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Death Comes for the Archbishop

Nina Shea

The Catholic Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was found dead Thursday in a shallow grave in that northern Iraq city. On February 29, Islamist extremists had abducted the 65-year-old prelate while he prayed, in Aramaic, the language of Jesus himself, the Lenten Stations of the Cross at his church.

There could be no starker statement that Christians are targeted for their faith in a ruthlessly intolerant Iraq. Cardinal Delly, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, weeps in Baghdad; he weeps for his martyred friend, and for the bitter fate of Iraq’s ancient Christian Church.

Many other Iraqi Christians have been terrorized and murdered over the last four years: Fr. Paulos Iskander was beheaded, Fr. Mundhir al-Dayr assassinated in his Protestant church, Fr. Ragheed Ganni and three deacons gunned down and their car booby trapped as they went about their ministries. The list includes many lay people; even Christian children have turned up dead from torture, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently documented.

From southern Basra to northern Kirkuk, all across Iraq, the Christian community has suffered bloody reprisals for failing to conform to Islamic behavior — in their dress, their social patterns, and their occupations, as well as in their worship. Forty churches have been bombed, mostly in Baghdad and Mosul. During the surge last summer, Sunni militants from a mosque in Baghdad’s religiously integrated Dora neighborhood issued a fatwa specifically commanding the 2,000 Christian families residing there to convert or be killed. Criminal gangs from the majority population have found easy prey in the religious minorities, who, dealing with indifferent security forces and lacking militias of their own, are utterly defenseless.

Iraqi-American Christians, who have joined together to form the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council, believe that religious persecution, above all, has driven out most of Iraq’s Christians — whether Chaldean Catholic, Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian, or Protestant. Affirming this, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration & Refugee Services reported in July: “Especially critical is the plight of Iraq’s minority religious communities, including Christians and Mandeans (or Sabeans). These groups, whose home has been what is now Iraq for many centuries, are literally being obliterated — not because they are fleeing generalized violence but because they are being specifically and viciously victimized by Islamic extremists and, in some cases, common criminals.”

These exiles have taken temporary refuge across the border in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 40 percent of Iraqi refugees are Christian — a staggering number, considering that Christians accounted for only some 4 percent, or 1.5 million, of Iraq’s total pre-invasion population. Hundreds of thousands more have fled north to Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, a mostly vacant, fertile area outside Mosul and south of Kurdistan where many of the ethnic Assyrian Christians had ancestral villages (before being forcibly uprooted during a prior persecution).

Over the past 2,000 years, Iraq’s Christians suffered oppressions and great indignities. The ones who survived through the Hussein era, when dozens of their northern villages were obliterated, were reputed to be the die-hards: They hung on out of devotion to their unique churches, culture, and language (the dying Aramaic). Even now, Pascale Warda — a Chaldean women’s activist, a former cabinet minister in the transition government, and a survivor of four assassination attempts — is an exemplar of those who remain.

Apart from Christians, remnants of Iraq’s other non-Muslim communities are all rapidly shrinking into extinction: Jews number in the double digits (only seven remained in Baghdad as of last July); Mandeans count about 5,000 (the Patriarch of these followers of John the Baptist has recently counseled the community to leave); Yizidis, no more than 500,000 (residing in Nineveh and in the north). They all suffer severe persecution because of their religious status and their numbers continually shrink as their members flee into exile.

Archbishop Rahho was a dynamic leader, and a man of great hope. Despite the odds, he founded the new parish of St. Paul in Mosul, started a “Youth Week” in his diocese, and founded the Fraternity of Charity and Joy, with the aim of assisting sick people and guaranteeing them a dignified life. Anglican canon Andrew White, who works to help Iraqi Christians, eloquently expressed the reaction of that community to the murder of the archbishop: “We are devastated.” Condolences have poured in from around the world, from Christians and non-Christians. It feels like a defining moment.

The Bush administration has yet to acknowledge that the Christians and other defenseless minorities are persecuted for reasons of religion. No policies exist to address their specific needs in Iraq or facilitate their finding refuge abroad. No programs exist to train and support them to police their own villages — more critical than ever now that the military surge has flushed terror northward. No checks are in place to ensure that their villages in Nineveh and elsewhere in the north share equitably in U.S. largesse. No senior administration official has ever even met to hear the views of their American leaders as a group and forge solutions.

The archbishop knew the risks of staying but told his flock that he “wanted to remain in Iraq until the end.” Without urgent administration action, the end may well be near.

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