A SHEPHERD SPEAKS

Bishop Fred Henry

November 22, 2010

On Oct. 15, Syrian Catholic Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka of Baghdad delivered one of the most memorable interventions during the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East - words made even more poignant by the Oct. 31 attack on worshippers at his cathedral.

What follows is an excerpt from his text: "Iraq does not cease living a situation of instability of trials and wars, the last being the American occupation. Christians have always had their part in the sacrifices and tribulations: with the martyrs in the wars and all sorts of different hardships.

"Since the year 2003, Christians are the victims of a killing situation which has provoked a great emigration from Iraq. . . . Without a doubt there are only about 400,000 Christians left of the 800,000 that lived there.

"The invasion of Iraq by America and its allies brought to Iraq in general, and especially to its Christians, destruction and ruin on all levels. Churches were blown up, bishops and priests and laypersons were massacred; many were the victims of aggression. Doctors and businessmen were kidnapped, others were threatened, storage places and homes were pillaged. . . .

"There still is the fear of the unknown, insecurity and instability, as well as the continuation of emigration. . . . The tears are continuous between the different religious and political composing elements, as well as external influence by external powers, especially neighbouring countries.

WORLD'S CONSCIENCE

"Seven years have passed and Christianity is still bleeding. Where is the world's conscience?"

His intervention was moving, prophetic and provocative.

A basic and deep-seated misunderstanding needs to be exposed - we are not talking about a "religious" problem. What is at stake is the possibility of people exercising their human rights, of which religious ones are an important and vital component.

All the world remains a spectator before what is happening in Iraq, especially with regards to Christians. Why is there such a general lack of Western government and public interest and action for these persecuted people and the human right of religious freedom?

From time to time we raise our voices and protest about individual human rights abuses such as the plight of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Azeri-Iranian woman whose stoning sentence for adultery was suspended after an international outcry earlier this year. Now many are again expressing their outrage and horror at the prospect of her hanging.

But the abuses in Iraq are generally confined to silence. There are many reasons, but I would suggest two.

The first is connected to the importance of economic relations between the West and certain Islamic countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates, but also some others, perhaps less rich and powerful, but still meaningful on the economic chessboard. Evidently, it is more difficult to raise one's voice, protest or make requests or demands when millions of dollars in business are involved.

SELECTIVE OUTCRY

We raised our voices against the violations perpetrated in the Balkans by the Serbs, but we remain silent on the violations of human rights in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, well aware that, in the second case, we risk the profits connected with oil. If there is a conflict, human rights are placed second.

The second reason for inertia is that in a modern secular culture religious freedom is considered a minor issue. Many within western culture appear to believe that religion is something of the historical past, old-fashioned, and a source of problems and visions that should be abandoned at the lowest levels of international diplomacy.

Freedom of conscience and of religion is a primary and inalienable right of the human person. Moreover, insofar as it touches the innermost sphere of the spirit, it upholds all other liberties.

Our governments must apply diplomatic, political and economic pressure on the governments that impede the exercise of religious freedom. Governments must insist on the application of the so-called principle of reciprocity, that is, translating the religious opportunities that have been allowed in the West towards Muslim to analogous measures that should be granted to Christians living in Islamic countries.

Furthermore, Muslims living in the West should advocate for rights of non-Muslims from the authorities of their native countries. Muslim religious leaders have a duty to condemn these terrorist attacks in public and highlight the religious texts that support the spirit of tolerance and peaceful co-existence between religions.

May the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters be the seed of peace and true rebirth. May those who care about reconciliation, solidarity and fraternal coexistence find the strength and motivation to advance the cause of justice and peace.