VATICAN CITY (CNS): A leading Vatican official has called for greater protection of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority, saying the disappearance of Christianity from the country would be an enormous religious and cultural loss for everyone.
Archbishop Fernando Filoni, who served as the Vatican’s nuncio to Iraq from 2001 to 2006, said it was important that Iraqi Christians stem the widespread emigration of their community. That could only happen if they were given a sound basis for hope in the future, he said.
“The authorities must do everything they can so that Christians are a respected and integral part of the life of the country, even if they are a minority,” Archbishop Filoni said in an interview on August 11 with the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
The Iraqi Government meets regularly with Church leaders and in theory is committed to protecting Christians, but “this also has to be translated into concrete facts”, he said.
The archbishop pointed to the recent restitution of three Church-run schools as an important step in the right direction. The schools, two in Baghdad and one in Kirkuk, will be run by Chaldean Catholic nuns, who managed them before they were nationalised under Saddam Hussein.
“This seems to be an important signal that offers hope and indicates appreciation for the contribution Christians can give to the future of the Iraqi nation,” he said.
“Even today, many Muslims remain grateful for the education they received in the Christian schools.”
Archbishop Filoni said that despite continuing hardships Christians in Iraq should seize on these opportunities and make the most of them.
“Isn’t this the moment to begin to have a little more trust and optimism, and not allow fear alone to prevail? I think it’s time to give more space to hope. If that is lost, there’s no doubt the Christian presence would quickly disappear, and that wouldn’t help anyone,” he said.
If Iraqi Christians continue to emigrate, it won’t take long before they’ll lose their language, culture and identity – and it will be lost forever, he said.
The archbishop was realistic about the challenging day-to-day situation in Iraq today. He pointed to repeated bombings and other attacks, water and electrical shortages, high unemployment and a struggling educational system.
“One leaves the house and doesn’t know if he’ll come back. There is always the risk of explosions,” he said. Under these circumstances, it’s normal for Christian parents to wonder what kind of life Iraq will offer their children, he said. At the same time, he said, Christians also needed to ask themselves whether they want their religious community to survive in Iraq.
Archbishop Filoni, who now serves as assistant secretary of state at the Vatican, was the only head of a diplomatic mission to remain in Baghdad throughout the United States-led military invasion and for several years afterward. He said he came to feel “almost as an Iraqi” during his mission there.