12/02/2003, 00.00
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With the coalition's help, Christians and Muslims build foundations for secular state in Iraq

by Pierre Balanian

Interview with Msgr. Rabban Al-Qas, Chaldean Bishop of Amadiyah

Rome (AsiaNews) – "Iraq needed outside help in order to undergo rebirth," said Msgr Rabban Al-Qas, Iraq's bishop to the Catholic Chaldean community.  Msgr. Rabban's dioceses is Amadiyah, a territory located in northern Iraq near the Turkish border and Iraqi Kurdistan. During Sadaam Hussein's dictatorship, this area was object of military raids, land takeovers and of the forced removal of Christian and Sunnite populations living there.  Msgr. Rabban, who has come to Rome along with 21 other fellow bishops to elect the future patriarch of Babylon, agreed to an interview with AsiaNews. From his words, we gather a rather unusual image of Iraq: "At least 80% of Iraqis view the coalition troops as liberators," he said. What's more, he continued, "Life is better than before… Now there are organizations, demonstrations, democracy." Msgr. Rabban Al-Qas hopes coalition forces will help Iraq build a secular democracy –the only possibility of guaranteeing freedom for both Christians and Muslims.    

A fifty-four year-old dynamic person and optimist, Msgr. Rabban is affectionately referred to by Sunnite Kurds as the "Bishop of Kurdistan" who view him "not only as the bishop of Chaldean Christians but also of us Kurds." The bishop puts all ethnic distinctions to the side: "I am above all a pastor in service of all, and my mission is to bear witness to God's love for all his creatures, whether they be Kurds, Turkmenians, Armenians, Jews or Shiites." His witness of love and the generosity of German churches have led him to build many villages and schools in a Kurdistan distinctly populated by Kurds and Christians. "Come to think of it, perhaps I care more about Kurds than I do Christians." For Msgr. Rabban freedom of religion remains important: "By our work and example we wish to bear witness to God's love for beings who owe their creation to Him, including Muslims."  


Below is the complete text from the interview:


What is the number of faithful in your dioceses of Amadiyah?

About 500 families. Since the 1960s, when the old regime began a war against the Kurds, many villages were abandoned. Chaldeans and Kurds emigrated to Baghdad or Mossul. In 1978, Saddam Hussein's government forced inhabitants to evacuate villages near the Turkish border. Those who were deported were sent to live in the government's "communal villages". 

Now that the old regime has been quelled, is there the possibility of returning there? Is there anyone who seeks to recover the abandoned territory with the help of armed forces?

Yes, but it is a slow process. There are still problems linked to general safety, above all along the borders. Iraq still hasn't gotten its peace and stability back. Then it is necessary to rebuild homes and villages which, at the time, were leveled to the ground.

What steps have you taken to resolve the problem?

We have discussed the matter with Kurdish leaders, and they have made some promises to us. We have an excellent understanding with the Kurds. There is no discrimination of any kind. We are on real good terms with them.

What are the conditions of life like in Iraq today? Is there electricity, water, and so forth?

The situation is better now, with respect to the last years under the old government. Now we have electricity 24 hours a day; foodstuffs are found more easily; people have returned to work the land; hospitals are functioning; there are private clinics and even medicine. I can tell you that life now is better than before. This doesn't mean problems do not exist.

For example?

The main problem is that politics is not 100% in the hands of Iraqis. We want a new life in Iraq, a new political environment, one without dictatorship or tyranny. Unfortunately there are traces of fanaticism rooted in the past: There are still persons woven into the Iraqi fabric of society, who act according to the interests of other countries. Evil acts carried out today in Iraq are not only the work of Iraqis, but, above all, that of foreign powers.

How do Christians today live in the new Iraq?

I just spoke with the Chaldean bishop of Bassorah. There have been problems there: Some shopkeepers selling alcoholic drinks were killed and their shops burned.

In that area where a Shiite majority live, the Iranian mentality (fundamentalist) has great influence. Similar incidents occurred in Baghdad and Mossul, too. Twenty days ago, a Christian judge from Al- Qosh near Mossul was killed upon leaving is house.

By whom?

By unknown persons, naturally. Perhaps by Saddam's most loyal followers or still others. Who knows?

What was the motive?

Because the man had accepted a public position. That very same day three people were killed in three different places, all for the same reason.

Does there exist in Iraq an integralist Islamic anti-Christian movement?

Yes. But it is not only Christians who are its victims, even if they are the easiest targets. Two months ago in Mossul, missiles were launched against the home of Dominican sisters. There have been death threats made against Christians and many of the faithful have fled from Bassorah. Today the integralist Muslim movement in Iraq is freer. In the past, in the days of Saddam Hussein, they acted in secret. They sent anonymous, threatening letters in which they urged us, even us prelates and priests, to convert to Islam. Now these fanatics rise up with greater freedom. It is also said that under Saddam Hussein there was another form of veiled persecution: It was forbidden to give non-Arab names to our children. Children of mixed marriages were registered as Muslims.This law still exists.   

