Christians call for tolerance and equality under new constitution
By Charles Hanley in Baghdad, The Independent, UK, 21 April 2003
Christians congregated in churches across Iraq yesterday to celebrate Easter, nervous at what a new regime would have in store for their dwindling minority.
An auxiliary bishop in Baghdad used the occasion to ask President George Bush to help to introduce an Iraqi constitution that treated Christians the same as Muslims. "Please tell Mr Bush, 'I am asking you in the name of all bishops to give us a good constitution'," the Rev Emmanuel-Karim Delly said.
At another Baghdad church, a Chaldean Catholic priest told the congregation that re- establishing law and order was everyone's first concern. "Jesus rose from the dead saying, 'I give you peace'," Fr Basic Shamoun said at Sacred Heart Church. "We're in a time when we need peace."
Outside, parishioners spoke of other issues. They said they feared that an American promise of a democracy to replace Saddam Hussein's dictatorship might lead to Iraq's Shia Muslims taking power. Jacob Koda, 51, said: "If they come to power, we'll leave the country."
Noel Kadu, 51, added: "They are brainwashed with religious ideas. To them, Christians are bad people."
Christians, most of them Chaldean Catholics, account for an estimated 700,000 in Iraq, about 5 per cent of the population. Although they have co-existed peacefully with their Muslim neighbours over the past centuries, they have been persecuted at times, and many have emigrated to the United States and Europe.
In northern Iraq, Muslim mobs are reported to have attacked Assyrian Catholics in recent years, according to reports from the American State Department. Hundreds of people crammed into a small church in the northern city of Mosul yesterday. But the mood was one of sober reflection as 700 worshippers shared in the Chaldean Catholic mass at St Paul's church.
Fr Jalil Mansoor David said: "Now we must all work together to rebuild our society and also promote the role of Christianity. The responsibility on us is great."
Iraq's Christians enjoyed good relations with Saddam's regime. The deposed dictator consolidated his power by courting different religious, ethnic and tribal groups. He funded the reconstruction of an ancient Syrian Orthodox monastery a few miles north-east of Mosul in the 1980s.
Iraq's Christians trace their roots to the first century when the apostle Thomas evangelised Iraq, which was then Mesopotamia.
An estimated 65 to 70 per cent of them are Chaldeans, an old Catholic rite that originated in Iraq and is in union with Rome.