The climax of the Chaldean catastrophe
Under Saddam Hussain there were around half a million of them, distinguishing themselves from their Assyrian cousins, and forming the majority of Iraq's Christians who numbered around 800,000. Saddam appointed numerous professing Christians to positions of authority, including Tariq Aziz, for whose release the Chaldeans pleaded. They were left to worship in peace, and the Islamist jihadis were kept firmly under control. But now their numbers have dwindled by an estimated quarter of a million. Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians have been targeted by Islamists who label them ‘crusaders’. Churches, priests and businesses owned by Christians have been attacked, and many have fled the country.
It is a great irony indeed that the war to depose Saddam - led by two of the most openly Christian leaders of modern times – is resulting in the systematic elimination of believers from the region.
And now Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, has been found dead and buried. He was kidnapped after leaving Mass and leading the stations of the cross in Mosul, northern Iraq, on 29th February. He believed that the violence they were enduring was a test of faith and, because of it, Christians in the country ‘had learned to put into practice values like forgiveness and love, even for those who persecute them’.
He is a true martyr for his faith, in stark contrast to those ‘suicide bombers’ who pervert the very definition of the word as they blow up innocent women and children in order to gain a place in paradise with the sexual services of a host of virgins. The comparison itself is vile, and yet modern martyrdom appears to have become the sole preserve of Islam.
Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said: "The most absurd and unjustified violence continues to afflict the Iraqi people and in particular the small Christian community, whom the Pope holds in his prayers in this time of deep sadness. This tragic event underscores once more and with more urgency the duty of all, and in particular of the international community, to bring peace to a country that has been so tormented."
Pope Benedict XVI said he was profoundly moved, calling the archbishop's death an act of inhuman violence. His Holiness said it was a cause of ‘deep sadness’, adding: "The most absurd and unjustified violence continues to afflict the Iraqi people and in particular the small Christian community." In a telegram sent to Chaldean Patriarch, Cardinal Emmanuel Delly III , the Pope deplored the inhuman act of violence underlining that it damaged the cause of fraternal coexistence between the beloved Iraqi people.
The murderers appear not to have heard of the official Muslim charm offensive addressed primarily to the Vatican, which carried no fewer than 138 authoritative signatories. Or perhaps they were indeed aware of such overtures, but also of the admirable theological riposte made by His Holiness as he understood precisely what they were about.
Canon Andrew White, the only Anglican vicar working in Baghdad, has warned of the ‘very real danger faced by Christians in Iraq’, adding: "This awful event happened in the very heartland of Iraqi Christianity in Nineveh. We are in tears - we are devastated. We are not giving up our faith in Jesus and I am not leaving this beloved land of Iraq."
Charities are united in their concern. Daniel Hoffman, director of Middle East Concern which campaigns for the rights of Christians in Iraq, has said that this murder will lead to ‘a mass exodus’ of Christians fearing for their safety. His fears are shared by John Pontifex, a spokesman for Aid to the Church in Need, who says that ‘that no one among the Christian community is safe’. He believes that this murder is ‘the last straw’ which may ‘result in the extinction of Christianity in Iraq’.
Dr Suha Rassam of Iraqi Christians In Need (ICIN) said: "The only way for the Church in the Mosul area to survive might be if it goes underground, like it did in the first and second centuries. This way, Mass and other services would be held in secret and priests go about their duties clandestinely.”
And while the West slumbers on, someone ought to remind our leaders of the parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31-46): ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.’