Chaldaean bishop: "We as builders of the new Iraq"
Signs of hope and Western blindness; confidence in Allawi's government and Christians' duty. Full interview with Monsignor Rabban Al Qas, Chaldaean bishop of Amadiyah (northern Iraq), who is in Italy raising funds for the reconstruction of his country.
Rome (AsiaNews) Hostage taking, decapitations, explosions, fire, murder. The images that come with the news from the Middle East seem to confirm the impression that Iraq is a valley of death. Nothing farther from the truth says Monsignor Rabban Al-Qas, Chaldaean bishop of Amadiyah, for whom his country is very much "alive." For so many, the last year was a time of war, Anglo-American occupation, terrorist attacks and riots; in other words, a time of death and destruction. For Bishop Rabban this was however a time in which the "new Iraq was rising from the ashes."
The reason for so much optimism is the International School, the first English language school opened since the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is in his diocese of Amadiyah, in the north of the country, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Bishop Rabban explained that "since the French, the Americans, and the British established a protected zone in 1991, north of the 36th parallel, life there has been relatively calm. We started building a school for 500 students, Christians and Muslims, Yazidis and Arabs. The school was designed so as to offer student housing to young people from the neighbouring villages. Our goal was to provide free education to all placing our hopes in God's hands and those of people of good will." Prince Albert of Monaco is of one of the people of good will backing the project, so is the Monaco-based non governmental organisation (NGO) Mission Enfance, not to mention other benefactors in France, Germany, and Italy.
With the approval of the Education Ministry sciences and humanities are taught in English but also French hoping that it facilitate Iraq's integration into the world community. "I expect," the bishop said, "that scholars from the US and France or other countries will come as interns to teach science."
The first brick was laid on July 14, 2003, when Saddam Hussein was still on the loose. Until he was defeated, he did everything to block the project. "Saddam," the bishops recalled, "demanded that all NGOs get the green light from Baghdad, that all donations be approved and checked from the centre. He did not want the school. Even Tarek Aziz, when we met him, said that the school could not exist outside of Baghdad's control. This was vintage Baath Party. After taking power, it nationalised all the schools, private or religious alike. Previously, Iraq's scientific elite was educated in Christian and Jesuit schools. With nationalisation came a certain cultural decline. Our school is an attempt to breathe new life into scientific education and overcome the hurdles and controls imposed by Saddam's old regime. This too is the new Iraq."
Your Excellency, is there really such a thing as a new Iraq?
Since June 28 our situation has changed. We have a new government under the auspices of the UN. I disagree with those who think the "occupation is over," but I believe that what the Americans did was truly a liberation, the liberation of Iraq. And on this basis shall the new Iraq emerge.
Watching Western Medias one gets the impression that there is but death and destruction . . .
The Western press has been unjust towards Iraq. It has focused only on the dark side, on terrorism, killings, car bombs, the cruel images of decapitation. Some went as far as saying violence was justified because it was aimed at the occupiers. Unfortunately, ordinary people are the ones who paid a high price, Muslims and Christians working for the Americans or finding themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time when some car explodes. The so-called "resistance" hardly ever kills Americans. No! Opposition should mean defending the rights of the people, not killing them. If you strike and kill fellow countrymen and women, you are not a resistance fighter, you are but a destroyer, a bearer of death.
The press has been backward-looking focusing on the negative side of the situation, never talking about the positive things the former provisional council did and the present interim government is doing. No one showed that, despite the political upheaval, the uncertainties and lack of security, schools reopened. Whether primary, high and secondary schools, or universities, the normal academic year ended as one would expect.
Under Saddam there was only poverty. Now the economy is slowly reviving thanks to what the government and the Americans are doing. New building sites are opening, new construction is going on. All this in spite of terrorist attacks. How many people paid in blood their commitment to rebuild Iraq? Italians, Japanese, French, Americans, Koreans . . . No one talks about power plants restarting, oil wells reopening, agricultural programmes being launched, roads being rebuilt. . . that were once filled with potholes.
What can one say about the press and freedom of the press? There are at least 150 daily newspapers in the country. And what about demonstrations? Under Saddam, they were banned . . .
