06/18/2014, 00.00
IRAQ
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Auxiliary Bishop: as Christians leave, an apparent calm prevails before the storm in Baghdad

For Archbishop Hanna Saad Sirop, the atmosphere in the capital is one of "fear mixed with foreboding." Many families are applying for baptism and marriage certificates in order to leave the city and find refuge. Chaldean Church leaders are concerned as their synod now seems in jeopardy. A civil war along sectarian lines appears increasingly likely; international pressure must be put on Baghdad.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) - An "apparent calm" now reigns over the Iraqi capital as people prepare for the worse.  Those who can "are stocking up" ahead of a possible Islamist assault, this according to Mgr Saad Sirop Hanna, auxiliary Chaldean Bishop of Baghdad.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the prelate described the atmosphere now prevailing in the city as one of "fear mixed with foreboding." In fact, "Many people are just leaving the city," the prelate said, some towards Kurdistan in the north, others to Turkey. However, Chaldean Church leaders are particularly worried about the exodus of Christians, which is already underway.

This was supposed to be one of the central issues on the agenda at the Bishops' Synod, already scheduled for later this month, but down at risk because of the violence "that is preventing bishops from travelling", not to mention other practical issues about organisation and logistics.

Still, "We hope that the prelates might meet to launch a message to the Christian community," he said.

Earlier this morning, fighters of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) attacked the oil refinery in Baiji, 210 km north of Baghdad, the country's most important. After penetrating the facility's perimeter, they inflicted damages.

Meanwhile, government forces attacked ISIS forces from the air, as the latter continued their drive towards Baghdad. At the same time, residents of the capital have started to stock up with basic necessities, fearing shortages.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia, appeared on television, along with senior Sunni and Kurdish leaders, to make an appeal for national unity. However, the country is crumbling and a three-way division seems possible, as Kurdish leaders said yesterday. Even the UN's special envoy to Baghdad, Nikolay Mladenov, is conscious that Iraq's very existence is at stake.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the auxiliary bishop said Islamist forces are about 60 km from the capital, and people are already afraid of the possible attack that might come.

"People are already leaving the city, which would mean leaving the gates open to the militants," Mgr Hanna explained. "Streets are often empty. In many neighbourhoods, people go out only to buy groceries or other basic items." An unreal calm reigns as people "wait for the storm".

Many Christian families are applying for "baptism and marriage certificates in order to leave," he added. "They cannot stand the idea of suffering another blow, more violence and persecution as in the past. They hoped for so long that the situation might change, but it has not. We are back to square one of the civil war."

The real danger, according to auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, is a "civil war along sectarian and religious" lines; "one side against the other." And men are being urged to sign up for military service. All this is driving us "to despair."

The prelate would like to see "political leaders attempt reconciliation" because the civilian population "is paralysed and scared," and has no interest in a conflict and is looking to its leaders to "promote real peace and mutual coexistence, every day."

Sadly, increasingly political leaders seem to be backing the notion of partitioning the country as the only solution to its crisis. The Chaldean Church has reiterated its strong support for "peace, unity, humanity and brotherhood" because «war does not solve problems."

"If civil war breaks out," Bishop Hanna warns, "it will be the end for us Christians in Iraq. Since 2010, in the aftermath of the attack (against the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation), we have tried to calm the situation and encourage Christians to stay . . . but every year the obstacles increase and the situation gets worse."

"We really hope that the West can realise that war will not achieve any positive outcome," the bishop said, "that the situation in the Middle East is complicated and that for peace to reign on this earth . . . [international ] political pressure is needed on Iraqi leaders to provide space for dialogue and understanding." (DS)

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