In Iraq: 'Innocent people are dying'
March 12, 2010
By PAULA DOYLE
In Iraq: 'Innocent people are dying' By PAULA DOYLE text only version The recent murder of eight Christians in Mosul, Iraq, a few weeks before the country's March 7 parliamentary elections has prompted Pope Benedict XVI, Iraqi bishops and a local Syriac Catholic priest to call for international solidarity on behalf of persecuted Iraqi minorities, especially Christians.
"Innocent people are dying, consumed by the fire of persecution," said Iraqi-born Father Yousif Habash, pastor of Jesus Sacred Heart (Antiochene Syriac) Catholic Church in North Hollywood. The priest, a native of Karkoch in northern Iraq near Mosul, says the Feb. 23 murder of the father and two brothers of an Iraqi priest is another tragic example of the area's escalating violence against Christians.
"In Mosul before [the U.S.-led Iraq invasion in 2003], there were not the rivers of blood like today. Christians were not dying like insects," said Father Habash. Although he acknowledges that the Iraq's former dictator, Saddam Hussein, was very severe to all members of the Muslim-majority country, he points out that the harsh conditions were the same for everyone.
Now, he says, local Christians are targets since they are considered by many Muslims as an extension of the West. They are also caught between competing Muslim groups vying for power in Iraq's northern region. "We are in the middle of them, between the Sunni Arabs and the Kurdish" explained Father Habash. "From the beginning, Mosul was Christian," and families have lived there for 2,000 years, he pointed out. Although Christians in Mosul used to represent 35-40 percent of the population, their numbers are down to less than 10 percent because area violence has driven them to outlying Christian towns or out of the country.
He noted that Christian students in the region have been banned from attending the local university and seven college-age students have recently been killed. "Since 2003, there hasn't been any progress in Iraq. The electricity, water and power [infrastructure] are destroyed," said Father Habash, who hopes Americans will write their congressional representatives in support of enhanced protection for Iraqi religious minorities. On Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his "deep sadness" over the tragic news of the recent Iraqi Christian killings.
The Holy Father said that during his prior weeklong spiritual exercises he followed with much concern the violence "perpetrated in the martyred land of Iraq, which have harmed defenseless persons of various religious affiliations. "I often prayed for all the victims of those attacks and today I would like to join myself spiritually in prayer for peace and the restoration of security promoted by the council of bishops at Nineveh," said the pope. "I exhort the international community to do its best to give the Iraqis a future of reconciliation and justice." Syrian Catholic Archbishop Georges Casmoussa of Mosul told Vatican Radio Feb. 24 the region's Catholic and Orthodox bishops would hold a series of special prayer services in advance of the March 7 elections. And, as a protest to the recent killings, Iraqi bishops said they would not hold Masses in the city of Mosul March 14 in order to send a message to the government.
The Vatican nuncio to Iraq, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, told Vatican Radio Feb. 25 that "any attempt to decrease the Christian presence or worse, to destroy the Christian presence in Iraq would mean destroying the history of the Iraqi nation." He noted that all the Christian churches and Christian leaders in the country are involved in interreligious dialogue and are in constant contact with Muslim leaders. Archbishop Chullikatt stated that international solidarity is crucial for the survival of Iraq's minorities, "especially the Christians who are most exposed to the kind of violence taking place now, particularly in Mosul." CNS and ZENIT contributed to this story.