Chaldean Christians in Iraq
The following is an interview with a priest of the Chaldean Catholic Church concerning the situation of his church in Iraq. The conversational style has been retained throughout.
Angelus Press: Father, you are a Chaldean priest who left Iraq in the early 1990s and arrived in the United States as a refugee. You have now ministered to Chaldean communities throughout the country. The readers of The Angelus are eager to know more about the origin of the conflict in the Middle East. Why do they fight in Arab countries?
Father: For me, only one thing accounts for this warfare that has been going on for over 1,400 years. Today we are focused on ISIS. But this and all other groups are practicing the religion as they have in the book, the Koran. They are legally following what is in the Constitution of Iraq: Sharia Law.
Angelus Press: Do you mean the Jihad?
Father: They are practicing the Jihad, but the Sharia includes other elements of the law like the dhimmi. If you are Christian, then you are a second or third rate citizen. Some in the Church hierarchy refuse to call us Chaldeans and prefer to call us Christians, so that we are virtually forced to agree to what the Koran says, and, as a counterpart, we are protected by the Muslim country, constitution, and leader.
Angelus Press: Given the present situation in Iraq, would not this be a half-way decent way of life?
Father: This servile situation goes against my civil status. I am a Chaldean and I am a citizen by right. I was there before Islam came, that land is mine. The Chaldeans are the original ethnic people, the Babylonians, whereas the Arabs were the invaders. We own Iraq, but we have no power. We have the original culture, race, and language.
Angelus Press: Father, you seem to be talking of Chaldea as a race. Does that encompass also the Chaldean Rite?
Father: Among those who share the Chaldean ethnicity, most are Christians, but some are unbelievers or Muslims. Among the Christians, the large majority is Catholic (with various rites: Chaldeans, Armenian, or Roman), whereas the other Christians (Nestorians, Syrians, Armenians, Protestants) represent only 20% of the Chaldeans. The Chaldean Rite as well as the Syro-Malabar Rite are Syro-Oriental rites, and in this, they differ from other oriental rites, like the Maronite Rite (Syro-Occidental Rite) or the Armenian Rite. All the Catholic rites share in the threefold unity of the Catholic Church: the same Faith, the same valid seven sacraments, and the same higher authority of the pope.
Angelus Press: Could you give us some numbers as to how much the Catholic population has decreased in your country?
Father: At the time of Saddam Hussein, there were 1.5 million Christians, including Protestants and, among these, the Catholic Chaldeans counted 800,000. In today’s Iraq the total number of Christians is only 300,000. Most of them live in the north of Iraq because the north has recovered stability after the war with ISIS since 2015. At the height of the conflict, they had come down to Bagdad.
Angelus Press: There has been an enormous bleeding in the last few years.
Father: Few are those who can make it back and return to their home. Each day one or two families go to Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan. They are waiting to go also to the United States, Canada, and Australia because in these countries, the Chaldeans have an important minority. In the U.S., they number about 300,000. There are about 50,000 Chaldeans in Canada as well as in Australia. As you can see, today, the Chaldean population is virtually as large in the U.S. as in Iraq.
Angelus Press: Why should Iraq be the stage of constant conflict? Is this different from what happens in Syria?
Father: This is mostly because the neighboring countries have an interest there. One hundred years ago, it was set up by the British that the president would be Sunni and the Prime Minister Shiite. Later on, the government was completely in the hands of the Sunni whereas the Shiites represent about 65% of the population. Saddam Hussein was Sunni, but he ruled over a country with a Shiite majority. He was not good for his own people. He had total control but, instead of leaving people to live as humans, he forced them to live as Arabs. Even with him, there was already a religious war, organized to wipe out his own nation.
Angelus Press: We understood that Hussein’s regime was favorable to the Christians. Is this correct?
Father: In his time, there was the division between the government and the Shiites. And it was the minorities who paid the price, and especially the Christian Chaldeans, who have no power. It was only under the embargo, when the government wanted to impress the media, that Hussein’s regime allowed the public practice of religion, but this was pure propaganda to fool the West. At least, in his time, Christians could live at peace. The Chaldeans were good servants, not leaders, but peaceful people. They were a minority and a source of peace between the opponent parties because they have no power to harm anyone or take over the power.
Angelus Press: Were you affected by the war?
Father: I came from the northern part of Iraq, and my village is between Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. It was destroyed, and we have not been paid back. Because there was war between Saddam Hussein and the Kurdish group, my people paid the price and there was no one coming to protect us. As citizens, we did our part to serve the country. So, the families took refuge in Bagdad.
