National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

Cover story: At war
Issue Date:  April 4, 2003

Iraqi church leaders: united in hope, divided in views

While Iraqi church leaders are united in expressing hopes for a swift end to the war, they express different views about what the U.S.-led incursion may accomplish.

Bishop Mar Bawai Soro, who heads the diocese of Western California for the Assyrian Church of the East, was in Rome in mid-March, and told NCR he believes the effort to topple Saddam Hussein is justified.

“You don’t know what it’s like to live under tyranny,” said Soro, who is based in the United States but who said he remains in close contact with church members in Iraq.

“Why has Iraq been brought so low? This is a rich society, a sophisticated society,” Soro said. “This government has laid waste to the country.”

Speaking the day the conflict began, Soro predicted that coalition forces would be welcomed by many Iraqis. He also said he was “surprised” by the antiwar line from the Vatican, which he felt to some extent does not reflect the reality of life in Iraq.

Meanwhile Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman, head of the Latin-rite Catholic church in Baghdad, told NCR by telephone March 24 that his people are “anguished and frightened,” and praying for a quick end to the conflict.

As of March 25, Sleiman said his central Baghdad neighborhood still had water and phone services, though he had just lost electricity. Despite the fact that U.S. troops are bearing down on the city, Sleiman said the government is trying to project a sense of normality. On Monday, residents were encouraged to go back to work for at least two hours, a request further complicated by a terrible sandstorm.

Sleiman said that the first casualty of the coalition bombing campaign in Baghdad was a young Chaldean Catholic, whose parish has since celebrated his funeral.

Sleiman said, however, it was “premature” to comment on what his small church is hoping for on the other side of this war. “There are different views,” he said. “Right now they don’t know what to expect.”

Hussein’s secular government up to now has guaranteed a certain peaceful coexistence among religious and ethnic groups, Sleiman said. One fear for Iraqi Christians is what might come if this layer of insulation from Islamic fundamentalism is removed.

While Sleiman said reports are circulating in Baghdad of as many as 250 deaths related to the bombing, he “doesn’t trust” those numbers. As of March 25, there were no new deaths in the Catholic community.

Catholics in Baghdad held a special Way of the Cross service last Friday, March 21, Sleiman said, in which the bishops consecrated the country to the special protection of the Virgin Mary. His Baghdad parish is continuing to offer its daily 4:30 p.m. Mass, Sleiman said, but few people come because of fear of going outside.

“We all pray for a swift end to the war,” Sleiman said.

The Chaldean church in communion with Rome is today the largest Christian group in Iraq, with about 240,000 adherents. Other Eastern Catholic churches, including the Armenian, Latin and Syrian, number perhaps 40,000. The Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient Christian group that developed from the Nestorian heresy, numbers about 60,000. The nation’s evangelical Protestant churches claim 13,500.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2003

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