By FEDERICO CENCI
ROME (ZENIT) — The year was 1840, when the Italian city of Otranto witnessed one of the most brutal massacres of Christians in history, perpetrated at the hands of Muslims. Eight hundred thirteen people perished in the 18 days of siege by the Ottoman army, bravely refusing to renounce their faith in Christ. On August 14, the anniversary of the end of the tragic massacre, the Church remembers its martyrs.
One hundred seventy-four years since those events, in another area of the planet, Iraq, history seems to be repeating itself. Newspapers around the world are reporting on the cruel persecution tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians are facing (as well as Yazidis, another minority in the country), forced to flee their homes, besieged by fundamentalists who, under the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), intend to establish a Caliphate on rigid and brutal religious interpretations.
Many people were killed, many more injured or barricaded, on Mount Sinjar without food or water. Appeals for peace by the Pope and the Church have followed, as well as invitations to prayer and a commitment to concrete action to help.
An ecumenical prayer meeting took place Monday, August 18, in Egypt. Among those attending was Msgr. Philip Najim, procurator of the Chaldean Church to the Holy See and apostolic visitor to Europe. He has been commissioned to administer the diocese dedicated to the Chaldeans in Egypt. ZENIT reached Msgr. Najim there by phone for the interview before the prayer service took place.
+ + +
Q. Your Excellency, these days you are in Egypt. Can you talk about the initiative you’re taking part in?
A. It is a response to the call of the Holy Father to pray for peace. All the leaders of the Christian Churches in Egypt are adhering to it, so as to give the assembly a strong ecumenical value. We will pray for all persecuted Christians in the Middle East, especially those in Iraq.
Q. Speaking of Iraq, in 2009 you said, commenting on the escalation of attacks which were taking place then, that there was a plan to drive Christians from the country. It was, alas, prophetic. . . .
A. What is happening today is not surprising. Iraq has been in the grip of terrorism for years: A large number of churches have been torched, and many Christians have been killed in various attacks. I remember that in 2008, Msgr. Faraj Rahho, bishop of Mosul, was killed in addition to his secretary, several deacons, and other Chaldean priests.
Do not forget also the tragedy of the Syrian Catholic Church of Saydat-al-Najat [in Baghdad], where [in 2010] a group of terrorists belonging to ISIL massacred in cold blood 37 people gathered in prayer. These episodes are proof that the situation today is a response to a program developed over the years to empty Iraq of the presence of Christians.
I would also like to make one comment: These terrorists interpret our peaceful Christian faith as a sign of weakness. But it is wrong, because it is testimony to the fact that we believe that the only weapon to build a society based on the good is prayer and not violence.
Q. How was it possible that a group such as ISIL, that in the West until a few months ago hardly anyone knew about, has managed to assume this force?
A. In the past there was talk of ISIL as one of many fundamentalist factions in the Middle East, not composed of many militants. Today it is said that they are made up of about 20,000 men. This growth shows that there has been a deliberate strategy, facilitated by the fact that the Iraqi army fled Mosul, leaving warehouses full of weapons. ISIL appropriated these right away, increasing its military potential.
Q. In addition to large war supplies, it seems that ISIL is able to count on widespread popular support. Do you also have the same impression?
A. Certainly. ISIL has a remarkable ability to take in young people, especially the most desperate, i.e., those who are in need of money or those who are threatened to be killed if they do not adhere to the organization. They then use the religious component, convincing recruits that their actions take place in the name of Islam. It’s the wrong message, because true Muslim believers know that God gave life to man and it cannot be taken by another.
These days, here in Egypt, I met with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, and expressly told him: “Your Excellency, if ISIL is not Islam, if al-Qaeda is not Islam, if the Muslim Brotherhood is not Islam, the world wants to see the leaders of Islam not only condemn, but also ban membership of these groups.”
In this sense, the declaration of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, that said you cannot use religion to justify terrorism, was very important.
Q. Do you believe that the American intervention will be able to halt the advance of ISIL? The Chaldean Patriarch, Raphael I Louis Sako, has said that it is an obligation of the United States, the EU, and the Arab League to “clear the Nineveh Plain of Islamists”….
A. In the past, the United States came to Iraq only to protect their own interests, not to help the people. In the name of democracy they intervened in the country, in 2003, to liberate it from a dictatorship, but in so doing they let it fall into the hands of terrorists. For this reason, I agree with the appeal of our Patriarch, and I think that Americans today have a responsibility to take action to resolve this situation.
A Wise Choice
Q. How important is the creation of political unity in Baghdad? Do you trust the new prime minister Al-Abadi?
A. It is the duty of a politician to defend the dignity, unity, and life of the people. When you are unable to pursue this goal, the person entrusted to the role needs to be abandoned. I hope that Iraq can regain a political unity worthy of representing all the people.
Q. How much do you value the choice of the Pope to send [Fernando] Cardinal Filoni to Iraq [as his special envoy]?
A. The presence of the Cardinal Filoni is very important. I believe that the Pope has chosen the right man as his personal envoy, as in the period of the American invasion of the country he, as apostolic nuncio, suffered along with the population. He is, therefore, a person known and appreciated, able to communicate with both political as well as religious leaders of various denominations.
The choice of the Pope is therefore wise, an authentic way to show solidarity with Christians in Iraq.