Much has been said about Sunnis, Shiites, Moqtada al Sadr all of whom were and still are opposed to the Americans . . .
Do you think that without the Americans overthrowing Saddam, Moqtada al Sadr, the Shiites, the Sunnis, the Christians could demonstrate? Or criticise the authorities? Or even take part in pilgrimages or religious observances? The answer is no. One, two million people going on pilgrimage to Najaf would have been impossible. In any event, Moqtada al Sadr is someone inexperienced, someone who rallied some people to his cause without a clear plan, perhaps with foreign money . . . His movement was not serious and is already finished. In the government there are people who are more representative of the Shiite community. Too bad that no one speaks to them. It is sad to say that we have not been well informed about what is happening in Iraq. Western Europe and pacifists have been blinded to what is going on in our country.
Regardless of what some may say, something new is sprouting here, a democracy, young, but real, and in need of help. Regardless of what many Europeans may think or argue, as an Iraqi I believe that we shall always be grateful to the US for our liberation. I say it as an Iraqi, as a Kurd, as a Catholic bishop. Our people were saved and can now hope in a better future.
What relations can the new Iraq have with France, Russia, other Arab countries?
The people in the government are rather optimistic about the future. And ordinary citizens are giving them a chance and some time to prove themselves. It has to be said that the Iraqi state was completely knocked out. Offices closed, ministries non existent, the army dissolved, lots of bickering, Baathists excluded. I believe the new government will make it, and in a few months we shall see the first results of its efforts. But we need everyone's help. Now there is no excuse not to help us. Before it could be argued that everything was under US control. Now there is a UN resolution and power is in the hands of an Iraqi government. I think that over time the French and the Russians will recognise this government. They and others have already jumpstarted economic relations. The government is also planning how it will seek foreign debt forgiveness, a debt, by the way, accumulated under Saddam.
In the past the French played an important role in Iraq's economic development. They were also instrumental in developing Iraq's armed forces. It is not in their interest to stay on the sidelines at a time when Iraqi society is being reborn. I have many French friends and they are getting ready to come back to Iraq.
Prime Minister Allawi too wants to diversify Iraq's economic relations. Iraqis might be grateful vis-à-vis the Americans but they also must establish relations with everyone else. The international community must work with us in a concerted way to broaden our political and commercial ties.
As for other Arab and Islamic countries, some like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Turkey are already in the country. The Saudis and the Egyptians are setting up the infrastructure needed for satellite telephone. The signs of renewed economic growth are visible. Because of ongoing construction the prices of cement and iron are rising. This is good; it is a sign of renaissance.
What is the situation of the Church in the new Iraq?
We Christians want to live as full citizens in a secular Iraq. For this reason we are in favour of Iraq's new constitution. The Shiites back us. The overwhelming majority of Shiites, including the grand mullahs of Iraq, do not want an Iranian-style government. Only one Shiite in four wants an ayatollah-dominated state, one governed by the clergy. Like people in Europe Iraqis do not want to be under the temporal power of religion.
The Church must however be forthright and unambiguous. She must be pro-active and judge things as they happen. As Christians we are not second-class citizens; we are part and parcel of the nation. Today we must live as Iraqis, work with the government and work in freedom.
It is most urgent we bear witness, not only in words, but also in deeds by living our Christian identity and expressing our Christian values. In the past fear we were afraid of making the sign of the cross in public or gathering together in our homes. Under Saddam there were laws that treated Christians unjustly. Yet we were silent, sorry for ourselves and our minority condition. For example, although children born to a Christian mother were automatically considered Muslim, we said nothing. When our schools were confiscated, we just put up with it and taught in churches. It is high time to call what is bad, bad, and what is good, good.
You speak this way because you have been living in Kurdistan, an area where Saddam Hussein's influence diminished greatly after 1991 . . . But isn't your case the exception?
No, not at all! It's just that we started to experience freedom and democracy a bit sooner than the rest of the country because the area was under Allied control. Of course, what I say to you was and is shaped by my life in Amadiyah diocese. However, what I say is not that far from what all Iraqis think.