Angelus Press: Could you practice your faith sometimes?
Father: The Christian religion is suffering from undue pressure. Then as today, you could practice your religion in your own church, but not in the streets. Ten years ago, our Christian names were changed into Arab names like Rami or Sala. There is a law that no church should be higher than the mosque. Muslims who wish to convert and join the Chaldean Catholic Church cannot publicly convert, even to date. If the converts were to return to Islamism, they are called redda—which means return—and they would be sentenced to death, too. If any Christian parents become Muslims, automatically, the children become Muslims. ISIS has shown their true colors by sending Christians this message: either convert to Islam or pay taxes or gifts. ISIS was present in Iraq for only two years and, now they are gone. But their agenda—the agenda of Islam—has been implemented for 1,400 years: new name, same agenda. The laws never change.
Angelus Press: What is the present condition in Iraq?
Father: The war started in 2003 and virtually ended in 2015. Today the situation is worse than in Hussein’s time because it is chaos. ISIS was here for two years only, but the fight with the different Muslim factions will go on to no end. There will always be a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, but also Kurds vs. Kurds, Sunni vs. Sunni, Shiites vs. Shiites, etc. It is necessary that one man alone take control of the country. When everyone says “I am the leader,” it does not work. To return to proper order, the country needs a good dictatorship, that is to say, a leader who cares for his own people, who will allow all citizens to have good schools, hospitals, and work. Good and innocent people just want to practice their religion and culture in peace. Only a person with military and political power can really provide for the country’s prosperity. This is not going to happen unless the U.S. is present. The U.S. went into the Iraq War for the oil and for the strategic situation of Iraq. But, at this juncture, the U.S. does not want to be involved and pay the price for Iraq’s stability.
Angelus Press: Is Iraq ready for democracy?
Father: For us, to talk about democracy is a big joke under Sharia Law, which means giving all privileges to Islam and crushing any Christian liberties. Do not imagine they will ever give the same right to Christians as to Arabs. Turkey today is a very dictatorial country, back to its Islamic roots. By way of example, in Bagdad, Muslims have means to show that Christians are not welcomed. The Christians who ran convenience shops have been forbidden to open shops in Iraq. Needless to say, most clients were Muslims. But that was a way for the government to put pressure on the minorities.
Angelus Press: What is the state of the Iraq Christians today? Is there a shortage of priests?
Father: It depends. In the north, we have practices and we have churches. There are priests but, due to shortages, many among them are married priests. There are other parts of the country where priestly ministry is not forbidden, but it is not safe to go out and have public Masses. They have their own churches, and even the government helps them to have money to build the church. The problem is that the money given to Christians is a grant, not a right. It is not the Constitution of Iraq, which only recognizes Islam.
Angelus Press: What do you mean?
Father: Religious minorities take some money from the government to build churches as a religion, but they are not viewed as full citizens. In such an unfavorable situation, it would be best to separate Church and State. But Islam is a political religion and separation will never happen. Money is not a problem in Iraq, but when the Muslim government is granting money to Christians to have their own church, corruption is not far away. The heads of the Catholic Church have money and grants for their own projects, but they lose some of their liberty in the process.
Angelus Press: As you are presently living in the United States, how can you help the Christians in Iraq?
Father: The best thing which can be done is to appeal to the White House and ask for the Chaldeans to be admitted into the U.S. as refugees. Many among my own Chaldean people have decided to leave the country and want to come to the U.S., to be part of their new country and, in the future, American citizens who can practice their faith.
Angelus Press: Would it not be a good idea for Christians to remain there in the hope of bringing the Faith back where it had existed since the Apostolic times?
Father: Today, Christians stay in Iraq simply because they need a place to live, but there is no future for them there. The best example I can give you is that of St. John Baptist. Why could he not stay in the Temple? Because there was corruption there! It is like the Jewish people. In the year 70, the Christian Jews fled from Jerusalem. This is the present situation of Christian Iraqis today. We leave, yet Babylon is our own nation; it is our spiritual and cultural homeland. Unfortunately, in Iraq, we cannot live our faith. If you go to the churches, there is no more Chaldean language spoken at Mass. The hierarchy is pushing the Arabic language down our throats. The future in Iraq is that they will lose their own language. Why cannot they name their children with Chaldean names? Little by little, they will give way and lose their legacy. Going to America is the way to preserve our heritage. Maybe some time in the future, it might be good to go back to Iraq, but not now. Today any person who remains runs the risk of being killed.