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Bishops discuss rescue plan for Christians in north Iraq

27 June 2014


Checkpoint: a Kurdish soldier on the road between Mosul and Irbil, directs people fleeing Iraqi northern towns

Checkpoint: a Kurdish soldier on the road between Mosul and Irbil, directs people fleeing Iraqi northern towns

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 days."

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."

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