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An Iraqi Archbishop's Perilous Journey!
Last week, the putrefying corpse of HE Boulos (Paulos) Faraj Rahho was discovered in a shallow grave in a south-eastern area of Mosul...

17 March   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... He was the Chaldean Catholic archbishop who had been kidnapped on 29th February as he was leaving his church that is known in Mosul as Safina (or The Ship in Arabic), but parishioners have called it the Holy Spirit Church.

An official of the morgue in Mosul said the archbishop, who was 65 and had health problems including hypertension and diabetes, might well have died of natural causes as a result of the trauma following his kidnapping or he might have been killed in cold blood since no ransom was ostensibly paid for his release. The story running in the Iraqi press indicated that the archbishop had been shoved into the boot of a car after his kidnapping, but had managed to pull out his mobile phone and call the church, instructing officials not to pay any ransom for his release.

Local and international condemnations were fast and furious. In Baghdad, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, the patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, said he was too grief-stricken to talk about the archbishop’s death. President Jalal Talabani sent condolences to the Pope at the Vatican and to Cardinal Delly, saying he learnt of the archbishop’s death “with a heart filled with sadness”, and adding that “the noble Iraqi Christians will keep working with their brothers from all the sects to end sectarianism and to build brotherhood and peace.”
Furthermore, Yonadam Kanna, a Christian member of the Iraqi Parliament, stated that Archbishop Rahho was a victim of his own inclusive opinions who had called for unity in Iraq and had stood up against sectarian violence. Dr Hunain Al-Qaddo, Chair of Iraqi Minorities, expressed his shock by the news of the killing by the terrorists in the city of Mosul. He called on all peace-loving people and the United Nations to save the lives of Christians, Shabaks and Yezidis in the Nineveh Plain.

On the international level, HH Pope Benedict XVI, in a letter to Iraqi church leaders, called the kidnapping “an act of inhumane violence that offends the dignity of human beings and gravely damages the cause of fraternal coexistence among the blessed people of Iraq.” His spokesperson, Fr Federico Lombardi, added that “unfortunately, the most absurd and unwarranted violence keeps tormenting the Iraqi population, in particular the small Christian community.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, expressed his deep shock and sorrow at the appalling murder, adding that his “prayers are daily with the people of Iraq, especially with the vulnerable Christian community, and particularly today with the Chaldeans and Archbishop Paulos’ family”. Moreover, Bishop Crispian Hollis, Chair of the Department of International Affairs at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales, issued the following statement:

It is with great sadness that I have just learnt of the death of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose body was discovered earlier today. I join all those in Iraq and elsewhere who mourn for the Archbishop. His abduction and death represents the latest blow against a Christian community that is undergoing an ordeal by persecution and my prayers and thoughts are with Iraq's Christians, particularly in Mosul, as they struggle to live in faith.

On the equally critical inter-faith level, HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan issued a powerful statement in his capacity as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Jordan. Expressing his pain and sadness at the death of the archbishop, he described it as “a heinous crime and an affront to humanity and the divine values and principles to which all believers adhere.” The Prince added that “this terrible crime will not deter the noble efforts of those who seek to strengthen the voice of reason against the evil forces whose aim it is to destroy Iraq and the foundations of brotherhood and solidarity on which it is based.” He further exhorted the international community to “stand firmly against these criminal acts and affirm to our communities that such acts are against all religious and human principles and values.”

However, this kidnapping and subsequent murder is not the first execrable incident against the Christian and other minorities in Iraq since the invasion of 2003. Last June, Fr Ragheed Ganni and three companions were shot dead in the archbishop’s same church in Mosul. Earlier, in January 2005, Syrian Catholic Archbishop Basil Georges Casmoussa of Mosul was also kidnapped but later released. In October 2006, an Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was beheaded and mutilated after he was captured and a ransom was in fact paid to the kidnappers. Moreover, scores of Christians and other minorities have been threatened or assailed in their physical persons and places of worship. No wonder the number of Iraqi Christians or minority groups has dropped by at least one million since the end of President Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, with estimates today placing Chaldeans at 550,000, a drop from an earlier strength of 800,000. This overall haemorrhage of ordinary Iraqi minority communities continues unabated despite the guarded return of some refugees from Syria and Jordan: it is a non-sequitur that an archbishop’s kidnapping and murder grab the headlines; that of many other citizens does not do so today.
Iraq today is in very serious turmoil, with open sectarian sores and confessional ructions. Although a large number of people world-wide were quite happy when President Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, it is undeniable that the preternatural situation in the country has deteriorated rapidly over the past five years. I am sure that SOMA readers follow with alarm the quotidian suicide bombings, attacks, executions, threats, violence and kidnappings in different parts of Iraq.

