ArchbishopYousif Mirkis heads the Chaldean Archdiocese of Kirkuk, Iraq, the capital of oil-rich territory now firmly controlled by the Kurds, who have shown a particular welcome to Christians fleeing the onslaught of ISIS. He was interviewed July 7, 2014 by international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Do you fear the end of Christianity in Iraq?
Quite definitely. We are in the process of disappearing, just as the Christians in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and North Africa have disappeared. And even in Lebanon they now constitute only a minority.
What would Iraq lose with the disappearance of its Christians?
The social ecology would be destabilized. Every society needs all its components. They've worked hard and made their contribution. Look at Lebanon or Syria, as well as here in Iraq. It's important to know that there were no Christian ghettos in Iraq. Christians have been present in all areas of society. They have the highest literacy rate. Before 2003 Christians made up only 3 per cent of the population. And yet nearly 40 cent of the medical specialists were Christians. And the proportion of Christians in engineering occupations was exactly the same. That's quite impressive. In addition we provided a major portion of the intellectuals, writers and journalists. These were educated people with a Western orientation. The Christians have been the engine of Iraq's modernization.
How do you explain this disproportional contribution?
The reasons are historical. The Churches have traditionally maintained many schools and hospitals. Furthermore the Christians have always been open-minded, multilingual and oriented towards the West. That accounts for the high level of education. But because of the continuous emigration we are of course losing our dynamism.
And the exodus has been accelerating for ten years now.
Yes, it's not easy to be a Christian in Iraq today. Prior to 2003 we represented about three percent of the population. Today we are perhaps one per cent. You know, Iraqi history goes in cycles. About every ten years we experience a new problem which causes believing Christians to leave. I was born in 1949, one year after Israel was founded. This traumatized the Middle East. Then our Iraqi king was assassinated. But the Christians had it good under the monarchy. They enjoyed a lot of freedoms. Then the king's murderer, who had become the country's president, was himself killed. And his murderer suffered the same fate. Then there was the 1967 war against Israel, the Iran-Iraq war and so on. All this generated instability and emigration.
But surely a new situation has arisen with the ISIS terrorists and their hatred of Christians, hasn't it?
Yes. But I would put this in a broader context. The antagonism between the West and the Islamic world has replaced the confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union. It is a war between the modern and the retrograde. For example, the Salafists refer back, even in their name, to their seventh century ancestors, whom they wish to imitate.
The Christians' orientation towards the West is certainly also a reason why the extremists harbour such hatred for them. Do you agree?
Yes. That is one of the roots. But the jihadists don't only hate them, but also all those who do not agree with their world view.
But how to combat this extremism intellectually?
The best antidotes are dialogue and culture. The more culture a country has the less susceptible it is to fanaticism. My hope is with the young generation. I have always endeavoured to shape them. For instance, I have published not only a Christian magazine aimed at adults, but also one for children. In this we focussed on love of God and one's neighbor, respect for others. 15 percent of my readers were Muslims. They appreciated what we were doing. The Iraqi people are not innately fanatical. Like the Islamic world as a whole, they have been hijacked by fanatics. And now they can't move.
But given their dwindling numbers do the Christians still have the strength to conduct this dialogue and make their cultural contribution?
We are in dialogue with the Muslim elite. Whenever we meet at conferences we are like brothers. But the problem is that the Iraqi elite have themselves become marginalized. To a certain extent a massacre of the intellectuals has taken place over the past few years. For example, since 2013 more than 180 university professors have been killed in attacks. A large portion of the medical specialists have left the country. It is not only we Christians who have been weakened, but also the Muslim elite. And this has disastrous consequences.
Have you already become resigned to your defeat in Iraq?
No, I'm only trying to be realistic. But there is still the hope that faith brings. I myself will not be going. But what am I supposed to say to young people who ask me in this situation for reasons why they should stay? In the past ten years we have lost a bishop and six priests. In addition there are about a thousand of the faithful who have died in attacks. I can understand why they are going. Not everybody shares the faith and the hope.
But in view of the current situation in Iraq, what social contribution can Christians still make?
We must listen to the words of Jesus and be the salt of the earth. The Archdiocese of Kirkuk is now, for example, preparing a relief operation to provide food to Muslims who have fled to Kirkuk from the areas occupied by ISIS. This is not intended as a proselytizing action. But they should know that their Christian brothers love them. And many of the faithful are donating to this even though they have to scrimp and save to do it. This is our role.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org