‘It is not possible to imagine a Middle East without Christians’
“IT IS NOT POSSIBLE to imagine a Middle East without Christians. It would not be the Middle East; it would be something else. [We must do all we can so that] communities of different faiths can live together, mutually respect one another and build up the country together.” These are the words of Archbishop Alberto Ortega, papal Nuncio for Iraq and Jordan, Archbishop Alberto Ortega.
In the Middle East, he explained, Christians have always had the mission to be “instruments of peace and reconciliation, of unity and development. It is a mission that requires us to be silent witnesses, since over there we cannot openly preach the presence of the Lord.”
And yet, he said: “this very simple and very discreet mission can transform the situation and touch people’s hearts. And it is revealed in the various activities of the Church—her schools, dispensaries, hospitals; all the charitable activity of the Church.”
Archbishop Ortega just took part in the Consistory (June 29, 2018) for the creation of new cardinals, among whom was the Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako I.
In his estimation, the Pope making the patriarch a cardinal is a gesture of “support for the Christians of Iraq, of all the Middle East, of the entire region,” said the archbishop, adding: “The news was very well received, not only by the Christians, but also by many Muslims. There have been a huge number of expressions of appreciation and support sent to the Patriarch by the Muslims, starting with the President of Iraq, the Iraqi Prime Minister and the Minister of external affairs, and also including ordinary people who see this appointment as a gesture of the Pope’s closeness to the country and also to the Christians.”
As a cardinal Patriarch Sako will now have “a stronger and more sustained voice, with still greater moral authority” in support and defense of the Christians in this country, the papal Nuncio affirmed.
Speaking of Iraq, the Nuncio confirmed that the situation in the country is now “somewhat better” and that gradually the Christians are returning to their former homes on the Nineveh Plains, “thanks to the support of organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and others, and the help of some governments.”
The archbishop reported that “almost half the Christians have now returned to their homes, and this is good news. In Qaraqosh, the town with the largest Christian population, more than 5,000 families have returned, and little by little, in some of the Christian villages, life is beginning to resume its normal pattern.”
Nonetheless, he added that “much remains to be done” and expressed his hope “that the aid may continue to come in, because people can return only if they have homes and can find work—and consequently it is essential to continue the international aid, and the support of the Church, for these people have lost everything for the sake of their faith.”
The archbishop said that the Christians of Iraq simply wish “to be fully recognized as citizens, with the same rights and duties as the rest of the population, and to be appreciated for the work that they do on behalf of all. Very often it is the Muslims themselves, their own neighbors, who tell them they want them to stay and not to go away, because things are better with them there.”
According to the Nuncio, the Christians of Iraq have given two important lessons to the entire universal Church: “the value of the faith, and their union with the Lord, for the sake of whom they have lost everything without a second thought and given up their homes and their work.”
Plus, he added, there is their “spectacular lesson of forgiveness. To hear these Christians forgiving and praying for those who persecuted them is a testimony to the action of the Lord. Humanly speaking, it is extremely difficult to forgive someone who has driven you out of your home, who has caused you to lose everything or murdered one of your loved ones.”
From 2011 to June 2018, ACN gave almost $47M for pastoral projects and emergency aid in Iraq. ACN is the most actively involved aid organization on the Nineveh Plains.