Iraqi Christians Searching for Signs of Hope

Archbishop Notes Signs of Pessimism About the Future

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ERBIL, Iraq, JUNE 8, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The murder of an Orthodox Christian father of four on May 31 in Mosul has increased a feeling of pessimism among Christians about prospects for a peaceful future in Iraq.

Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, in the Kurdish north of Iraq, shared this impression in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, which assists persecuted and other suffering Christians.

The archbishop reported that the shock of the murder has led some of his flock to feel that "there is no future" for them in their native country, and yet it is also dangerous for them to flee to neighboring countries because of political conflict there.

Arakan Yacob was the latest murder victim in a series of attacks against Christians in Iraq. He was the target of two previous kidnapping attempts and the assailants succeeded the third time, holding Yacob for ransom. Three weeks earlier another young Christian man, 29-year-old Ashur Yacob Issa, had been abducted and then killed when his family was unable to pay the $102,046 ransom demanded by his kidnappers.

Archbishop Warda reported that more than 570 Christians have been killed in religiously or politically motivated violence since 2002. Between 2006 and 2010, 17 Iraqi priests and two Iraqi bishops had been abducted and were either beaten or tortured by their kidnappers. Of those, one bishop, four priests, and three subdeacons have been murdered.

Though many wish to emigrate, the countries bordering Iraq -- Syria and Turkey -- are experiencing uncertainty and crises themselves. "Even the situation in neighboring Turkey is not that good," the archbishop said, "and with what's going on in Syria at the moment a family thinking of emigration has limited choices."

Both Turkey and Syria have already absorbed several thousand Christian refugees since 2003, when the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime saw an escalation of religious violence.

Advocate for the forgotten

"No matter how you try to convince people things are getting better they say look at these things that are happening," the archbishop told ACN. Yacob's murder has provoked a deeper wave of pessimism, he lamented.

But Warda refused to be downcast: "The message of hope is always there -- life should go on -- that's the message."

Erbil's archbishop has brought the message of his people's suffering to the outside world repeatedly, recently to the UK and Ireland in March to launch Aid to the Church in Need's "Persecuted and Forgotten?: A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith."

At the launch he provided statistics showing that since the 1980s the number of Christians in Iraq had dropped from up to 1.4 million to as low as 150,000.

Aid to the Church in Need has been a partner in Archbishop Warda's advocacy for Iraqi Christians, providing emergency aid for refugees in Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, food parcels for displaced Christians in northern Iraq, Mass stipends for poor and oppressed priests, support for Sisters and help for seminarians displaced to the north of the country.

The charity has prioritized help for Iraq in line with a 2007 directive from Pope Benedict XVI to help the Church in the Middle East where he said "it is threatened in its very existence."