International News

Bishops and Vatican try to stem exodus of Iraqi Christians
by Associated Press, June 10, 1998
Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2000 07:24 pm CST

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - In black turbans and red sashes, Christian bishops are trying to stem the flight of the faithful from Iraq. But they face a tough task: one-third of Iraq's Christians have left since 1990.

"This immigration is stripping us of our best brains and the most well-off among us," the Rev. Youssef Habbi, an Iraqi historian, told The Associated Press.

Iraqi bishops opened a three-day meeting Monday, joined by a Vatican envoy and Lebanese and Palestinian colleagues, to study the rush of immigration since 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and triggered the Persian Gulf War.

They are expected to make recommendations Wednesday. Many clergymen blame the U.N. trade sanctions, imposed after the Iraqi invasion, for the flight of Christians, mostly young people. The sanctions limit Iraq's oil exports and have devastated the economy.

Habbi said the once-thriving Christian community whose roots go back to the first century has been reduced from 750,000 to 500,000 in eight years.

About 80 percent of Iraqi Christians are Chaldaean Catholics, although representatives of other denominations also attended the meeting: Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Armenian Catholics and Armenian Orthodox.

Pope John Paul II's envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, beseeched Iraqi Christians to stay. The pontiff has criticized sanctions on Iraq and has expressed a wish to visit the Iraqi city of Ur, birthplace of Abraham.

But a 1994 plea from the pope that was read in churches did very little to check the flow, Habbi said.

Several Christians complained that little was being done to relieve their economic distress.

"The pope lives in his mansions in the Vatican and knows very little about our situation," said Jubrael Marouki, who is planning to leave the country.

Another Christian, Daniel Auraha, had similar views. "The church is rich, but it has practically done nothing to help us," he said.

Patriarch Rafael Bedaweed, head of the Iraqi church, admitted efforts to check the immigration had failed.

"They are not fleeing because of religious or ethnic oppression. They want us to solve their economic problems," he said. "Simply, we are not able to do that."

More than 30,000 Iraqi Christians are now stranded in neighboring Jordan, waiting for visas to Western countries, which are rarely granted, said Habbi. Some turn to professional smugglers in frustration.

Others have illegally entered Sri Lanka, New Zealand and even Iceland.

To get around $300 exit fees and laws banning professionals from leaving, several thousand Christians recently sold belongings and fled to the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq and on to Greece.

Stories abound of families perishing on Kurdistan's snow-capped mountains.

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