by Gianni Valente
“There’s no future for us if the Lord does not help us.” There’s suffering and concern in Louis Raphaël I Sako’s words. The concern of a pastor who sees that his flock is in danger and the suffering of a child of the Chaldean Church who sees Christianity’s age-long history quickly heading towards oblivion. A history that has irrigated the lands between Mesopotamia’s two rivers for millennia. And it is not just the Islamic State’s bloodthirsty jihadists he is concerned about.
What can be done to stop your people’s suffering? What is your task now?
“The priority now is to offer comfort to those who are suffering and afraid, to help everyone and above all to encourage people to persevere and remain steadfast in their faith, without leaving their land. Staying put. Those who want to of course. We do not wish to force anyone. But it is our duty to direct people towards the path laid out in the Gospel. Those who leave must be aware that the West is not a promised land, let alone Paradise.”
But many just want to run away.
“We are being tested right now. Each of us is called to look into our hearts and we may discover that the Lord’s consolation is the only source of strength and the only treasure. It is the thing that is most dear to us. But many fall victim to this leaving frenzy. They don’t even stop to think about what is really going on in their lives. They seek a future. But for those who have the gift of faith, hope for a better future cannot just be about seeking a more comfortable life.”
But one bishop in the United States is negotiating with the White House to try to arrange for tens of thousands of Chaldeans to move over to the US.
He is also not experiencing first hand what we are experiencing. In America they put baskets with asylum request forms on church altars during Mass. As if the migration of thousands of Iraqi Christians to the US was something to ask God’s blessing for. That’s a strange thing to do and only confuses people’s faith. Unfortunately, some members of the clergy turn into businessmen instead of remaining shepherds of souls. They think in business instead of evangelical terms, even in relation to faithful. To some they are just numbers who can help priests beef up numbers of Catholics in the areas over which they have jurisdiction. They have them transferred from one bleak situation to another, which may even be worse in the long run. Migrants are left to their own devices and are not offered adequate pastoral care.”
What do you wish to say to those who want to leave?
“I repeat: each Christian needs to look inside him or herself and ask themselves what future it is they are seeking. They need to try and feel God’s love in this situation. Ask themselves what the Lord is asking from them in that moment and maybe realize that we have a future here in this devastated and blessed land of ours. And that the whole country represents our mission.
When Kurdish President Barzani came to meet us with Hollande, he said to us: you must be patient, you must stay. You must learn from us Kurds who have suffered but now have rights. Learning perseverance. This would also be good for us Christians.”
Meanwhile, US-based Christian groups are looking for – and claim to have found – proselytes in refugee camps. Even non-Christians.
“This is awful. It is immoral. They take advantage of a people’s difficulties and suffering. They also think in business terms, like religious managers hunting for clients.”
Armed groups passing themselves off as “Christian militia” have been forming, in order to fight the Islamic State’s jihadists. What is your view on this?
“To any politician, Christians included, who ask me, I always say: if some Christians want to help defend and fight for the liberation of land conquered by the jihadists, then they should join the Kurdish or the Iraqi national army. Creating “Christian militia” groups which identify themselves in ethnic-religious terms is not only illegal, but madness and pure suicide.
The US have begun an armed intervention with the “coalition”. Something similar has already happened in Iraq.
“All this looks to me like a dirty political game. Bombing these jihadists will not make them disappear, that’s for sure. Many innocent individuals risk being killed. Infrastructures are destroyed and will remain destroyed. The Americans have already done this: they destroyed the country and did not rebuild it. The most serious part of it all is that now everyone is saying the war is going to go on for years. This sends out two different and very dangerous messages simultaneously. The message to jihadists is: don’t worry, you have plenty of time to get organised, get more money together and enlist more paid militants. The message to the refugees is: this situation’s going to go on for years, the only future you have is away from here, away from your homes. It’s best if you leave if you can. If we are to really get rid of extremist groups once and for all, we have to work on education and training and come up with plans that show how false and monstrous this bloodthirsty ideology really is.”
Meanwhile, some in the West have made stereotypical references to a clash of civilizations, portraying Muslims as enemies of the Western civilization.
“The reality is that all the West is motivated by is money and power. For years, this entity that calls itself the Islamic State has been kept going with money and weapons that come from the West’s so-called “friends”. With their secret services they can find out anything they want about each and every one of us, whenever they want. How is it possible that they don’t know where weapons pass through or to whom they are selling oil to today? The US took action when two poor Americans were beheaded. But what about all those Syrians, Iraqis, Christians and Muslims they killed before then?”
Is there anything in all of this that brings you some hope?
“Last week in Baghdad, a group of priests, including myself, carried out spiritual exercises together. Our priests perform miracles despite the situation we find ourselves in: liturgies, catechism, social activities and charity initiatives, theatre… so many great things. Today we ask the Lord to console people, to give them patience and help them not to lose hope. This is the most important thing right now.”