WASHINGTON – Fear keeps Iraqi Christians quiet about the extent of persecution the tiny minority group endures, said an Iraqi Catholic archbishop Tuesday at a private meeting with religious freedom experts and journalists.
These Christians do not fear only for their own safety, but they are afraid of retribution against fellow believers in Iraq if they speak out, explained the Most Rev. Jean Benjamin Sleiman, the head of the Latin mass church in Iraq, at a Hudson Institute hosted luncheon. This mindset has kept even Iraqi Christians in the United States and other western nations relatively quiet about the severe Christian persecution in their homeland.
It is as if Iraqi Christians speak two different languages, the archbishop told the small group of Americans gathered for the invitation-only event. To the pope they say they are being persecuted, he said, but to the public they say they are living well with occasional problems.
"I think in Iraq I suffered from lack of freedom and the truth," Sleiman said. "I understand why, I don't accuse. My predecessor used to say I don't understand politics but I understand something realistic, I see people suffer. So he never answered political questions," the archbishop said.
Since the U.S.-led Iraq war in 2003, more than 200 Christians have been killed, dozens of churches have been bombed, and more than half the Iraqi Christian population have left the country.
Last March, the second most senior Catholic cleric in Iraq, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and then murdered in the northern city of Mosul. Then in October, more than 15,000 Iraqi Christians were reportedly driven out of the northern city of Mosul after 13 local Iraqi Christians were killed within four weeks, including three within 24 hours.
And just last week, three Christians were attacked and killed in Kirkuk, Iraq.
"There is a real fear and now the fear spirit is still dominating and pushing many people to leave the country," Sleiman said. "Even if they don't have personal difficulties, they say now my neighbor has difficulty maybe tomorrow my family."
Nina Shea, the director of Hudson's Center for Religious Freedom, criticized the Iraqi government for not doing enough to protect the country's Christian minority. She said even though the Iraqi vice president has publicly urged Christians to stay in Iraq and vowed protection, nothing is being done to make this possible.
The church, said Archbishop Sleiman, cannot be responsible for the safety of Iraqi Christians.
"I think the church is still helping," said Sleiman, "but when you have killing and kidnapping, it is something that depends on the political authority not on the church.
"Security cannot really be our duty," he said, noting that the church cannot do anything about the fear.
The Iraqi archbishop, while declining to comment about U.S. politics and military in Iraq, recommended that the United States help Iraqi Christians through cultural aspects such as education and employment. He believes that the battle in Iraq is a cultural one because even if there are good laws, they will not be applied unless the minds of citizens change.
Many citizens still do not understand the concept of democracy and vote for their group member rather than a candidate, he said.
Sleiman is in Washington, D.C. this week to meet with members of the State Department and congressional leaders to discuss the persecuted Christian population in Iraq. He also plans to attend the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Friday.
Iraq is listed as a country of particular concern in the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's (USCIRF) 2009 Annual Report. Shea, an expert on religious freedom in Iraq, serves as a commissioner for USCIRF.