NEWS:  April 18, 2003

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Bird’s Eye View of the News

Atila Sinke Guimarães

IRAQ: A CATHOLIC PARADISE? -   I admire many aspects of the Arabic psychology, for example, its appreciation of symbols and metaphorical language. These characteristics, however, have an unfortunate consequence when one of us, Western man, needs to find precise figures coming from an Arab source. The informant has a natural tendency to embellish his final results, which in this case means that one normally receives a number much larger than the reality.

Therefore, when an Arabic source states that there are one million Catholics living in Iraq, I do not commit too hastily to the number until I have a more secure confirmation.

Saddam depicted as a hero

Cooperating with the interests of the regime, a certain media presented Hussein as a protector of the Catholic Church. Above, a wall in Baghdad - Sunday Visitor, October 27, 2002

A certain anti-war media came out with the figure of one million as being the actual number of Catholics in Iraq today. I don’t know where it got this number, since I don’t remember seeing any such quote. Based on this number, a consequence came, quickly harvested and presented as indisputable: in Iraq, Catholics were protected by the regime. From this, another consequence: the moral obligation for us, Catholics, to defend Saddam Hussein, take a position against the war, etc.

I had a different idea about the number of Catholics in Iraq, but I didn’t have time to check the data presented in this pro or anti-war controversy. Some days ago, however, reading The Tablet, a London Catholic weekly with a reputation for serious sources, I found a description of the condition of the Catholics in Iraq that clashes with the one presented by the anti-war media with regard to the number of Catholics or their situation under Saddam’s regime. Here are the data.

I will be quoting the article "Iraq's Christians on Edge" written by Anthony O'Mahony (The Tablet, March 15, 2003, pp. 6-7.25). He is a specialist at the Centre for Christianity and Inter-Religious Dialogue at Heythrop College in the University of London.

Lumping together Catholics, Schismatics and Protestants under the general name of Christians, O'Mahony states:

"Reliable statistics for the number of Christians in Iraq today are hard to come by. According to the best estimates, there are between 600,000 and 750,000, or 3% to 5% of the Iraq population, where before the Iraq-Iran war there could have been about 1 million. Since 1990 a total of 2 million Iraqis ... have left the country, and of that number at least 250,000 are Christians."

A little further he specifies:

"At the core of Iraqi Christianity are the Chaldean Catholics. In total, all the Catholic communities number around 500,000. The Orthodox Oriental Churches, with the Church of the East predominant, have approximately 150,000 to 200,000, the Protestants and Anglicans nearly 6,000."

This figure of 500,000 Catholics clashes with the 1,000,000 presented in the controversy. I understand that the one-million-Catholics figure presents a better profile for propaganda purposes than half that number, but it is hardly an honest sum. Why didn't the anti-war polemicists check their sources? Did they trust too naively in an Arab "embellished" source, or was there some other reason?

Now let's look at the situation of the Catholics "protected by the regime."

Card. Etchegaray meets Tarek Aziz

Card. Roger Etchegaray meets vice-president Tarek Aziz in Iraq

I continue quoting O'Mahony:

"Despite its achievements, Iraqi Christianity is hard-pressed by the social weight of Islam, the religion of fully 95% of the population. Although it is a secular republic, Iraq recognizes Islam as the religion of the State in its constitution. On the practical level, Islamic law has a determining influence and creates discrimination: a Christian woman can marry a Muslim, in which case the children will be Muslims, but the reverse is not possible ... A Muslim can inherit from a Christian but the opposite is not permitted."

The specialist continues on:

"Christians can be victims in this situation. A 71-year-old nun, Cecilia Hannamushi, had her throat slit last August in Baghdad by a Muslim mob. In Mosul, Muslims assaulted a group of faithful leaving a church. The caretaker of a Christian cemetery was attacked and his wife raped. Again in Mosul, a Bishop was constrained by threats to cover up a cross in one of his churches, and the nuns of one convent found a statue of Mary veiled in the Muslim manner."

O'Mahony gives another important factor of Catholic "freedom" in Saddam Hussein's Iraq:

"Ultimately, the Christians of Iraq suffer ... under an extremely oppressive, totalitarian regime, one which does not tolerate any form of collective institution not under its direct command. In spite of the fact that religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution, religions are closely watched. All social and pastoral activities of the Church require previous authorization; religious publications are subject to censorship; and the importation and dissemination of foreign books are strictly controlled. ... In 1974, the Ba'ath regime decided to nationalize all schools in Iraq, including the Koranic and Catholic schools, a major blow to the Churches."

By giving his enthusiastic support to the Socialist regime of Hussein, Catholic Patriarch Raphael Bidawid was probably exchanging it for a lesser evil condition for the Chaldean Catholics. His situation was similar to that suffered by the Catholic Church under Communist regimes. And the same censures that were made then can be repeated here, i.e., that submitting to this kind of control is not to have authentic religious freedom. Moreover, the position of the Vatican, represented by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, is a type of Ostpolitik with the Communist State adapted to the Islamic State. In any event, it presents a scenario far from being the "paradise" of a certain anti-war Catholic media. Is that all? No, not quite. There is another explanation for the dwindling numbers of Catholics. The Iraqi Catholic young men were the ones the government picked out to place in the front lines in its wars. That is to say, to be killed first. Let O'Mahony describe it:

"The losses suffered by Mesopotamian Christendom of all denominations over the past years and decades have been huge. Christians had a high death toll disproportionate to their number in the Iraq-Iran war, and while there are as yet no reports of the losses during the 1991 Gulf war, again a large number of Christians were killed. These losses are evident in the current imbalance of Christian men and women. Many young Christian women are therefore marrying Muslim men, which reduces the number of Christians still further."

Here is the awful reality that Catholics had in Iraq under the Hussein regime. Paradoxically it has been presented as a very good situation worth defending and preserving. A prison presented as a paradise.

The analysis of this topic continues in Guimarães book War, Just War

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