His Excellency the Most Reverend Bashar Warda, Archbishop of Erbil (in Iraq) addressed the gathering in the following words, with my emphases:
Good afternoon Cardinal Brady, Bishop Clifford, ladies and gentlemen and fellow clergy. I thank you for the honor to mark the launch today of the 2011 edition of Aid to the Church in Need's report on Christians oppressed for their faith, entitled 'Persecuted and Forgotten?'Let us remember our persecuted brothers and sisters in prayer each day, offering our sacrifices and penances for them.
This report and the work of Aid to Church in Need is critical to us as members of the worldwide Christian community. This information will significantly contribute to building international support and solidarity for Christians around the world where our human rights to religious freedom has been stripped away.
As the report states, in many countries, like Iraq, the situation for Christians seems to be worsening, sometimes to the point where we wonder if we will survive as a people in our own country.
But this is not a time to hide our faith or our identity over such struggles. In Iraq, 40 years of war and oppression have strengthened our endurance and our resolve to stand strong and to claim our legal and historical right as a Church and as a people in Iraq. We have not come this far to give up.
Through the international support and solidarity that this report will create, I believe we can be stronger in our unity and more strategic in our search for sustainable solutions.
What we Iraqis are suffering is a crisis in cultural change. We are living in a region which cannot decide if it is for democracy or for Islamic law. It cannot decide if it is for the rights of human beings to live in freedom in all its exciting and challenging forms, or if it is for the control of the spirit and the minds of its people.
This is the kind of control that welcomes the terrorist methods of intimidation, kidnapping and killing of religious minorities.
The Middle East, now, is a crescent, fertile for terror and domination. A region founded upon a cultural and social environment that has depended on violence to keep its societies divided. History and a tribal mentality have been used to maintain that violence and those divisions. The Crusades, the aggressive West, Israel and American Christians are pointed to as the enemies. Yet, in reality, the enemy is within.
What Iraqis are left with is a weak constitution that tries to please two masters: on the one hand the premise of human rights supposedly for all its citizens, yet on the other hand, Islamic law for its majority of Muslims. Islamists are not the only ones at fault.
Secularists with an eye for profit are also responsible.
Neighboring governments in the region feeding the insurgents with money and weapons to destabilize the government are also responsible.
The rest of world's governments have turned their backs on us, as if the human rights abuses and near genocide conditions Iraqi Christians experience, are temporary.
Yet for nearly 50 years, Christians in Iraq have suffered displacement and negligence. Here is a picture of the 233 Christian villages in northern Iraq in 1961. Dozens of those villages were destroyed in the 1950s and 60's as Iraq evolved from a kingdom to a republic and this displacement continued into the years of Saddam Hussein.
Moreover, Christian history is noticeably absent from the Iraqi history books used in our public schools. Our place as one of the original inhabitants of the region, has been wiped from collective memory. We are merely one of the non-Muslim, minority inhabitants of Iraq, lacking all the rights and rewards that full citizenship in a real democracy should bring us.
During the Gulf War years, the Christian population in Iraq was estimated between 1.2 and 1.4 million. By 2003, it had dropped by over half a million. Iraq's Christian population now numbers less that 500,000 and this figure is highly optimistic.
Iraqi Christians live primarily in Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Erbil and Mosul and in small towns in the Nineveh plains of the north. Close to two-thirds of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church, and roughly one-fifth belong to the Assyrian Church of the East. The rest belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, and various Protestant denominations.
As you can see in these two maps main Iraqi Christian population centers are located along disputed boundaries between Iraq and Kurdistan and in areas with strong extremist militia presence.
Christians tend to be persecuted by majority populations for two reasons:
1) Their Christian faith, which is not accepted in Iraq by Islamic fundamentalists and
2) For political purposes to control land and resource allocation in the disputed areas.
Since the occupation of Iraq in 2003 over 500 Christians have been killed in religious and politically motivated conflicts. Forty percent of the killings took place in northern Iraq, 58% in the Baghdad region and 2% in the south.
Killings of Christians began in earnest in 2003 when the first translator was killed in Baghdad. In 2006, targeted killings of Christian leaders escalated when an Orthodox Christian priest, Boulos Iskander, was kidnapped, beheaded and dismembered despite payment of a ransom.
Between 2006 and 2010, 17 Iraqi priests and 2 Iraqi Bishops were kidnapped in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk. Many were held for days; some for weeks. All were beaten or tortured by their kidnappers. Most were released, but one bishop, four priests and three sub-deacons were killed. In most cases, those responsible for the crimes stated they wanted Christians out of Iraq.
These kidnappings and murders have left their mark on the minds and bodies of the Iraqi churches. Not only have our religious leaders been murdered, but also simple families, shop keepers, children, teachers, the elderly, mothers and their babies, and members of all element of Christian society.
• Direct threats using intimidating letters with bullets placed inside
• Text messages direct sent to families named in the messages
• Direct threats, person-to-person on the streets
• Threatening language from police and army representatives
• Breaking into houses, stealing possessions or making extortion threats
• Threatening graffiti with Koranic text.
• Armed men standing in front of Christian homes or in cars and then leaving
• Text messages about kidnapping children from their schools
Also, our college students are severely intimidated. Thousands of college students have delayed their studies or transferred to Erbil for their course work.
