Lessons from the Church in Iraq

Lessons from the Church in Iraq April 15, 2013

So they left … rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.      –Acts 5:41

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Courtesy of Fr. Najeeb Michaeel. Used by permission.

 

I have recently gotten to know a remarkable Iraqi priest and scholar who is working to preserve the deeply rooted heritage of his country’s embattled Christian population.  Though now a member of the Dominican Order, Fr. Najeeb originates from Iraq’s very ancient Chaldean Catholic Church, which is now a severely persecuted minority, despite a presence that far predates the very existence of Islam.  The existence of this ancient minority is all too easily forgotten, but its perseverance offers valuable lessons for the broader Church.

For one thing, their experience of being viewed as foreigners in their own homeland reminds us of the sense in which this ought to be, to some extent, true of all Christians.  If we are truly living the gospel, perhaps we should be looked at somewhat askance.  What if, rather than seeking to preserve vestiges of privilege for the Church, we were to take any sign of the marginalization of its teachings and practices as cause for rejoicing, a sign that we’re doing something right?  Furthermore, when we are tempted to mistake any loss of social privilege for persecution, the true suffering of our brothers and sisters elsewhere should give us pause.

Having said this, I hasten to add that I do not in any way wish to idealize persecution – especially since, in the case of Iraq’s Christian minority, certain external factors unjustly contribute to the perception of foreignness.  Specifically, since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the persecution of Iraqi Christians has intensified due to their being associated with the foreign occupation (a misperception already fed by President Bush’s earlier use of the word “crusade” in reference to U.S. military policy).  This should raise disturbing implications for Christians in particular, yet the ramifications of the Iraq war for the country’s indigenous Christians have not been well addressed.  I’d venture that most Americans – Christian or not, hawkish or dovish – have simply never been given cause to consider that this war, especially when defended via “holy war” rhetoric, has contributed to a situation that exacerbates the persecution of Christians.

Lest we fall prey to the false gospel of divinely sanctioned nationalism, the very existence of an indigenous Christian minority in Iraq reminds us that the Church is bigger than us.  Morally, of course, there is no difference between the intrinsic value of the life of a Christian and that of the life of a Muslim (or anyone else for that matter).  The point here is that when our concern for the safety of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world is trumped by our concern for national interests, we have lost sight of the catholicity of the Church.

With the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq having come and gone last month with muted acknowledgement, I am reminded of another recent anniversary: that of Pope John XXIII’s great social encylical Pacem in Terris, promulgated 50 years ago but remaining all too timely.  Emphasizing universal human dignity and global interdependence, the Holy Father reminded us that “the social progress, order, security, and peace of each country are necessarily connected with the social progress, order, security, and peace of all other countries” (Pacem in Terris 130).

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Courtesy of Fr. Najeeb Michaeel. Used by permission.

Some of this may seem like old news, but knowing someone who is personally affected by the situation has reminded me of its ongoing human dimension behind the fading headlines.  Fr. Najeeb, who has experienced multiple threats on his life, is less concerned for his own safety than for his community’s ability to keep its tradition alive.  He also sees the violence that afflicts his country from both within and without as a problem bigger than the Church – fundamentally, a human problem.  And he and other Church leaders and laypeople are witnessing to a better way, advocating education and basic human services rather than violence.  “Indirectly, we’re preaching to them,” he says, by returning good for evil, living peaceably with their neighbors even when threatened.

I invite others to join me in praying for the Church in Iraq and its leaders.  May we learn from their example of faith and courage under trying circumstances.

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  • Thanks for sharing this Julia. It is impossible to say when or where, but the persecutions which Fr. Najeeb and his brethren are enduring in love will bear fruit for the Church.

  • Chad D

    “If we are truly living the gospel, perhaps we should be looked at somewhat askance. What if, rather than seeking to preserve vestiges of privilege for the Church, we were to take any sign of the marginalization of its teachings and practices as cause for rejoicing, a sign that we’re doing something right? Furthermore, when we are tempted to mistake any loss of social privilege for persecution, the true suffering of our brothers and sisters elsewhere should give us pause.” – I completely agree. We are commanded to be a sign of contradiction in the world. In the US context I have often wondered why, for example, Cardinal Dolan chooses to align himself with the expressed sentiments of William Donahue and George Weigel.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    The beautiful being who said “How blessed are the poor in spirit” is a vast annoyance to the world. And it speaks very poorly of the world. To me, that means the world has to be handled in a very special way. There’s the rub.

  • Brian Martin

    The irony here is that under a “democratically elected government” in Iraq, there is in fact significantly less religious freedom and tolerance of religious difference than there was under the dictator Saddam Hussein. Not only for Christians, but also between Muslims. One of my Muslim client’s wife is Sunni, and he is Shia, and her family, who they were previously very close with, will not talk to her, because when the sectarian violence started, she would not leave her husband and go to her family. He also stated that he grew up being friends with Christians, as well as people from other Muslim sects. He had friends who were Chaldean Catholic who were in his wedding. He recently lost one of those friends in a bombing. He said he used to go with them sometimes to their Mass, and that he loves “Mary and Jesus”. He said he would be killed now if he were in Iraq and he were to say that, or have any of his friends to his house, etc. He said “we got rid of Saddam, and now we have a thousand little Saddams”. He and my other Muslim clients remind me on a almost daily basis that we are all brothers and sister, and as such, their suffering is our suffering.
    This client sees a local priest and prays with him, and when he found out that priest was assigned to a different parish, and will be leaving…he cried in my office.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Brian,

    Apropos your touching comment. It seems to me that people habitually make the mistake of thinking that it could not be worse, if there is something already that is manifestly corrupt and awful. How quickly we forget the lessons of (recent) history, that there really is no bottom for us human beings. This unsanguine view of human nature is why I am passionately against the sort of fashionable tut-tuting or worse, outright doomsday ideation, that a certain kind of religionist gets into. They diagnose a problem, and there may indeed be some truth to it, but they bring in their own sense of confidence in themselves, which is often very optimistic, and they can’t imagine a deeper nadir. As I see it the RC Bishops in America are some of the worst in this regard, and though I try to just keep it on the level of humor with their antics, I actually think they are really deplorable for their shallowness of vision. They seem to utterly miss the lesson of what their counterparts in Iraq are going through. Do people not see what is going on in other parts of the world and notice that it is the — perhaps!! — calibrated corruption in our own world, balancing forces between people who would otherwise kill each other, that is making our lives livable. I know very well that people like those American Bishops take themselves as the very essence of civility and love for everyone. I see them differently. Essentially like dangerous brats. Fortunately, they are not dangerous in an ultimate sense. But proximately their rhetoric is often a toxin in our commonweal.

    The real lesson of Iraq should be for people like that, RC prelates or otherwise, is just to grow up.

    • Brian Martin

      The beautiful thing about the situation I reference is the very concept of a Muslim man, asking me, as his therapist, if I could connect him with a Catholic priest, because he does not have an Imam to pray with him. After extensive clarifying of professional boundaries, and consulting my clinical supervisor, as I was not fully credentialed at that time, I was able to put him in contact with this priest. I was fearful that the priest would be unwilling to meet with him, but to my delight, he was very willing. So on an individual level, people are making very human connections, which, at least to me, is the idea of seeing Christ in the other. And beyond that loving our enemies, and praying for them. My 13 year old daughter reminded me the other day…not only should we pray for the victims, but also the perpetrators. Very difficult instruction.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    So mote it be!