The continuing persecution of Iraq’s Christians
While one church here croaks of acquiring five converting bishops, and rubs its hands with glee at the prospect of winning ‘a wave’ of entire parishes; and another obsesses over issues of gender and sexuality, as though the possession of a penis were the soteriological disputation of the age, it is worth putting such trivia into perspective.
Three more bombs have exploded in Bagdad, specifically targeting the churches and homes of Christians. First reports say that at least four have been killed and 26 wounded.
This atrocity comes just the week after the slaughter in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation.
Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for that bloodbath and warned of further attacks on Christians.
They said they had carried out the church attack to force the release of converts to Islam allegedly being detained by the Coptic Church in Egypt. Days afterwards it declared Christians everywhere ‘legitimate targets’.
It rather gives the Ordinariate turf war and gender obsessions a referential apocalyptic reality.
There have been Christians in Mesopotamia for almost 2000 years: it is the land of biblical Nineveh where the Chaldeans still speak Aramaic, the tongue of Jesus. Their presence in the region predates Islam by some 700 years. The region is home to the descendents of the ancient empires of Assyria and Babylonia, and their gospel heritage can be traced right back to the 1st Century AD. Assyrians are Semitic cousins of the Jews: ‘Parthians’ were present on the day of Pentecost and became the first nation to adopt Christianity as their state religion in AD 179, more than a century before Armenia. They claim to have been the first to build churches and to translate the New Testament from Greek into their vernacular Aramaic. Learned Assyrian Christians kept Greek science and technology alive while Europe lurched through the Dark Ages. For over a thousand years since the Muslim conquest of their homeland, Assyrians have lived in relative peace in the region. They have been second-class citizens of various caliphates, and endured several interludes of active persecution.
Most Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but who recognise the Pope's authority. But there are also Syrian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics and Armenian Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities, as well as Anglicans and Evangelicals.
Saddam was too preoccupied with persecuting the Kurds and Shi’as to bother much with the Christians, some of whom, like Tariq Aziz, rose to the highest offices of state under his regime. By the time of the 1991 Gulf War, they numbered about one million. By the time of 2003 invasion of Iraq, they had fallen to about 800,000. Now there are about 500,000 remaining. And they live each day as if it were their last, having seen their churches bombed, their congregations sprayed with bullets, and their priests brutally beheaded and dismembered. Christian boys are being crucified and girls are being raped.
And now they face a stark choice, which is a world away from having to worry about ordinariates and women in the episcopate.
A senior Iraqi clergyman said at the weekend that Iraq's Christians should leave the country or face being killed at the hands of Al-Qaeda. "If they stay they will be finished, one by one," Archbishop Athanasios Dawood told the BBC.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, however, has cautioned other countries not to encourage Christians to abandon their homeland.
His Grace received an email last week asking him to support a petition in favour of granting Iraq’s 500,000 Christians asylum in the UK. This communicant wrote: “This sounds like a good idea to me, although obviously of the eastern orthodox variety it might reinvigorate Christ's mission in England. It might also be interesting to see the reaction of the ‘diversity’ lobby if it were put forward. You are a man of influence, would you support a petition in favour?”
His Grace responded that he had no influence at all, but promised to consider the matter.
And as he was doing so, he received another email from another loyal communicant, drawing his attention to the website of Canon Andrew White, the 'Vicar of Baghdad', who tells us that his trusted lay assistant Faiz Basheer was ordained last Sunday, thereby becoming the first Iraqi to be ordained in the Anglican Communion.
This communicant wrote: “Whilst the exiled leader of the Syrian Coptic Church calls for Iraqi Christians to leave the country, this community of over 1000 Anglicans is determined to stay put… As we enter the season celebrating the Kingdom of God it is good to hear of brave Anglicans doing what many others fear to do in a difficult world.”
His Grace knows what it is to capitulate, relinquish and flee: the flesh is weak. But he also knows what stay put, contend and suffer for the faith.
Martyrdom is a symphony of agony. But to die each day for Christ is the vocation to which we are called.
If His Grace were in Baghdad, he would stay, come what may.
For there is nothing to do here but squawk over women in the episcopate,
and watch the bishops come and go,
talking of Michelangelo.