The new leader of the largest Church in Iraq has told his dwindling faithful to stop emigrating, warning them that Christianity in the Middle East risks becoming “a distant memory”.
Speaking yesterday, Wednesday, 6 March, at his installation as Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Louis Raphael I Sako said Christians in Iraq should overcome their fears and work together to build a new future.
Raphael I, whose election as head of the Eastern-rite Catholic Church was confirmed by Benedict XVI on 1 February, called for a dialogue “of peaceful coexistence” with Muslim leaders at a time of increasing concern about extremism and violence.
In his address, a copy of which he sent to Aid to the Church in Need, the Patriarch, 64, stressed the need to work for unity with Orthodox Christians in regions marked by ecumenical tensions in recent years.
In comments aimed specifically at Christians present at the service in Baghdad’s St Joseph’s Cathedral, the patriarch said: “Why are you so afraid today? Do not withdraw or emigrate in time of great pressure. This is your country and your land. If emigration continues God forbid, there will be no more Christians in the Middle East. The Church will be no more than a distant memory.”
The patriarch’s comments, given on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War and the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein, come after a decade of massive emigration of Christians from the country. In 1987, Christians in Iraq totalled 1.4 million according to the last census, but now there could be fewer than 250,000, with the greatest decline in numbers taking place after 2003. Since that year, fundamentalism and a breakdown in law and order have shaken the Church to its foundations.
More than 700 Christians had been killed (including 17 priests) in religious and politically motivated attacks and 71 churches attacked – 44 in Baghdad and 19 in Mosul.
The biggest crisis of confidence for Christians came after the 31 October 2010 attack on Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Cathedral during Sunday evening Mass, when 45 people were killed (including two priests) and 100 were injured in a four-hour siege.
Asking Christians to draw a line under the past, Patriarch Raphael told them: “These past years have been full of events and dangers and still the shadow of fear, anxiety and death is hanging over our people.”
He told his faithful: “Change your view of yourselves and your identity. Look deeper into the reality we face today and understand the importance of your presence and witness. Live together and build a future for yourselves in your country.”
Patriarch Raphael, who was Archbishop of Kirkuk (2003-13) after being rector of St Peter’s Seminary, Baghdad, stressed the need for “renewal”.
He said: “… The world around us has changed and we must change. The Church should change. So we will renew our liturgy, our method of religious instruction and update our ecclesiastical structures with courage and clarity according to the Second Vatican Council. This renewal is aimed at helping the faithful’s understanding and participation in the Christian way of life and their attachment to Christ and his Church.”