Currently there is much talk in Iraq about future legislation. A few days ago the ayatollah Al-Sistani insisted that Islam and the Shariat code (Koranic law) influence the drawing up of a new constitution and set of laws. Will you be able to construct a secular Iraqi government, one which is open to all minority groups? 

It is very difficult without outside support. I hope that the United Nations, the United States and anyone one else in connection with them will invigilate the drafting of a new constitution in order to create a secular state, one without a religious bias. Transformation of the country into an Islamic state would be to the detriment of the Christian community. We don't want to enter one tunnel, only to enter another soon after. All we can do is seek support. If they do not listen to us, it will be a great loss.

Are their Christian members of Iraq's provisional governing body?

There are two: the first is Yonada Kanna, a former minister now representing the Christian movement in Baghdad's provisional government; the other is Al Basi, brother-in-law to one of our bishops. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the minister of finance,  Sarkis Aghagian, is also Christian.  

Does the presence of coalition troops have some positive effect?

With respect to the past few months, we live more in peace. Every day we notice changes and improvement is on its way. This is not forgotten. The press, however, blows up all that is negative in Iraq. Integralism, it is worth repeating, is linked to foreign powers and is a global phenomenon. Among the targets are not only foreign troops but also many ordinary citizens, of whom there is hardly ever anything made mention. There are persons branded as "collaborators" who are often nothing but mere interpreters. According to fundamentalists, there is no need to work with foreigners.     

Perpetrators of such violence are ex-loyalists of Saddam Hussein, those who worked in the old administration, yet have lost everything. They are former parasites seeking revenge.

How do Iraqis view the presence of allied troops?

At least 80% of the population views coalition troops as liberators. 60% of the population is composed of Shiites. Without the Americans present, Shiites wouldn't have had any voice (in the new government). Think about the Kurds, too, who are 4 million in number. Think about the Christians: now there is an Assyrian-Christian movement when, in Saddam Hussein's time, it was totally forbidden. The members of the Assyrian-Chaldean cultural associations were all clandestine, as they were considered subversive. They were once arrested and killed. Now they are free. There now exists freedom of expression. There are hundreds of new press agencies, books that get published, people that say aloud that they want democracy. Without a coalition, there likely would never have been any chance for democracy. If the allied troops abandon Iraq now, there will be chaos and disorder. And who will come and save us the second time? Before we had to keep our mouths shut, above all us Christians. Now we speak freely. Iraq needs outside help.   

You spoke about various ethnic groups and religious creeds. Will this Iraqi melting pot be able to stay united as one single nation?

Immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein many of us thought the country would fall prey to civil war. It hasn't been so. Iraqis are highly cultured, well-educated and intelligent. We aspire to freedom and democracy. If given the possibility and some help, we will be capable (of achieving it).

For years they has not been a census taken in Iraq. What will be the basis then for Iraq's upcoming elections? The ayatollah Al-Sistani wants to base them on the food ration cards given to people by Saddam Hussein during the last war. What is your opinion?

I think that there will be soon a serious census taken of the population. I am convinced that the coalition cares to make Iraq a democracy which is exemplary to all neighboring countries. Iraqis are aspiring to democracy. And the whole world wants Iraq to be democratic. No one in Iraq wants a nation ruled by mullahs (i.e. religious leaders). Neither do the Shiites, Sunnites, Kurds nor Christians want it that way. Don't believe what you see on TV. Now that we lack political representatives and a government structure, it is normal that Christian and Muslim religious leaders act as spokesmen for the desires of their people. Iraq is like a new born child, one which needs his mother to nourish himself as well as a tutor in order to mature. It is normal that a Shiite votes for someone of his same creed, as a Christian does for a fellow Christian. But we want to end up voting for a valid politician, independently of our faith and ethic background. Real democracy occurs when a Christian votes for a Sunnite Kurd, because he's convinced that the (Kurdish) politician is capable of representing him better that the Christian candidate on the list, and vice versa. 

What role do you foresee the Iraqi Christian minority playing?

Our mission is to forever bear witness to what our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us: to shout on high against injustice, denounce it, as well as defend and protect the weak . We must value and keep human rights respected for all –not only for Christians. We must be like St. John the Baptist – a fearless voice screaming in the desert –by becoming the conscience of those who destroy conscience. By our work and example we wish to bear witness to God's love for beings who owe their creation to Him, including Muslims.
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