Now I would like to talk to you about the systematic bombing campaign of Iraqi churches. The first Iraqi church was bombed in June, 2004 in Mosul. Following that event, successive campaigns have occurred and a total of 66 churches have been attacked or bombed; 41 in Baghdad, 19 in Mosul, 5 in Kirkuk and 1 in Ramadi. In addition, 2 convents, 1 monastery and a church orphanage was bombed.
The first Campaign of bombed churches took place on August 1 2004 at the Church of Saint Peter and Paul in Al Dora. That day, 6 churches were bombed across Iraq.
As I am sure most of you know from the news, on 31 October 2010, 58 people, including 51 hostages and 2 priests, were killed after an attack on Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad. A group affiliated to Al-Qaida, Islamic State for Iraq, stated that Christians were a "legitimate target."
There are thousands of examples of overwhelming suffering among Iraqi Christians. Two come to my mind here that I would like to tell you about.
One is the story of the father of a teacher in our kindergarten in Ankawa. Last year Mr. Dahan was the first of at least eight Iraqi Christians killed in Mosul prior to the elections. The abduction that ended in his death was the second time he had been kidnapped. Two years before, he had been abducted, beaten and stuffed in the trunk of a car until the family could collect the $5000 ransom.
The family says that after he returned the first time, they didn't leave Mosul because their father would not move. "Our father said, 'if all of us Christians leave, who is going to stay in the land of the prophets and pray in our churches?' " "He said, 'we were all born in Mosul and we will die in Mosul.' "
A second story is about my friend Father Mazen from Qaraqosh. Father Mazen was kidnapped 4 days after he had been ordained a priest. He was released but a year later armed men entered his home and killed his father and two brothers in front of his mother and sister in law.
Despite this tragedy, Father Mazen serves the displaced families in his congregation in Qaraqosh with unfaltering faith.
As I mentioned, there are thousands of examples of such senseless injury and killing. The grief and sorrow in our congregations is palpable, where not one person has been uneffected by tragedy since 2003.
Moreover, each family has suffered decades of losses from the Saddam regime, the sanctions prior to the occupation, the devastation of the Gulf War as well as the Iran/Iraq War. Iraqis are a people who have experienced immense suffering but who are also strong, resilient and prepared to claim their right to existence.
The Kurdistan region, overall, has been a relocation site for over 55,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from other cities in Iraq in the past 7 years. The population has grown significantly since the military events of 2003.
More recently, following the systematic intimidation and violence prior to the elections in 2010 and after the church bombing, about 4000 Christian families fled Iraq's cities to Erbil. Probably twice this have move from both Baghdad and Mosul City into the Nineveh Valley, an area to the north where life is relatively safer and more affordable.
Over the past 8 years our Erbil Diocese Immigration Committee has registered over 3000 families displace by conflict. Not all families register so we know this is an under estimate of the size of those who have moved. But as you can see the situation has worsened 2011 as we are only now in March.
Most of the families we have registered come from Baghdad and Mosul.
It is difficult to know exactly how many Iraqi Christians live outside Iraq, but estimates suggest that over half the population has fled the country with hundreds of thousands in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. At least a million more Iraqis live in the US, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, and many other countries.
In Erbil, once our Church leaders are assured that our families are safely relocated, we have three main goals to assist them.
First of all we want to provide stability via employment and affordable housing,
Secondly we want to be sure that families have access to good education and medical care and thirdly,
And most importantly, we want a vibrant living Church to support the social and spiritual needs of our families.
We are working hard to make these things happen, but the resources of Erbil and its neighboring Dioceses have been stressed because of the high influx of people over this short period.
Erbil Diocese has grown by over 30% with churches, schools, health care facilities, housing and basic infrastructures feeling the burden.
Schools average 35-45 children per class, running in two shifts a day.
Moreover, housing costs have skyrocketed as local homeowners have raised rents 200-300% to take advantage of the housing demand.
At this time, diocese leaders are raising funds from inside the communities and donor organizations such Aid to Church in Need to build new churches and to restore old and damaged ones. Classrooms are being built and restored in all our churches to be used for Catechism classes and community education.
A new Catholic primary school building has recently been funded to ease the burden of public education in the area.
Church leaders are looking to construct low cost housing for displaced families as a long-term investment against rising land values.
Diocese leaders also continue to search for development investments to stimulate the job economy and to employ displaced family members.
With many problems facing Iraqi Christians, the greatest concern of Diocese leaders is that there are enough strong parishes prepared to assist families as they continue to readjust to their lives; displaced from their jobs, homes, and extended networks.
There is concern that if families are not assisted effectively and not embraced by the community, that we will lose them from the Church and to immigration outside of Iraq.
Lastly we want the presence of the Christians Church to be apparent by a vibrant and active parish life symbolized by physical church buildings and obvious public spaces. We do not want to hide our faith or identity out of fear for our lives. We want to be seen and remembered by all Iraqis; those who threaten us, but moreover those willing to stand in solidarity with us.
We thank Aid to the Church in Need for your solidarity with us.
We thank your generous and kind hearted donors and those who have prayed with us and for us these past years of our struggles. I would like to finish with a prayer:
"Renew your wonders in this our day as by a new Pentecost" -- Pope John XXIII. Father, pour out your Spirit upon your people, and grant us a new vision of your glory, a new experience of your power, a new faithfulness to your word, and a new consecration to your service, that your love may grow among us, and your kingdom come: through Christ our Lord.