Iraq: Christians desire ‘a real and profound change of the political system’

CHALDEAN CATHOLIC Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel Moussa, O.P. of Mosul and Akra in northern Iraq spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the prospects of Christians in the country.

What is the situation today in Iraq in the light of the coronavirus outbreak?
The healthcare situation in Iraq today is extremely fragile, with a lack of testing facilities. Draconian measures have now been taken to avoid the worst of the virus, and self-isolation has been imposed on most of the country.

Has the Church taken any specific measures?
The churches have been closed as a precaution. Mass and other liturgical activities, such as the rosary, continue to be transmitted entirely via the web and Facebook, either live or recorded. This confinement has been an opportunity to reassess and strengthen family values. Although the churches have been closed, each family has now become a living domestic Church.

Faithul in Qaraqosh, Nineveh Plains, Iraq (Manweel Banna)

Are the anti-government demonstrations continuing?
The popular demonstrations in Baghdad, on Tahrir Square, against unemployment and corruption and calling for the resignation of the government, have slowed down as a precaution. The situation in Mosul and in the Nineveh Plains remains relatively calm. But the return of the Christians to Mosul remains slow and hesitant. The fanatical ideology continues to reign in many minds, and some people are still dreaming of driving all the Christians out of their historical dwelling places.

However, following the defeat of ISIS, the Iraqi people are more than ever eager for solidarity, justice and freedom. The demonstrations of the past five months and the massive uprising against corruption are the best example of the unity and the goodwill of the Iraqi people.

Where does the Christian community fit within this protest movement?
The Christian community desires a real and profound change of the political system and a competent presidential government that is secular and not clan or tribal based, nor religiously biased. Christians were among those demonstrating on Tahrir Square in Baghdad and they too had their own martyrs for these same causes. In the northern regions, the cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Iraqi Kurdistan chose to prohibit the demonstrations uprisings on account of the delicate situation they have been through. Those who wished to demonstrate were instead invited to go to Baghdad as the symbolic place to express their solidarity.

What are the hopes of Christians for the months and years to come?
The hope of the Christians is to be able to live in peace in their own country on the basis of equality of rights and duties, on exactly the same basis as the other Iraqis, so that they are not second-class citizens or dhimmis (the discriminatory status accorded to non-Muslims). For the state religion in Iraq is Islam. Christians continue to demand their rights for the revision of certain unjust laws. For example, the forced conversion to Islam of underage girls, if one of the parents should become a Muslim. The Christians are also demanding the right to equality of the sexes when it comes to inheritance, marriage, freedom of religion and so forth.

Archbishop Moussa

Moreover, Christians do not have the same opportunities in the workplace and cannot hold certain positions. The only hope for the Christians and for the other minority religions, such as the Yazidis, the Mandaeans and the Zoroastrians, would be the disappearance of the Salafist mentality. Sadly, however, this sectarian mentality continues to impose sharia law upon Iraqi legislation. School textbooks and the sectarian preaching in the mosques are a source of social and political division. The separation of politics and religion would be a blessing and could certainly ease the Calvary that the Christians have been so painfully enduring ever since the seventh century and the rise of Islam.

What is the greatest fear of the Christians today?
The greatest fear, and one which prevents Christians from returning to their former homes in Mosul and on the Nineveh Plains, is that of seeing the renewed growth of Islamic fundamentalism.

How do you see the future of the Christians in Iraq?
Personally, I am optimistic regarding the future of the Christians on the Nineveh Plains and in Iraq. Through education and cultural dialogue, we can overcome obscurantism and violence. Kurdistan, on our own doorstep, is showing that citizens can live in peace, beyond their religious differences. The popular ferment and the peaceful demonstrations in Baghdad present a great opportunity for change in Iraq. Sooner or later the last word will be for peace and not for the sword.

Since 2014, when ISIS swept through northern Iraq, ACN has contributed more than $50M in humanitarian aid for Iraqi Christians. With its “Back to the Roots” campaign, ACN has been encouraging Christians to return to the communities captured and destroyed by ISIS. The objective of the campaign is to repair and rebuild the Christian homes on the Nineveh Plains that were damaged or destroyed as well as Church-related buildings.

One project involves the restoration of the parish church of St. Kyria in Batnaya, a Chaldean Catholic village in northern Iraq, as well as the repair of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, the library, the parish hall and the rectory. The project also includes the reconstruction of the Dominican convent of St. Oraha (which had been destroyed) and the nursery school run by the nuns, which will be able to accommodate 125 children.

—Amélie de la Hougue