Iraqi Bishop: Christians Ready to Claim Right to Exist

Visits Ireland for Release of 2011 Report "Persecuted and Forgotten"

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DUNDALK, Ireland, MARCH 16, 2011 (Zenit.org).- It is said that one of the Islamic fundamentalists who assassinated Father Ragheed Ganni in 2007 screamed to his victim before killing him, "I told you to close the church. ... Why are you still here?"

This scene was brought to mind today by Cardinal Seán Brady, archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, at an event to mark the launch of the 2011 edition of Aid to the Church in Need’s report on Christians oppressed for their faith. This year's volume is titled "Persecuted and Forgotten?"

Cardinal Brady's reflection responded to an address from Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq.

Archbishop Warda's speech indirectly provided its own answer to the assassin's haunting question. "Iraqis," he said, "are a people who have experienced immense suffering but who are also strong, resilient and prepared to claim their right to existence."

Nothing to hide

Archbishop Warda is only 41, the eighth youngest prelate in the whole Church. The years of war and oppression that span his entire lifetime 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," he said. "We have not come this far to give up."

The archbishop's reading of the problems in Iraq points to a variety of roots.

"What we Iraqis are suffering is a crisis in cultural change," he said. "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."

The country is left with a weak Constitution trying to "please two masters" the archbishop suggested, on the one hand, the premise of rights for all; on the other hand, Islamic law for a Muslim majority.

"Islamists are not the only ones at fault," he affirmed. "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."

Archbishop Warda gave a brief summary of some of the daily horror. He noted the 17 Iraqi priests and two Iraqi bishops kidnapped between 2006 and 2010.

"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," he explained.

Then there is the systematic bombing campaign, which began in Mosul in 2004. A total of 66 churches have been attacked or bombed; 41 in Baghdad, 19 in Mosul, five in Kirkuk and one in Ramadi. In addition, two convents, one monastery and a church orphanage were bombed.

"There are thousands of examples of overwhelming suffering among Iraqi Christians," the prelate affirmed. "The grief and sorrow in our congregations is palpable, where not one person has been unaffected by tragedy since 2003."

But this will not keep Iraqis from claiming their "right to existence," he declared.

Shedding light

Cardinal Brady's response to his brother bishop drew a grim parallel between Iraq and his native Ireland.

"The overt and aggressive private and public anti-Christian sentiment so evident in Iraq however is not limited to Iraq," he proposed. "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 cardinal spoke of the clear and persuasive evidence that Christianity is "being aggressively uprooted from the Middle East, the very lands from which it first sprang."

But, he pointed to "less clear" evidence and "less blood-stained" aggression in the West, that is putting Christianity under threat by "aggressive atheism" -- not the type of the former Soviet Union, the prelate said, but "a more recently-fashioned nihilism which insistently denies the existence of any God-given Truth."

The cardinal proposed: "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 Father Ganni four years ago in Northern Iraq has not gone away."

In this context, Cardinal Brady reflected, professing one's faith in Iraq is more life-threatening, "at least from a physical perspective."

"But does the same hold true from a spiritual perspective?" he asked. "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 recognize that there is a culture war being fought in the West just as much as there is one being fought in the Middle East," the cardinal proposed. "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."

Cardinal Brady described Christ's mission on earth as reconciling 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 cardinal affirmed. "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."