12/17/2003, 00.00
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"Christians under Saddam suffered persecution"

by Lorenzo Fazzini
An interview with Msgr.  Jean Benjamin Sleiman, Latin rite archbishop of Baghdad

Verona (AsiaNews) – Now that tyranny is under lock and key, Iraqi Christians are now open with about their tales of suffering and persecution during the Saddam Hussein era.

Msgr. Jean Benjamin Sleiman, Latin rite archbishop of Baghdad told AsiaNews: "Even if in the West Saddam Hussein's regime was referred to as a secular state, civil society was ruled by Islamic law, with serious consequences for non-Muslims."

Tareq Aziz, Christian Vice President, was often referred to in the West as an example of a positive situation for Christians…. Is this true?

Tareq Aziz was not the Vice Minister because he was a Christian, but because he was a long and great childhood friend of Saddam Hussein, with whom he carried out some of his first massacres in their first years working together. Aziz rose in the Iraqi political arena only because he was a friend of Saddam Hussein. I must say, as part of the Christian minority community, we often obtained concessions not from Aziz, but from other Muslim ministers. I remember, for example, the case of a school book containing offensive statements about Christianity: Aziz did nothing in light of our protests. Finally a Muslim minister ordered the book removed from school shelves. Moreover, when Tarek Aziz met the pope just before the war, his haughty behavior scandalized Christians….

What consequences does the end of Saddam Hussein's regime have on religion?

The era of horizontal co-existence is over between various religious groups, all crushed by the same power. But the step toward an inner acceptance of living together with different people still has not happened. A Muslim will never speak bad about a Christina in his presence; yet this doesn't meant  he's convinced of living together with someone of a different faith. Provisional government authorities suppressed the Ministry of Religious Affairs; now there is a religious council for Shiites, one for Sunnites, and one for Christian minority communities. This change, however, is causing great difficulties for relationships between Christians: on the minority council, for example, there are three Chaldean representatives, but no Orthodox one. What's more, their representation is often carried in terms of the their ethic as opposed to religious background, and this creates problems.

What mark did Saddam Hussein's policies leave on religion?

No religious community in Iraq today knows what freedom means; to learn what freedom is thus the great challenge to all faiths in Iraq today. For example, we compare ourselves with the great activism of the seven Evangelical Churches, which are politically well protected and have great economic resources: (yet) they proselytise, both bothering and irritating Muslims greatly, and thereby risking a reaction of fundamentalism.

Iraqi Islam risks being fundamentalist?

Fundamentalism is penetrating greatly into Iraqi society. I can give you an example from our schools: children are narrowly educated and often end up saying to their Christian classmates: "Your are Christian and will go to hell, because only us Muslims will go to paradise."
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