Bishop Habash comments on plight of Christians in the Middle East

The Catholic Voice contacted Bishop Yousif Behnam Habash of the Syriac Catholic eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance in Newark, N.J. and asked him to share his perspective on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. His comments follow:

Q: Describe the persecution and genocide Christians in the Middle East have experienced.

A 19th century French historian wrote that the most sacred land after Golgotha is Mesopotamia (the Iraq of today). At Golgotha the blood of Christ was shed, but no other land has absorbed the blood of Christian martyrs to the same degree as has happened in Mesopotamia, or Iraq. Christians never enjoyed peace or freedom from the re-emergence of the Persian Empire to the area’s domination by Islam. This is the reality one must understand and appreciate when speaking of Christians in the Middle East. If religion is devoid of a truly spiritual foundation, it becomes merely a sword to destroy and to kill. Who can enumerate the countless numbers of Christians who have perished as a result?

Islam succeeded in nearly eliminating Christianity in some places in the Middle East that had been Christian homelands – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Holy Land, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. Only very few remained in areas that had been solidly Christian; many more survived only by submitting to the injustice of the religious tax. Many fled to the mountains of northern Iraq since the Arabs, dependent on their horses, did not engage mountainous regions. But with the coming of the Tartars and Kurds, these too were forced to flee or be killed.

From the seventh century until today, the religious identity of the region has been completely changed. Christianity has virtually disappeared, owing to the various means of persecution – sometimes overt, at other times by legislation influenced by the Quran, and still other times by political decrees. The third caliph, Omar ibn Khatab, is the source of the infamous saying regarding Christians: “Leave their churches alone, but destroy their schools.” In this way, he intended to eventually do away with the need for persecution by exterminating the hope of the future. If one really wishes to be objective about the truth of the history of the interrelationship of Christianity and Islam, it would be easy to find only a few eras when Christians enjoyed a peaceful or secure existence. These same few periods would coincide with the rule of authorities who were not faithful to the Quran and other Muslim religious texts, or unconcerned about their prescriptions.

When a Christian of the Middle East hears the contemporary authority of the church say we are all brothers, he could agree that we are of the same blood, but this brotherhood was lived in a most unjust way by Muslims toward Christians. In fact, the Quran does not allow those who are converted to Islam to believe such a brotherhood with non-Muslims is permitted. So, it is possible to understand that the recent persecutions and destruction directed by ISIS, and those sympathetic to them, against the Christians in Iraq, Syria and Egypt are merely repetitions – although now displayed by mass communication before all the world – of what has occurred so often previously to the Christians of the Middle East.

Without spirit, religion becomes a sword to kill, as I have said, and this sword has become a consuming fire. More than 60 churches have been turned to ash, as well as thousands of Christian houses. We could not forget the massacre that took place in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad in 2010 when during the liturgy 47 faithful and two priests were killed. So thousands and thousands have been tortured or killed, freely persecuted while the world looked on. The body of Christian population has left the country; once 60 percent of the population, today merely 250,000 remain.      

Q: Are those Christian communities in danger of disappearing as a result?

In fact, it seems we can say yes; they are in serious danger. This fact, as I mentioned, is supported by the history of Christianity in the area. Turkey, before the Islamic conquest, was completely Christian and this Christianity was at every level – art, architecture, government – a glorious civilization. With the entrance of Islam, Christianity was reduced to the presence of mere monuments there, some even “Islamized,” like the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Today, the government of Turkey wants to return this magnificent building (under a previous government, it had been made a museum) to the status of an active mosque.

Christians have only a very marginal existence in the countries of the Middle East generally; they are without the assurance of freedom and safety, and they lack the opportunity to expand and the freedom to speak. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Peninsula, the land of Aljazeera, once had a population that was majority Christian – along with some Jewish and pagan peoples. The same thing is true of Yemen. It was a Christian kingdom virtually from the dawn of Christianity. Al Qatar (Qatar today) is a Syriac name and the national Antiquities Department has found ruins of destroyed churches below the sand. The same is true of Kuwait; before Islam this was a flourishing Christian area. The permanent, perpetual (but not always constant) persecution of Christianity has caused its virtual disappearance and present marginal existence.

Today, clearly two-thirds of the Christian population of Iraq has been uprooted by various recent events – either because of ISIS, Al-Qaida, or unwise politics and policies of Western powers. No one would be amazed if Christianity disappeared as a result of the combined effect of current persecutions and of local and external politics and policies. I could see it is the last chance for the existence of Christianity in Iraq and Syria, if those in charge do not act strongly in this matter. It could be really a last chance if the UN, the United States and European governments, and even more than these, the official church, does not care in a more serious way.

Q: What is your connection to the area in which persecution has taken place?

I am a native of Iraq, born and raised there, and ordained priest and bishop there as well. As a priest, I served in many areas of the nation, especially in the north and the south. Two of my brothers and their families, many nieces and nephews and their families and many members of our extended clan still live there.

I’ve been connected through the official communication of the hierarchy in Iraq and from family and friends, as well as, of course, through the communications media (news agencies and broadcasting channels) and the social media.