Much of the violence is perpetrated by a number of Sunni and Shi’i militias - either against other Iraqi or foreign groups and targets, or often against each other. However, it is equally clear that the minorities which have for centuries constituted a diverse and rich mosaic of the country are being targeted directly or indirectly and are either being killed or forced out. Law and order have to a large extent collapsed in some governorates and those minority communities that have no weapons to defend themselves, and little support from the local or central authorities, are subject to dangerous attacks and open threats.

But enough of narratives for now: it is high time instead to ask oneself what is really occurring in the country today.

On the one hand, there is a radical wing of Islamism - the Sunni salafist movement is one such high-profile example - whose ethos is anti-Christian for a number of spurious reasons and false pretexts. Whether it is because of the excesses of a vexatious Christian history, mainly the various waves of Christian crusades, or whether it is because Christians are connected to the West through a common faith heritage or via kith and kin, they are viewed by some Islamists (but not necessarily by Muslims, since I draw a marked distinction between faith and ideology in this context) as fifth columnists or foreigners to the land of the Middle and Near East, or simply untrustworthy and unreliable. Those Islamist factions do not pause long enough to examine their bigotry and consider that Christians - and other minorities - are indigenous to the land and have been living in the region well before Islam. In fact, Christian tribes were prominent during the time of Prophet Muhammad and the Holy Qur’an recognises Jesus and Moses as prophets - and therefore Christians and Jews are revered as Ahl al-Kitab / People of the Book. After all, did the Prophet himself not show a personal openness to Christians?

I watched this week a documentary on Channel 4 entitled Dispatches: Iraq’s Lost Generation that commemorated the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy examined the most serious refugee crisis in the Middle East since the Palestinian evisceration of 1948. Speaking with a Christian woman who had fled Baghdad to Syria, the C4 journalist was shown an official document a Christian family had received from a Shi’i militia group in which they were given three choices. The first one was to leave the country forthwith; the second was to pay a special jizyah-like tax to the militia and the third was to hand over their daughter. I leave it to SOMA readers to imagine the emotions of this family.

Having said this, I must add that the tribulations facing local Christians - as one minority group in Iraq - are not entirely the fault of Islamist zealous ideologues and ignorant demagogues. Those problems are also due to the attitude of the allied forces that have occupied another country for highly moot reasons and opened a Pandora’s Box of fault-lines and qualms. They have also marginalised the minorities in Iraq because they do not fit in well with their own overall political designs and plans, ignoring, overruling, sidestepping, countervailing and weakening them because they are not a powerful faction with enough political let alone military clout. Being Christian, for instance, does not cut ice with many Americans - especially since Middle Eastern Christians are not even deemed Christian by some of their US evangelical counterparts.

The death of the archbishop was another withering tragedy waiting to happen in Iraq. However, this tragedy might sadly have one positive outcome if only the world community on the one hand, and the invading forces on the other, realise that those minorities should be protected from danger and aggression. Furthermore, it falls upon hardy Muslim scholars the likes of Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan to speak out against the indiscriminate mistreatment of minorities.

Today, everyone talks about the impact of the surge in Iraq and its success in quelling the violence. I have written on numerous occasions that this surge has indeed contributed in quietening the troubled bloodbaths of Iraq. A recent poll for the BBC, ABC, ARD and NHK also suggested that a majority of Iraqi citizens believe that security in their area has improved since 2007 although the Iraqi main ethnic groups exhibit deep divisions. But the final outcome is still uncertain, and I believe that the measure of success for the surge must be gauged by the progress in passing and implementing legislation in Iraq, Yet, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars and the loss of many lives, precious little has been accomplished on the political front - including the implementation of the Iraq Study Group and the matter of the protection of minorities.

My partner often comments that my articles usually espouse hope in the face of adversity. So let me once again echo the hope that the world would wake up and assume its pressing responsibilities - some of which it has caused wilfully for geo-strategic reasons despite claims to the contrary. But then, the world has been selectively comatose about a range of political issues in past years, not least about various ills besetting Iraq today, so would it change now to construct a better future?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   17 March


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