The Archbishop Vanishes

Speaking with Church leaders and lay Christians on the ground in the world’s hot spots leaves a lasting impression. During a recent interview with Pakistani Bishop Theodore Lobo, I was reminded that Christians are called to a truly radical way of life — a kind of forgiveness not shared by Muslims or Jews.
Christians in Kenya, Pakistan, Palestine, parts of India, and the Middle East live “the way of the Cross daily,” said Bishop Lobo. For centuries, Christians in these countries lived peacefully among their non-Christian neighbors. In Pakistan, for instance, Christians who have always been a minority among Muslims were never subject to the daily harassment, discrimination, and threats which they now face.
A priest from Aid to the Church in Need told me recently that Christians in Pakistan are desperate for Christians in the West to know they exist, and to know the challenges they endure, such as discrimination, threats, vandalism, and other methods of harassment. He said that just the assurance of solidarity gives them courage to face these trials, like the possibility that they may lose their lives on account of their faith.
The same is true in Gaza and Iraq, where the latest news is chilling.
In Mosul, funerals were just held for the three people killed February 29 during the kidnapping of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Faraj Rahho. The victims were the archbishop’s driver and two of his bodyguards. All three men were the fathers of families, each having three children at home.
In an interview with AsiaNews last November, Archbishop Rahho said the situation in Mosul was not improving and “religious persecution is more noticeable than elsewhere because the city is now split along religious lines. Everyone is suffering from this war irrespective of religious affiliation, but in Mosul, Christians face starker choices.”
Chaldean Catholics make up a tiny minority of the Iraqi population, but are the largest group among the less than one million Christians in mostly Muslim Iraq. This Eastern Church, in union with Rome, is one of the oldest Christian communities, dating back to the first century. As with Christians in the Holy Land, they constitute an essential part of Iraqi culture. And like Christians in the Holy Land, they’re making a mass exodus, now living as a diaspora in the United States, Germany, England, and in any country that will take them.
Last year at this time, Rev. Philip Najeem, representative to the Holy See for the Chaldean Catholic Church, told me that Christians in Iraq face the reality of the cross on a daily basis. “We have our Lent,” he said. “We live it in season and out of season. We walk the way of the cross every day.”
Last year’s International Religious Freedom Report from the U.S. State Department observed that since the Iraq invasion in 2003, Islamic extremists have targeted churches, priests, and businesses owned by Christians whom they accuse of being “crusaders” loyal to U.S. troops.
In June 2007, Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep concern about the plight of Christians caught in the sectarian crossfire in Iraq and pressed President George W. Bush in a meeting to keep their safety in mind. The pope said, “Particularly in Iraq, Christian families and communities are feeling increasing pressure from insecurity, aggression and a sense of abandonment.”
Pope Benedict XVI recently appealed again, that “reason and humanity may prevail in the authors of the kidnapping and that the Archbishop may be restored as soon as possible to the care of his flock.”
There has been no further news on Archbishop Rahho since he was seized at gunpoint following a Church ceremony. The pattern of abduction was the same as that of Rev. Ragheed Ghanni’s kidnapping and subsequent murder last year. Gunmen follow priests, whom they know to be strong leaders of the Christian community. They aim to drive out Christians by doing away with their leaders, who are close to the people and a source of spiritual strength and consolation.
Father Najeem said that the kidnapping “does nothing to help rebuild Iraq and does not help the cause of freedom, nor does it help build rapport among peoples.” He appealed to the kidnappers on Iraqi television to free Archbishop Rahho in the name of “the God of all communities of faith.”
Father Najeem said that Mosul has always been Iraq’s most integrated region, where ethnic and religious groups have historically lived freely and shared customs and dialect peacefully. He said Chaldean Christians are Iraqis, rooted in the land for centuries. But in recent times, different groups have been trying to create an Islamic state. These groups, he added, have nothing to do with true Islam, nor with Iraq.
Living in the safety of the West, where there is a rule of law and freedom of expression, it is easy to forget that we’re called, as Christians, to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who live under threat and persecution around the world.

By

Irene Lagan is the general manager of Guadalupe Radio in Washington, DC. She is a former collaborator for the English language section of Vatican Radio, has written for several publications, and holds a Masters degree in philosophy. She served as managing editor at the National Catholic Bioethics Center while in Boston, and has been published in Ethics & Medics, the National Catholic Register, Zenit, Franciscan Way, the Arlington Catholic Herald, and The Boston Globe. In addition, she has taught university students as an adjunct professor and has consulted in the area of communications and development for non-profit organizations.

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