Q: Have you returned to the area?

I have, but not in the heart of the areas of persecution, the Sunni triangle: Mosul (the valley of Nineveh), Tikrit, and Al-anbar provinces. I visited since the invasion of ISIS in the Kurdish area, the border of the area of the persecution where many Christians were (and still are) living as refugees.

Q: What have you discovered during recent visits to Iraq?

I discovered with great sadness the complete lack of caring by the Iraqi Federal government and local governments concerning these displaced, refugee people, their citizens. I found that Christianity is not at all a matter of concern for the Islamic leadership. Their protestations to the contrary could be mere ‘stuff’ to be given to the media by politicians for export to the Western powers for the sake of gaining monetary aid. I have seen on these visits Jesus, the refugee, forced to flee to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, the imprisoned, sent to the political leader after judgment by the religious leadership. The voice of Christianity appeared “silent as the sheep before the slaughter” as Scripture says in the book of Isaiah.

Q: How are the people who were displaced coping with their ordeal?

With vibrant faith, despite the hardships – you can see this reality in the persecuted, and you can see it clearly. It is as if they say we are ready to lose everything – house, property, possessions, money, everything – but nobody can take the unique pride we have, which is our Christian faith. Many of them lost their lives because of their faith despite the easy temptation to convert to Islam and to enjoy the result of this conversion – to live safely and to keep everything they had given up. Very surely, the Islamic broadcasting channels and governments like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. were ready to heap praise upon the newly converted.

Yes, the Christian faith, its authenticity and fidelity to the holy church, is more precious than life or possessions.

Q: What are the current conditions in the areas of Syria and Iraq where war and persecutions have occurred?

I can see the picture of Jesus fallen down under the heavy cross not just three times, but for the three-thousandth times three times. It is really more than difficult to describe this situation – a condition of daily dying. To be a faithful Christian is to be a living martyr. Sometimes the persecution is covert and silent, but at base, all these persecutions – open or covert – are justified by the name of Allah and by the holy Quran.

Q: How are Christians there trying to rebuild?

Christians are rich in historical experience, understanding and faith in the face of persecutions. As a result of experience, they are strongly expert in dealing with all kinds of persecutions, whether caused by Islam, the Quran, external political power, by reason of economic interests or some other extrinsic cause. Here I say very clearly: strong faith is the main element in trying to rebuild, followed by connections with people of goodwill, with peace and justice builders in the world through many nonprofit organizations. Also with the help of those political powers worthy of respect, or with the assistance of those few governments that both understand and accept the reality.

Q: How will rebuilding efforts help ensure these Christian communities survive?

What is being done now is being done well and we are grateful for the many Catholic organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Relief Services – these two particularly – and of course, the other nonprofit Christian and other organizations who are helping. Yet, to be more effective and to avoid the doubts and losses incurred, I am of the firm personal opinion that these efforts should take place with the supervision and coordination of the Vatican Nunciature in those countries. If we really wish to practice our faith, we should help to build the peace of the Christian communities and we must allow the Nunciature to direct even the efforts of work there because the Christians – even the Orthodox – have strong respect for the Nunciature as a superior authority of integrity. Of course, the Nunciature should collaborate with local hierarchy and not work in isolation.

Q: What do you most want Americans to know about the situation of Christians in these regions and those who have fled to other countries?

I say, and I have repeated many times before the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: To honor the name of America, our duty is to let people around the world know that America is not a nation of warriors, but lovers of peace, of generosity, of respect for dignity of human beings and of the vulnerable people. This is the truth of America. But unfortunately, the media in America, especially some of the principal networks, are very negative toward America, portraying the nation negatively, as a power of destruction. It happened so in Iraq and Syria through unwise strategies in dealing with problem situations, and when American politicians speak lies one day and attack on the next, and when successive administrations of this century treat the situation of Iraq and Syria with a lack of wisdom and without respect for human rights and human dignity, it is easy to accept this distortion as the reality.

Today, many Iraqi Christians who are involuntary immigrants have fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. There, they are forgotten and live suspended between their past and what seems to be a future that is closed off through the negligence of American immigration authorities. They can neither return nor move forward, and yet they believed that America is a home for refugees. I regret to say that it seems to me America is like that Jerusalem over which Jesus wept and said, it knew not what was for its good.

Q: Are there other ways that Americans can help the persecuted Christians?

Yes, there are other ways. In previous decades, several tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christian families were welcomed to America. Many more than this number have been “suspended” in other countries, although related to those already here. They are still waiting for more than four years, their patience worn down, and their families, their relatives, already here are, unhappy because of the situation of those kept out and they still await them in the promised land, the USA.

The best thing is to make a study of the situation and find a solution to finish the story of the perpetual suffering of the Christians in Iraq and Syria. One very important aspect of the solution should be studied and dealt with: the poor dioceses, e.g. our diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance. It could be a diocese more responsive to the needs of our faithful if the local Roman diocese or churches or Catholic organizations could support us more than they are doing – with all gratitude and love to them for what they do. We could serve America and the church in America and the Christian faith more if there were ears more open to hear from our bitter experience.

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