AN EMERGENCY meeting of Chaldean Catholic bishops has been
taking place this week in Irbil, in the autonomous Kurdish region
of northern Iraq, to discuss what to do about the latest exodus of
Christians from the country in the wake of the Islamist surge. The
Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad, the Rt Revd Saad Sirop,
speaking to the RC Aid to the Church in Need charity on Monday,
said: "What we need is a rescue plan, and this is what we will be
discussing at our next annual Synod."
He said: "Christians and others in Baghdad are leaving because
they are afraid of what is going to happen. So many have left Iraq
already." Scores of Christian families fled to the Kurdish region
when fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant)
(ISIS) took control of Mosul and other cities earlier this month
(News, 13 June).
Bishop Sirop called for reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias
to end the current crisis, which is seeing Baghdad, and towns close
to the capital, being threatened by the ISIS advance. "Military
intervention", he said, "did not resolve anything in Syria, nor
here in Iraq; so we should not think it will work this time. We ask
God to give us the wisdom to face these problems with courage.
There is no doubt that we are passing through some difficult
Not all Christians have left northern Iraq. Some remain in the
town of Bartella, near Mosul, and in the Assyrian Monastery of St
Matthew, built into a mountain 20 miles away. Dozens of Christian
families from Mosul are sheltering there. Last Sunday, the Syriac
Orthodox Patriarch, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, arrived under Kurdish
military protection to lead prayers at the monastery. In an
interview later in the day, he said: "We have been in this area of
the world from the beginning of Christianity, even before. I would
like to see Christians remaining here in the homeland of their
ancestors. The blood of our martyrs has been mixed with the soil of
this land for many centuries."
In Mosul and other areas under ISIS control, life has resumed a
partial air of normality. ISIS leaders have told Christians that
they have nothing to fear as long as they respect the Islamic laws
and traditions that the newcomers are enforcing. Many Sunnis, for
their part, have welcomed the departure of Iraqi army units from
the towns and villages of western and northern Iraq. They
complained that the predominantly Shia troops treated the civilian
population harshly, in revenge for the treatment of the Shia
community by the army during the Saddam Hussein era.
Sunni tribal leaders say that they would drop their support for
ISIS if the current Shia Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, were
replaced by someone with a more inclusive vision for the future of
Iraq, one that would provide the Sunni community with a share of
power proportionate to its size. The US Secretary of State, John
Kerry, during talks in Baghdad on Monday, urged Iraqi leaders to
form a new and inclusive government of national unity. As yet,
however, there is no sign of Mr Maliki's bending to pressure.
The next flashpoint could be the town of Samarra, 80 miles north
of Baghdad. While the inhabitants are mainly Sunni, the town
contains an important Shia shrine. An attack on the shrine in 2006
sparked a major conflict between Sunnis and Shias.
"Clearly, everyone understands that Samarra is an important
line," Mr Kerry said. "The President and the team . . . are
watching . . . these events very, very closely."