HARISSA, Lebanon – Despite predictions that Christianity could be wiped out of his war-torn homeland within five years, an Iraqi Catholic cleric said he believes in God’s ultimate preservation.
“This prognosis may be of thinkers or politicians, but not of the believers,” Chaldean Archishop Yousif Mirkis of Kirkuk told Catholic News Service at an April trauma counseling training in this Lebanese mountain retreat town.
“When our faith reaches the edge, even to the point of death, there is always an intervention of God, something amazing happens,” said the archbishop. “This is the faith of the Old Testament witnessed in Exodus and (the) parting of the Red Sea, and in the New Testament with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, I don’t believe those who say that there won’t be Christians in Iraq.”
Iraq’s Christian population numbered about 1.4 million during the rule of Saddam Hussein, but figures now hover between 260,000 and 300,000 as political instability and persecution by Islamic State militants have drastically reduced their numbers. Other religious minorities, such as the Yezidis, also have been targets of vicious persecution by the extremists.
Half of the remaining Christians in Iraq struggle to remain true to their faith or flee to other countries due to dangers the Islamic State poses, including forced conversion to Islam. Every year, the Christian population decreases by 60,000-100,000, according to the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, in a report issued late last year.
Archishop Mirkis has argued otherwise from his experience of helping those who have fled extremist persecution and are displaced within their homeland. He said healing in his diocese to those traumatized has taken a number of forms, whether using puppets, theatrical scenes, art, song and poetry as well as group “talk.”
“We try to use all the possibilities in our community and especially spiritual services such as masses, Bible study groups. The best thing is not to give up. We shall overcome,” he said of the 130,000 who fled from the 2014 Islamic State militant takeover of Mosul and the Ninevah Plain. “There are too many questions for us about Daesh and what is to follow,” he said, using the militants’ name in Arabic.
“But this is not the first time we experienced this kind of persecution,” he said, noting past times of Christian persecution.
The Aid to the Church in Need report references an exodus from Iraq of Christians fearing ethnic cleansing and potential genocide at an unprecedented pace while the world has stood by. It warned that “Christianity is on course to disappear from Iraq within possibly five years – unless emergency help is provided on a massively increased scale at an international level.”
In late April, Islamic State militants blew up Mosul’s iconic clock tower church, known as al-Latin or al-Sa’ah Church. Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako denounced the destruction.
“We have received news that the ISIS elements blew up the archaeological Latin church belonging to the Dominican fathers, located in the center of Mosul. We strongly condemn the targeting of the Christian Church and also condemn the targeting of mosques and other houses of worship,” he said.
The patriarch urged Iraqi politicians to speed up the national reconciliation process, while imploring the international community and religious authorities to do more to end ongoing sectarian conflict in order to protect the country and its citizens.
But the storming of Iraq’s parliament building by Shiite protesters in late April underscored the extreme fragility of the government and plunged Iraq into a deeper political crisis as divisions spread not just among Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds, but splinter each grouping from within.
Archbishop Mirkis said: “Those who decide to emigrate are making a very hard decision. Those who stay, we try to help them.”
He said his diocese has taken in 800 families and 400 university students who want to continue their studies in Iraq, even though their parents have emigrated.
“Christians who are stable in Iraq discovered that they can do more than be Christian only. By welcoming the displaced and helping them, many have overcome the trauma they have experienced,” he said. “I spend all my time, not only with material needs of the traumatized, but also addressing their psychological and spiritual healing.
“Our faith is very rich. It dies, if you don’t use it,” he said. “Please use the faith you have. Don’t let it die inside you.”