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Iraqi Christians serve community with dialogue

04 June 2021

Gerald Butt reports on how St George’s, Baghdad, supports people of all faiths

MOSAIC MIDDLE EAST

Illuminated cross on the roof of St George’s, Baghdad

Illuminated cross on the roof of St George’s, Baghdad

FOR those looking on at the carnage in Iraq over the past two decades, it is a wonder that the country has survived. Invasion and war led to high numbers of civilian deaths and injuries, mass population displacements, poverty, security collapse, and political chaos. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. For the minority Christian community in Iraq, add to this list persecution in the wake of the 2014 Islamic State (IS) surge — and issues arising from proselytising by some church groups from abroad.

Today, there are an estimated 250,000 Christians in Iraq, down from 1.5 million before the 2003 United States-led invasion that toppled the regime of the President, Saddam Hussein. The community is dominated by the Chaldean (Uniat Roman Catholic) Church, followed in size by the Assyrian Orthodox, and then Syrian Orthodox. The Anglican presence is tiny in comparison.

Nevertheless, St George’s, in Baghdad, plays an active part in supporting Iraqis of all faiths. The Priest Assistant, Sinan Hanna, says that St George’s helped to care for the thousands of people who fled to the capital after the IS attacks on Christian towns and villages to the north, finding shelter in parks and public buildings.

St George’s “serves the community in a practical way through the clinic, school, kindergarten, and cultural centre. It welcomes kids regardless of their religion. We believe in dialogue, and that’s why we work with Christians and non-Christians whenever there is a possibility.” The clinic has offered free medical and psychological treatment to Yazidi survivors of IS atrocities.

Paradoxically, Iraqi Christians have felt undermined by some of their co-religionists arriving in the country. The Bishop in Cyprus & the Gulf, the Rt Revd Michael Lewis, says that “a sad legacy” of the 2003 invasion is that “certain Christian groupings from overseas, especially the US, entered the country to proselytise as well as offer relief, with no acknowledgement and even outright rejection of the ancient and deep-rooted faith of existing Iraqi Christians. The result has been suspicion of newcomers, irrespective of whether their intentions and actions are good or bad.”

Bishop Lewis says, however, that the Pope’s recent visit to Iraq (News, 5 March) provided a “big boost” to Iraqi Christians, and many of other faiths. “The sheer fact that the Pope, at 83 or 84, made a promise to come, and kept it, despite much advice to him not to come, touched hearts. It demonstrated that not all in the West confine themselves to words.”

Today, Iraqi Christians are contemplating what part they might play in the future, when IS is starting to reappear and Iranian influence remains strong. Some are calling for a special enclave on the Nineveh Plain, which traditionally has a high concentration of Christians. But Bishop Lewis says that “the local Churches, especially in the person of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, have consistently advocated for a return to the ideal of a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Iraq as the best option for rebuilding Iraqi society.”

In the immediate future, the main concern for thousands of Iraqi Christians is economic survival. The country’s infrastructure awaits repair after decades of war and neglect. Jobs are scarce, and corruption in government is endemic.

The best way to help Iraqis, in the view of the Revd Christopher Bishop, an Episcopalian and the founder of Stand With Iraqi Christians (SWIC), an NGO that focuses on communities in Nineveh, is through economic investment: “Investing in the creation of sustainable livelihoods and economic viability must be the central objective of groups seeking to foster kinship with Iraqis and improve lives in Nineveh.

“If you can’t eat or don’t have a decent place to sleep, it’s pretty tough to do much else. Also, without jobs and opportunities there is little incentive for those still in camps abroad to return home: a crucial objective.”

As examples of practical steps it has taken to help Christian communities, SWIC points to the installation of water facilities in the northern town of Qaraqosh. It also provided seed funding to re-establish ten family chicken farms, each supporting up to 20 adults and children. Bishop Lewis calls SWIC’s efforts in Nineveh a “model example of respectful presence, done with imagination”.

Even the best executed projects, however, rely on Iraq’s remaining peaceful. “Given the success of SWIC’s family farm initiative,” Fr Bishop says, “security at present is apparently sufficient, but by no means guaranteed, in the Qaraqosh-Bakhdeda region for these farmers to feel confident enough to rejuvenate their operations.”

Even when the guns are silent, insecurity and anxiety continue to be a part of everyday life. The response director of World Vision Iraq, Nicole Peter, explains that, while government efforts in late 2020 to start hastily closing down camps for the internally displaced had led to thousands of Iraqis returning to their homes, “many highly vulnerable individuals were left behind. These were often people who had a perceived affiliation with IS that meant they were rejected by their communities of origin and facing secondary displacement.”

Humanitarian assistance will be needed for some considerable time to come. For example, about one quarter of the 40-million population lives under the poverty line, according to World Vision — a figure that includes 2.5 million children. Covid has only deepened existing socio-economic vulnerability.

In all aspects of their efforts, Ms Peter says, aid agencies have to bear in mind the deep-rooted relationship between individuals and their faith backgrounds: “There’s no future or sustainability for Iraq if there’s no social cohesion.

“Because of the social and ethnic structure of the country, it’s absolutely critical to collaborate with faith leaders in all our programmes, right from their initial design. They play a significant role in influencing their communities. They know what their communities need, what challenges they face, and how we should facilitate our work.”

Despite all that is being done to assist Iraqi Christians in resuming their normal lives, the drift towards further emigration casts a shadow over their long-term future. The Archdeacon in the Gulf, the Ven. Dr Bill Schwartz, says that it is a problem for all Churches in Iraq, with “those most educated and skilled the best qualified for emigration. Many are looking for opportunity for their families. Personally, I believe that economic stagnation is a much bigger problem than persecution, and has been for many years.”

In Archdeacon Schwartz’s opinion, Churches around the world should “recognise that Christians in Iraq need support, encouragement, partnership from Christians of the world. I would strongly affirm and encourage support of efforts to provide economic security for those who want to stay.”

For those Christians who are choosing to remain in Iraq, the hope — although not necessarily the expectation — is that the coming decade will be kinder to them than the past two.

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