee with Dutch citizenship), he and his wife chose to go back to his native city, Alqosh, when his father became ill. “In Europe I was ok but I have always carried in my heart the land where I was born. Here in the North the situation is quite calm and I thought that it would be nice to reunify the family: I wanted my daughters to meet their grandparents and to spend with them a part of their lives. If the situation worsens? We will share the destiny of the other Christians who live here”. In the Netherlands the family used to attend the Latin Catholic Churches but when the topic is brought up, Dured’s face darkens a bit: “In the Netherlands churches are handed over to Muslims who turn them into mosques. Here we would never do that. In the Netherlands Muslims ask and get anything in the name of human rights, and Dutch people do not understand that Muslims are not interested in achieving human rights but they want their religion to triumph. Here in Iraq who is respecting Christians’ human rights?”
Muslims who respect the human rights of Christians in Iraq do exist. One example is sheikh Ali Kh-Samed, head of the Committee for interreligious dialogue in Kirkuk. That he is a quite particular sheikh is clear as soon as you enter his office and note the larger picture hanging on the wall: Benedict XVI who greets Samed, taking his hands in a Vatican hall. “It is important that religious men do not close themselves into their own confession but that they remain open to those different from them because this is the only way they may help to find solutions instead of making problems – he tells us -. Osama Bin Laden does not represent us, the Muslims, the way that Danish cartoons on Muhammad do not represent you, the Christians. But we are sure about it only when we get to know each other personally. Our relations must increase so that everyone may be sure that fundamentalists represent only a minority of the believers of a religion. When Mons. Rahho was kidnapped I went on TV and I addressed the kidnappers saying that they did something against Islam. When I preach on Friday in the mosque I always highlight that Christians are our brothers, that they used to live here in Kirkuk before the rise of Islam and that we have to respect them”.
In the 1970s in Kirkuk there were 30,000 Christian people, now there are 10-12,000. Even so, admirable vocations for the priesthood flourish, like that of Nawar Mirzi, a 23-year-old student of electronic engineering-- the only Christian student at the Engineering Faculty of Tikrit University, the Sunni stronghold, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. “At the beginning it was hard – he confesses – the other students wanted to convince me to become a Muslim, telling me that Islam is the last revelation. I used to answer back that faith is a personal choice and in the end they learnt to respect me, above all because I gave the good example. In the college dormitory I live with five other students and we learnt how to respect the different times of prayer: when they pray I stay in the room but am careful not to disturb; when it is me praying they turn off the radio and stay silent until I finish. I told them about my vocation for the priesthood and this struck them, even if one of them told me: “No, you are the only man in the family and you should get married”. Nawar’s family indeed reacted uncomfortably when he announced his vocation exactly for this reason and in the end they came to the common agreement that before entering the seminary he should get his degree in Engineering. As far as for the other difficulties, he replies: “Of course I know that in this Country it often happens that priests are kidnapped and even killed but it is God who chooses for us. If He gave me this vocation, He will always be with me in any event. Even when I came to study at Tikrit everyone was telling me that I would not resist but God was next to me. I want to answer to my vocation with the same confidence.”
“These scars on my wrists do not remind me of the abduction but of God’s will of saving my life”. After countless recommendations of keeping secret the details about his identity, doctor Yoannes tells us his story as a kidnapped Christian doctor (to be precise, Oriental Assyrian). Highlighting the link between his religious identity and the kidnapping: “In Kirkuk, after the war, five doctors were kidnapped, all of them Christians. Because we do not have a militia or a strong political party backing and defending us. When I would ask my kidnappers: “Why did you abduct me?”, they used to answer: “Because you are a Christian”. The imprisonment, which lasted one month, was extremely cruel: the doctor was always kept lying on the floor, bound and with a handkerchief tightly tied around his mouth, and with a chain that went from his neck to his feet anchored to a wall. When he did not manage to get up when ordered, he was beaten. Like others, he underwent pressures to change his religion. “I answered them that I would have never abandoned my beloved Christian faith, and that I was proud of it. Then they used to tell me: “If you stay Christian, you have to leave Iraq, here we will not let you work”. I endured thanks to faith. I prayed all the time and I was sure that God would come to help me. If the infection of my wounds did not kill me it was because of a divine miracle”.
Basile Georges Casmoussa, the Syro-Catholic archbishop of Mosul, who for security reasons spends most of its time in the small town of Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh, was another hostage of an abduction which luckily lasted only one day. “Violence against Christian people today is less intense but not less worrying. In the past we were the victims of criminals who had chosen to keep attacking a defenceless community and of anti-Christian religious fanatics. It is a while now that we have also been victims of a clandestine “third power” which is the expression of the fight between great political parties. The arm wrestling between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds is not new to certain events. Dissention between the local government and the central government results in blows that fall on Christians.” Casmoussa does not live in Mosul anymore, but such a statement shows an uncommon bravery, not inferior to the one of the clergy who continue to operate there.