A Chaldean archbishop kidnapped in Iraq by Al Qaeda militants in 2006 said that members of his religious minority, who were nearly annihilated by Muslim extremists, have found a safer haven in the United States and Canada compared to an increasingly more populist and anti-immigrant Europe.
“The United States has been more helpful, because they gave economic help and dioceses to Chaldean Catholics,” Archbishop Saad Sirop Hanna, the Apostolic Visitor for Chaldeans Residing in Europe, told Crux in an interview.
He added that also in Canada members of his community have been warmly welcomed.
“The Europeans are always more worried,” he continued, pointing to what he perceives as a worrying rise in populists and anti-immigration sentiment on the continent.
The archbishop, who is also a visiting researcher at the Medieval Institute of the University of Notre Dame, said that although he left Baghdad in 2016, he hears reports that the American government has been giving economic aid for the reconstruction of Christian areas in Iraq.
He also acknowledged that there have been several meetings between members of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and Iraqi bishops.
“I see that [Trump] is interested in religious minorities, and that his decisions also have a religious interest,” Hanna said.
The archbishop made his remarks during the presentation of his book Abducted in Iraq: A priest in Baghdad, which took place at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 21. The book tells his account of the 28 days that he spent as a captive of Al Qaeda militants.
Hanna was abducted on August 15, 2006, after he had celebrated Mass for the Feast of the Assumption in Dora in southern Baghdad, known as the “triangle of death” because of the Shiite, Sunni and terrorist forces that clashed there.
When he was kidnapped, Hanna was kept blindfolded for most of the time and his captors forcefully tried to convert him to Islam.
“In captivity, I learned by talking to people how beautiful it is to listen, because I could only recognize people by their voice,” he said at the book presentation.
Despite his experience, the archbishop encouraged people not to look at the Muslim extremists as “evil,” and said that in the book he recounts his relationship with a guard in whom he found “great goodness.”
He said that Islam today, which is struggling with its identity, can draw great benefits if Christianity expresses itself with truth and respect for its historic reality.
“Ignorance is in control of what is happening in the Arab world,” Hanna said. “The majority of people don’t know the Koran. They are under the influence of a strong opinion which impoverishes them to a behavior where they are not asked to think. Perhaps we should reflect on how these people can begin to see our faith in a different way.”
Father Kevin Flannery, professor of philosophy at the Gregorian and once a teacher to Hanna, said that his former student “lived through an incredibly brutal experience,” but nonetheless his book contains “nuggets of wisdom,” which while they may appear simple at first, “if one stops to think about it, their insight becomes evident.”
The book wants to explore not only Hanna’s experience as a “priest, a Christian and an Iraqi,” but also the profound changes that have impacted Iraq in the past 40 years and its effect on the religious minorities living there.
“It’s a book that by drawing from my personal history wishes to show what many of these Christians in Iraq have suffered, have done and have endured,” Hanna said.
He added that his experience is hardly comparable to “many of my brothers and sisters who have lived moments that were much more difficult,” and added that for him picking up the dead bodies of Christians killed for their faith was much more difficult and harrowing than being kidnapped.
“We live under the pressure of the integralism and fundamentalism that has invaded every sector of Iraqi society,” Hanna said. There has been “a change that creates discomfort, persecution and misunderstandings targeted toward the Christian community.”
According to recent reports, the Christian population in Iraq, which was approximately between 1.4 and 2 million in the 1990s, has declined to about 100,000 people in 2017 due to targeted persecution by Islamic State militants starting as early as 2011 as well as immigration.
“Immigration is a worrying phenomenon that questions the future of the Eastern Catholic churches,” said Slovak Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, Secretary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
“Immigration is like a blood transfusion, which, if it doesn’t weaken the original body, can enrich new places,” he added during the book presentation.
“But sometimes it can become a hemorrhage that weakens the places of origin and leads to an impoverishment of the body,” Cyril said.
He compared immigration to the ice which used to be brought down from the top of the mountains to be stored during the summer. According to Cyril, the Christian community in Iraq has managed to survive, “hidden in the ice house,” until now, when the ice has been smashed and thrown on the ground.
“What chance do these Christians have to survive?” he asked.
Hanna said that while immigration poses a significant challenge to Christian realities in Iraq, the “broken ice is also a large mirror,” which no matter where it’s placed, “will reflect the image that we wish to show of our Church.”
“We are becoming a religion of diaspora,” the archbishop continued, and “the faith during the diasporas is the most difficult.” He added that some of the most beautiful passages of the Bible, such as the first 11 chapters of Genesis, were written during the diaspora in Babylon.
“I believe that the Church in diaspora produces beautiful things,” Hanna said. “Perhaps even us as Chaldeans have to work hard on ourselves and look at the future with hope and the determination that we must do something.”