Syrian-Catholic Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka of Baghdad remembers when war hit Iraq.
"It was a terrible day," the archbishop recalled, in a trembling voice.
"People were asleep in Baghdad, when U.S. hunter-bombers began to
drop their death cargo mercilessly. I can still hear the children´s cries,
traumatized by the explosions, in the dark."
In the 10 years since the end of the Gulf War, an embargo has
reduced this once prosperous nation to poverty and left it isolated.
Archbishop Matoka, president of the Church´s Higher Catechetical Commission,
which embraces all the country´s Catholic denominations,
assessed the situation in Iraq from his See in the eastern neighborhood of Al-Karrada,
where vestiges of the bombings are in evidence.
--Q: Excellency, does this mean that the people did not expect such action
following the ultimatum imposed on Iraq?
--Archbishop Matoka: What was not expected was the level of cruelty and barbarism.
Let´s not forget that the bombings continued without interruption for 42 days, reducing not only
the military but also the civil structures to ashes. To behave this way with people is really inhuman.
--Q: So, they are still suffering the consequences of that war?
--Archbishop Matoka: Absolutely. Today the European states are alarmed over
the effects of the use of impoverished uranium in Bosnia´s war. However,
the first tests, as is beginning to be admitted everywhere, have been carried out at our expense
-- dozens of tons, as they themselves have admitted.
If the effects of these cruel arms on those who have dropped them are creating a
real psychosis in the West, imagine what the situation is of those who were the object of them.
--Q: The Syrian-Catholics in Iraq number 50,000, just about one-tenth of
the country´s Christians. What are the main problems caused by the embargo?
--Archbishop Matoka: The problems are those of all Christians. In the first place,
the embargo leads many of the faithful, especially youth, to do everything possible
to emigrate from the country -- a veritable hemorrhage, for a small community like ours,
which we are unable to stop. Moreover, the economic situation of many families is unbearable.
Ten years ago the dinar, our currency, was worth $3. Now, we need 2,000 dinars to get $1.
--Q: What is the Church doing?
--Archbishop Matoka: The Church gives help to needy families through Caritas and
local charitable associations on one hand, and through the donations of Iraqis and
foreigners on the other. The aid consists primarily of grants for surgical operations,
distribution of medicines, and medical treatments.
--Q: You hoped the embargo would end during the Jubilee.
--Archbishop Matoka: I continue to hope that, in the end, the initiatives of
men of good will will be successful. World public opinion increasingly realizes the
dimensions of the tragedy caused by the embargo, which has ended by being a
flagrant injustice against an entire people.
--Q: It seems something is moving, however.
--Archbishop Matoka: Yes, but very slowly. Iraq, known as the cradle of civilization,
is today far behind the rest of the world and no longer has access to modern technology.
You must also have experienced this personally, because it takes three days to be able to telephone Baghdad.
It would seem that we have been vetoed from living in the new millennium,
in the era of progress and technology. For this reason also, we believe that only with an end
to the embargo will our country and our Church be able to look to the future with confidence.