Saturday, January 31, 2009

Christian refugees probably will not return to Iraq, bishops say

Despite signs of a new season of hope on the horizon in Iraq, the vast majority of Iraqi Christian refugees will probably not return to their homeland, said two U.S.-based Chaldean Catholic bishops.

"No one in the United States will go back to Iraq or the Middle East because the future for children, (opportunities for) education and life are better here," said Chaldean Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim.

Also, experience has shown that once people have overcome the initial difficulties of adapting to a new culture, "no one will convince them to change it again" and rip up those freshly laid roots, said Chaldean Bishop Sarhad Y. Jammo.

Bishop Jammo heads the Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle of San Diego, Calif., and has under his care Chaldean Catholics in the western U.S., while Bishop Ibrahim heads the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit, the diocese for Chaldean Catholics in the eastern United States.

The two Iraqi-born bishops spoke while they were in Rome for their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican to report on the status of their dioceses.

Bishop Ibrahim said 5,000 Iraqi Christians came to Detroit in 2008; it is the highest number of newcomers he has seen.

The economic situation in Michigan is not good and businesses are struggling, he said, so he offers the new arrivals encouragement to help them through the rough patches.

During a Christmas dinner he hosted last year, he said he told some 1,500 recent Iraqi refugees, "Don't worry, don't be afraid, because this country is blessed by God. You will sleep without fear at night. Be patient and things will improve."

Bishop Ibrahim said the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, whose father was from Kenya, is inspiring for other first-generation immigrants.

"It shows the U.S. gives us the opportunity to serve our country and even to be president," the 71-year-old bishop said.

Bishop Jammo, 67, said the shortage of opportunities and lack of full equality for Christians in Iraq are other factors that would dissuade many Iraqi Catholics from returning even if security were to improve and peace become the norm.

"Constitutional rights and equality have not been provided for Christians and that is a major reason why Christians will not go back and why people continue to leave and go to the West and the United States," he said.

The constitution establishes Islam as a main source of legislation and declares that no law may contradict Islamic and democratic standards.

However, while there is freedom to worship, there is no full freedom of religion such as the freedom to change one's religion, Bishop Jammo said.

Nonetheless, there is "a new season of hope" for Iraq, said Bishop Jammo.

He said the new U.S. administration under Obama "has acquired the experience of the old administration" and will have learned from its mistakes.

The new administration is also "bringing different methods and different approaches to Iraq and the Middle East," which should be more effective, he said.

But, the Baghdad-born bishop said he senses that the once-rampant sectarian violence in Iraq simply has burned itself out.

"People are tired of fighting. Either the destructive elements have diminished or been crushed, but they're fading away gradually," he said.

"I don't see anyone (who) will repeat such brutal acts as we saw two or three years ago," he added.

But the approaching calm has come with a high price, he said.

For example, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the southern Iraqi city of Basra experienced tremendous civil strife.

Seventy percent of the Christians, as well as countless Sunni Muslims, fled the Shiite-majority city, said the bishop.

"Now Basra is more peaceful, but after what? After two-thirds of the people left," he said.

It seems "only after so much destruction, when there is nothing left to destroy," can some form of peace come, said Bishop Jammo.

He said, "it was a big mistake" on the part of the United States and the interim Iraqi government not to have protected the country's Christians and promoted their "political and cultural leverage."

Even though Christians in Iraq have always been a small minority, they were part of "the top elite of society" and made up 25 percent of the country's professional class, he said.

Christians are also "a factor for peace and for national reconciliation because they don't have militias, they don't fight, and they don't claim more rights" than they are due, he said.

He said Christians act as "a soft joint between tensions" within a multiethnic, religiously diverse community -- sort of like cartilage that cushions hard bones.

"The United States should have paid attention to this asset" of the Christians serving as buffers in conflict, he said.

Instead, U.S. policymakers overlooked the role Christians could have played in favor of focusing only on the fate of the country's Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions, he said.

Bishop Jammo said he thinks it is still possible for the Iraqi Constitution to provide full equality for Christians.

Otherwise, "what was the purpose of the U.S. going there (and overseeing the drafting of the constitution), if it did not emphasize the equality of all" ethnic and religious communities? he asked.

Unless full equality is provided, "peace, justice, progress and balance will not be realized" in Iraq, he said.

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(Source: CNS)