TO ADDRESS BY ARCHBISHOP WARDA OF ERBIL
ON THE PLIGHT OF CHRISTIANS IN IRAQ,
16 MARCH 2011
ARMAGH DIOCESAN PASTORAL CENTRE, DUNDALK, CO LOUTH
With great joy, we welcome Archbishop Bashar Warda, from Erbil in Iraq, which is home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. But this is a community now under dire threat of extinction. For the Christian population is now a mere 200,000 – a decrease from some 900,000 over the past ten years. There are estimated to be 1.6 million Iraqi refugees living abroad of whom 640,000 are thought to be Christian. Archbishop, we welcome you, we offer you our support, our sympathy and admiration. The courage of you and your people inspires and humbles us.
The persecution and oppression of individual believers and the community of faith is a consistent theme in the Old and New Testament. It is present all the time. Of course in the New Testament Jesus is the model and inspiration for those who suffer persecution for their faith in the Gospel.
In the Old Testament to have faith in Yahweh, means one must have the courage to stand up for that faith and be loyal and faithful to the demands of the covenant in the face of tough opposition.
I am very grateful to Aid to the Church in Need for their 2011 edition of Persecuted and Forgotten. It is a report on Christians oppressed for their faith in some thirty-two (32) countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. It alerts us to the fact of so much persecution of Christians in the world today.
Archbishop Bashar comes to us on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day – Patrick had been persecuted in many different ways. In the opening lines of his Declaration of Faith – Patrick says: “I am greatly despised by many”.
At age sixteen he was carried off into captivity in Ireland – a disaster which he eventually saw as well deserved and something that turned into an occasion of great grace.
Carrying the cross lies at the heart of Christian life. All too often, and in many places, Christians suffer verbal abuse, discrimination at work, taunts in the media and threats. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem says: “being a Christian in those lands is no accident of birth but is part of their vocation – a vocation that calls them to go deeper into their experience to see that pain and misery unites them to Christ.”
Archbishop Bashar is a Redemptorist Father, who did part of his studies here in Ireland with his Redemptorist Confreres. We are pleased that he has come to Dundalk and will celebrate the Vigil Mass in St Joseph’s this evening.
‘Why are you still here?’ – A reflection on the persecution of Christians in Iraq and the World
On the 3 June 2007, Fr Ragheed Ganni, a former student of the Irish College, Rome, who visited this diocese, and three sub-deacons were assassinated by militant Muslims as they left Sunday Mass in Mosul, Northern Iraq. Before killing Fr Ganni, one of his attackers was overheard to scream “I told you to close the Church . Why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?” The question: “Why are you still here?” immediately calls to mind St Peter’s great injunction that Christians should be ever ready to give account for the Faith that is within them.
By simply professing their Faith in public, Iraqi Christians are being persecuted physically, socially and economically, their lives and livelihoods are under continuous threat. The overt and aggressive private and public anti-Christian sentiment so evident in Iraq however is not limited to Iraq. It is to be found throughout the lesser and greater Middle East, throughout Asia. It is to be found also in Africa and increasingly it is being found within the once-Christian lands of Western Europe.
The evidence is clear and it is persuasive, Christianity is being aggressively uprooted from the Middle-East, the very lands from which its first sprang. The evidence may be less clear and the aggression may be less blood-stained but the reality remains that Christianity is under threat in Western Europe and throughout the Western World by aggressive Atheism. Not the old style heavy-handed militant Atheism and tyranny such as was evident in the former Soviet Union but by a more recently-fashioned nihilism which insistently denies the existence of any God-given Truth.
Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘roots’ of European culture are profoundly Christian, an element of the culture of contemporary secularised Europe not only denies this reality but seeks to have Christianity eliminated, or failing that, ‘ghettoised’. Christian culture, Christian values and the Christian faith are under sustained attack in many quarters.
Throughout Europe, and throughout the Western World, Christians are being asked “Why are you still here?”
This fundamental question which was screamed at the about-to-be murdered Fr Ganni four years ago in Northern Iraq has not gone away. It is the same one which challenges each and every Christian at all times and in all places: Christians are required to “apologise” (in the true sense of the word) to give an account for what they believe.
Self-evidently professing one’s faith and giving an account of it is more “life-threatening”, at least from a physical perspective, in present-day Iraq as compared to present-day Ireland. But does the same hold true from a spiritual perspective? Could it possibly be the case that it is more difficult to be a Christian believer in Ireland than in Iraq?
I also suggest that we should recognise that there is a culture war being fought in the West just as much as there is one being fought in the Middle East. It may be largely bloodless and there may be different rules of engagement but the stakes are the same, namely, the rights of all Christians to gather in public and profess their faith in word and deed.
And here let us be clear, Christians have every right to be “here”,
• to gather in the public square,
• to hand on their faith to their children and
• proclaim to the world the Christian truth about the dignity of every human being and the infinite love of our merciful God.
Some time ago, there was a cultural moment which was commonplace and largely accepted that,
• tomorrow’s world would be better than today,
• technological and scientific advances would solve humanity’s most intractable problems,
• humankind’s reason would triumph and subdue its baser instincts and by dint of it
• a city would be built on a hill where people would happily live in well-fed peace and harmony.
Genuine, well-intentioned efforts to create such “New Harmonies” in both the new and old world did not succeed. Efforts to radically reshape, “improve” society seemed almost pre-destined to founder upon the flawed nature of the human condition.
One hundred years ago, Europe was the cultural, economic, social and scientific powerhouse of the world. Today, Europe has become eclipsed as a global ‘superpower’. Europe is, in the opinion of many, rapidly becoming a socio-economic ‘has-been’.
Any healthy sustainable vision for a New Europe must embrace, not deny its Christian roots and in this what applies to Europe applies to Ireland.
In a nutshell, my central proposition here is that
• Europe is floundering because of its failure to warmly embrace its Christian heritage,
• it is declining because of its failure to respect the God-given dignity of every person and the revealed truths of Christian faith.
I would suggest that when one takes the Christian leaven out of any society, that society’s development is greatly impaired. Indeed I would go so far as to argue that society’s development will regress. We should not forget that
• It was a Christian ethic which strove for and succeeded in eliminating slavery.
• Freedom of conscience was formulated from the Christian mindset.
• Forgiveness for human failings is a supreme Christian imperative.
What type of world would we have when people are not free and where transgressions are never mercifully forgiven?
In all of this it should be clear that the Christian view of the world is founded on the understanding of both the greatness and brokenness of the human person; a greatness and brokenness which is reflected in every individual life and in every human community – from the smallest to the largest.
It is also founded upon the central belief that there is a God, a loving God of infinite mercy who wants what is best for every human being. For the Christian, every life is worth living from the moment of conception to natural death because every life is a gift from God.
2,000 years ago, Christ’s healing mission on earth was to reconcile man to God. His Church’s enduring mandate is to continue this mission, this process of reconciliation and healing of broken spirits and broken societies. The earthly mission of Christ’s church is to heal the world, to bring people and peoples into the light of God’s kingdom.
That’s why the Church is still here in Ireland. That is why the Church is still in Iraq. That is why Father Ganni and countless others offer up their lives as martyrs, to bring the beauty of Truth, to shed the light of Faith into the dark recesses of the human heart.