01/26/2005, 00.00
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Bishop of Kirkuk: voting is a national and religious duty

Msgr Sako: "During our masses, we ask people to go and vote. The elections are something great and new". Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are misinforming and thus fuelling fanaticism.

Kirkuk (AsiaNews) - As Iraq's election day, January 30, approaches, terrorists are at work with attacks and threats to try and prevent people from voing. The latest threat came yesterday with terrorist Al Zarqawi saying that "snipers are ready to kill the apostates that go to the election lairs".

Lately, terrorists have not spared Christians who have been targeted with bombs in churches and selective killings. The latest warning: the kidnapping of Msgr Casmoussa, Syrian-rite Catholic archbishop of Mosul, who -- upon his release -- asked the United States for "a precise plan for withdrawal from Iraq".

For a better understanding of the situation in Iraq on the eve of elections, AsiaNews spoke by telephone with Msgr Louis Sako, Chaldean bishop of Kirkuk.

Msgr Sako is clearly in favour of the forthcoming elections: "At Mass, in the homily, we tell people to go and vote"; the reason is spelled out in a document that the Christians of Kirkuk undersigned together: "Voting is a national and religious duty that contributes to the birth of a new Iraq, for everyone: an Iraq which is able to develop in vitality". For the bishop, next Sunday's elections are "something immense and new", since for the first time Iraqi will "freely choose their leaders".

Will elections on January 30 be meaningful despite the constraints of on-going violence?

Yes, because the current government is provisional but, after the elections, it will be the result of popular vote. Iraqis have the opportunity to choose their leaders, those they prefer. The elections are something immense and new. Nothing of the kind has happened in the past 50 years: first because of clashes and revolts, then due to 35 years of dictatorship. There has never been freedom of expression. But now, anything is possible: if there are people and parties arguing and clashing, that is because they are free to do so. Now, Iraqis must learn to discuss in a civil manner. But the people of Iraq has never been trained for coexistence; it has always lived in the midst of violence: 3 wars, a dictatorship, 13 years of embargo. This is why freedom is not used in a responsible way and problems arise.

How many people will turn out to vote next Sunday?

The televisions news is saying 80%. There are of course people who are frightened by threats, but I say that achieving normality has its condition, and this condition is the election process. I can say that many people will cast their vote on Sunday.

The Iraqi elections don't seem to be very popular in the West, with western media.  How do you account for this scepticism?

Just yesterday the Pope asked the media  to help people understand the reality of things. The media is a big problem in Iraq:  a lot of lies and provocations are being written and broadcast.  It's enough to think of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya who are misinforming a great deal, in what amounts to utter fanaticism, which even Iraqi Muslim leaders themselves have condemned. These television broadcasters are continuously trying to spark violence against the Americans and even against Iraqis. They are throwing terrorism and resistance into the same pot, but to me their is a clear difference.  Resistance is something noble; but two days ago a car bomb exploded at a wedding: 20 people died. Now I ask: is that resistance? Those 20 victims were Iraqis, innocent men and women: was that an act of resistance?  Is attacking a church or a mosque an act of resistance?

Msgr Casmoussa, bishop of Mosul was kidnapped last week and, upon his liberation, asked that the Americans withdraw.  What do you make of that?

I think Msgr Casmoussa said what he did because he's thinking of his situation in Mosul: with a very large Sunni majority, the city is almost entirely against the American presence. But if the Americans leave Iraq today, there will be civil war between Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis, Sci'ites, Muslims, Christians. This is clear.  For this reason, it is better that Americans not leave now: there will soon be a new national government; a army and police force is taking shape; step by step a revival plan is going forward, but it is not the result of some kind of magic. The U.S. must stay on until Iraqis can take command of the nation. For the moment, they can't do this, the necessary structures are not yet in place.

How do things stand for Iraqi Christians?

The situation varies from city to city. It is very difficult in Mosul because Sunnis make up the majority of the population.  And they are against the elections since, with the fall of Saddam's regime, they lost power. In Mosul, anyone can kidnap for money or retaliation: there is no police or security.  But in Baghdad, in Basra, in the south, as also here in Kirkuk, in Kurdistan, the situation is normal. The problems are in the centre, in Sunni areas. Iraqi people as a whole know that Christians are an essential part of Iraqi society. They are a part of Iraq's heritage and national history.

How are Christians preparing for the elections?

We have spoken about the elections during Mass and have asked Christians to vote. The other day here in Kirkuk, the representatives of the various Churches undersigned a joint statement encouraging Christians to vote. We delivered it to the mayor and provincial representatives: it was favourably received. It is an appeal to Iraqis to show up at the polls, as voting is "a national and religious duty which contributes to the birth of a new Iraq, for everyone: an Iraq which is able to develop in vitality." It is not a question of indicating this candidate or that: we told people to go and vote because, even if the situation is not perfect, the elections are an important step toward democracy and freedom. The elections are the right path for a society capable of progress. There are Christian parties running for both provincial elections and the National Assembly.  Christian politicians are also part of other parties, for example Kurdish ones.

Where will the Christian vote go?

We say to vote for those who are able to run the country in a just and democratic way. Christians will vote according to their conscience. What's new is that Christians are not absent, they are there, and this give hopes for a better future. The Church must help people to stay, inspire them to take part in reconstruction, to encourage ethnic and cultural dialogue.

What is the Iraq that you would like to tell AsiaNews readers about?

There is a lot of freedom now: many newspapers are published and there is a lot of political discussion going on. Houses are being built, there's work. Here in Kirkuk, but also in Baghdad, people are out until midnight. It's true: people are killed for money or for political questions. But do you know that before (with Saddam) families could not buy a car because it was too expensive and only a few could afford it? Now everyone has one, to the point that we must keep then in garages because there are too many on the road!

What can the West do to ensure proper elections?

Encourage people to vote and leave aside all that bad news that just causes harm. Television news is quick to report on attacks or some killing, but when it comes to positive occurrences, of which there are a lot, they have nothing to say. Things aren't as bad everywhere in Iraq as they are in Mosul, my hometown: in 80% of the country, things are almost normal. Furthermore, Sunnis must be encouraged to vote because giving up on the political process amounts to losing anyway.  It is important that they keep struggling in a political and democratic fashion for a civil society in which Iraqis will have more freedom. (LF)
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