Brussels (AsiaNews) – For Mgr Jean Benjamin Sleiman, archbishop of Baghdad of the Latins, the persecution visited upon Christians in Iraq is the result of Islamic fundamentalism, especially under the Islamic State group, but also of political calculations and projects to break up the Middle East that date back to the 1950s
The prelate spoke at a meeting held at the European Parliament on 1 July titled ‘The Persecution of Christians in the world.’ Organised by the Intercultural Activities and Religious Dialogue Unit of the European People's Party, the seminar had to overcome resistance by some secularist (and anti-Christian) elements in the European Parliament.
MEPs Teresa Jiménez-Becerril Barrio (Spain), Hölvényi György (Hungary), and Jan Olbrycht (Poland) were the main sponsors of the event. The vice president of the Conference of Imams of France Hocine Drouiche, the director of the European Jewish Community Centre in Brussels Rabbi Avi Tawil, Fr Andrzej Halemba of Aid to the Church in Need, and AsiaNews chief editor Fr Bernardo Cervellera also addressed the gathering.
Below we publish Mgr Sleiman’s address (translation from the French by AsiaNews). More will follow in the coming days.
The persecution of Christians in Iraq reached its peak with the invasion by the Islamic State group of a section of the country. This followed a long string of car bombs against Christian places of worship, kidnappings, assassinations, expropriations, armed robberies, as well as threats, discriminations, psychological pressure, and hateful sermons to silence, discourage and push them into exile, etc.
Thus, between 1 August , 2004, when several churches were bombed, and the invasion by the Islamic State, Iraqi Christians have been targeted by three major waves of persecution: they were driven out of Dora, a Baghdad suburb, in 2006-2007, and Mosul in October 2008. In June-August 2014, they suffered the same fate again in Mosul as well as in the Christian villages in Nineveh Province.
Consistently, extremists ordered Christians to become Muslims, pay the Jizya, the poll tax imposed on Dhimmis to allow them to live, or leave without taking any of their property. The tax could be replaced by handing over young Christian boys for combat and Christian girls for "jihad marriage".
In other words, Christians were asked to go and leave everything behind. If they stayed, killing them becomes legitimate, i.e. justified by God in accordance with the Sharia, the body of laws and rules that define Islamic jurisprudence.
Persecution supposedly stemmed from Muslim religious fanaticism, which is said to be rampant in Iraq. However, persecution did not appear to be spontaneous. It is like the tip of a big iceberg, one we should probe to understand better and find an effective cure.
Thus, I propose to answer three questions: Where does persecution come from? Who is behind the persecution? How can the persecution be stopped?
I. Where does persecution come?
A key feature of persecution was that it did not happen by chance. It was deliberately organised, sometimes with premeditation. It was the product of history, of a process and an evolution within a specific cultural context. Thus, the persecution of Iraqi Christians that has characterised the country since 2003 goes back a long way.
In 2003, when the dictatorship fell, society was left to itself. The many conflicts, problems, and frustrations that had been kept under warp, were now exposed. Without a state, society succumbed to anarchy, regressing inexorably, and is now rudderless.
Tribalism came to the fore. Religion, particularly the dominant one, has become fundamentalist and confessional in order to legitimise persecution.
Instead of sparing culture and minds from regression, religion no longer regulates violence. The latter has found a niche in cultures and structures that have never lost their tribal nature, ethnologically speaking.
Instead of welcoming otherness, accepting differences, and recreating an interplay between unity and plurality, it has allowed itself to be monopolised by fanatics, ignorant men, and opportunistic leaders in search of legitimation, as well as religious men hungry for power.
The religion of Islamic extremism legitimises excesses, discrimination, and persecution on a daily basis. The new political structures, the constitution for example, despite their openness to modernity, despite serious progress towards freedom, have allowed this religion to infiltrate and be used by them. Article 2 exemplifies this situation.
2. Who is behind the persecution?
Persecution is a complex phenomenon. The history of the Middle East tells us that it can be overt or subtle, systematic or occasional, unstoppable or fleeting. It can involve a variety of social and political actors. It can be committed by a group or an individual.
When Arab nationalism came to power in some countries, it resorted to violence and persecution. Religious fundamentalism, which is trying to replace it, will not be less eager to use violence and persecution.
International politics, which is running out of steam in order to protect its interests in the region, has largely contributed to instability and favoured extremist actions like persecution.
Certainly, we can see those who carry out persecution and those who order it. We see the tragedy but we are not always sure what or who will benefit.
If we just look at Iraq, we cannot avoid seeing ethno-religious cleansing. Are there not makers and breakers of nations behind it?
Since the 1950s, the idea of a new, grander Middle East has been discussed. Does such a plan to rebuild societies, and homogenise human groups, by moving, eliminating and exiling some groups not pave the way for persecution?
Persecuting Christians in Iraq and pushing them into exile will bring down the interethnic bridges that Christians constantly build, wiping out the mediatory and moderate role Christians played, pushing groups away from each other, whilst enhancing their socio-political-cultural narcissism.
Violence will be, as the Bible says about Cain, this wild beast, lurking at each other’s door, with never-ending fights. "Then the LORD said to Cain: Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it” (Gen 4:6-7).
3. How can the persecution be stopped?
It seems clear to me that we have to fight on two fronts. Domestically, it is essential to review cultures and structures. We have to work a lot on education, instil values, civilised behaviour, on a continuing basis . . .
At the same time, we have to work hard on laws to eliminate discrimination, as well as redefine citizenship to establish "equality, fraternity and liberty."
At the regional and international level, it is essential to stop destabilisation and proxy conflicts, and remember that peace is the best way to pursue one’s interests and safely live together.
As for Iraq, the state must be helped to become again the foundation of society, which can control, protect, and rescue it from its own violence. The state, despite all possible limits, is the best guarantee for coexistence among its citizens.
*Archbishop of Baghdad of the Latins