Bishop From Iraq Pleads for Support

ATLANTA (CNS) — Making an impassioned plea on behalf of Iraq’s dwindling Christian population, Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad called upon the U.S. bishops to press the Obama administration to take steps to protect religious rights in the Middle Eastern country.

Speaking June 13 during the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the cleric from Iraq said the country’s Christians are being targeted by Muslim extremists bent on ridding the country of all religious minorities.

He said in the session presented by the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace that the difficulties Christians face emerged only after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

“As leaders of the church in the United States,” he told the bishops, “you bear a special responsibility toward the people and Christians of Iraq. In 2003, your government led the war that brought some terrible consequences. The U.S. government can and must do all it can to encourage tolerance and respect in Iraq, to help Iraq strengthen the rule of law and to provide assistance that helps create jobs for Iraqis, especially those on the margins.

“Many times we ask, ‘Where can we find justice and peace?’ Our Lord says, “I give you my peace, but not like the world gives.” The peace of Jesus is love. This love guides us to unity, because love works miracles, and builds justice and peace. This can be realized when all the church works together in one heart and one thought,” the bishop said.

“We beg you to do something for us,” he continued. “We want only peace, security and freedom. You can tell everybody Iraq was very rich, but now is very poor, because of the war and much discrimination. We want to cry out to you: we want peace, justice, stability, freedom of religion. No more war, no more death, no more explosions, no more injustice. Please help us talk to everybody. Push the cause of peace.

Bishop Warduni cited brutal attacks on churches as tragic, including the October 2010 assault on the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance that claimed 58 lives. He said incidents have forced more than half of Iraq’s Christians to flee to neighboring countries, reducing the Chaldean population to about 400,000.

Since 2003, one bishop, a priest and six subdeacons have been killed, he said, while another 15 clergy have been kidnapped and released only after large ransoms were paid. Bishop Warduni said several of the kidnapped priests were tortured during their captivity.

He said Muslims have forced Christians living in Dora, a Christian section of Baghdad, to leave their homes or to pay “jizya,” a fine levied on non-Muslims who choose to live in an Islamic society. He pointed to similar attacks in Mosul in northern Iraq and in other cities.

“They forced our Christian daughters to marry Muslims, even the princes of al-Qaida. They said to Christians, ‘Become Muslims or be killed.’ As a result, many Christians escaped the area and went to the North or fled outside of Iraq,” Bishop Warduni said.

“As a result, our people have no trust in anybody and they continue to leave the country with many criticizing the church for not having helped them,” he said. “This emigration is catastrophic for our church. Some wonder if there is a big plot to empty Iraq, if not to empty all the Middle East, of Christians.”

Bishop Warduni said Christians simply want basic rights, including a guaranteed right to practice their faith.

After his presentation, Bishop Warduni told Catholic News Service that prior to 2003, Iraqis had “one dictator” to deal with, referring to Saddam Hussein, who was captured in 2003 and executed in 2006. Today, he said, there are many “dictators,” all seeking to rid the country of Christians through attacks on churches, car bombings and portable-missile assaults.

“We have democracy,” he said, “but what freedom? To kill one another?

“We say we give everything to the Lord, (it’s) in his hands. We must work and take care of our business, our children, our young. So we go ahead with life. We cannot stay in prison.”

The same session featured Thomas F. Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, who talked about the lack of religious freedom protections in many countries.

He also said the free practice of religion is suffering consequences throughout much of Europe as governments and much of society have become indifferent to individuals holding religious beliefs.

“What is happening in Europe does not approach the levels of violent persecution we see elsewhere: torture, rape, murder, unjust imprisonment or unjust execution resulting from the religious beliefs and practices of the victims, or those of their tormentors,” he said. “Yet the root cause is quite similar: a belief that religious freedom is not only unnecessary for human flourishing or social development, but that it poses a threat to these and other goods.”

Farr said that religion in Europe is “no longer seen as intrinsic to human dignity and social flourishing,” is viewed as simply an “opinion, and … a dangerous opinion at that.”

Even as religion liberty is under threat, he said, the work of contemporary sociologists has shown that religion is “desperately needed in societies.” Studies have shown that societies that embrace religious freedom experience longevity of democracy, economic development, the equality of women and the absence of violent religious extremism.

Farr said the U.S. government must include strong support of religious freedom in its pursuit of foreign policy, and he called on the bishops to press the government to take a strong stance in favor of religious liberty around the world.

“The stakes are very high,” Farr added. They implicate our country, our church and the world.”

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